Twenty years ago, Cal Ripken broke Lou Gherig’s record for consecutive major league baseball games played when he stepped on the field for his 2131th consecutive game. He would go on to play in 2,632 straight games between 1982 and 1998. At the time this record was broken I was 9 years old and remember wondering what the big deal was with this record. Heck, I would play baseball everyday so I didn’t get why someone was being honored simply for playing. However, as I’ve gotten older I now understand what an incredible accomplishment this was.
Shifting this thought to the sport of bodybuilding, sustainability is one of the keys to success. When to take a look at the top natural professional bodybuilders, most are age 35-50 because they have been consistent and used approaches to the sport that are sustainable long-term.
Personally, I am closing in on 30 in a hurry and have been in this sport for well over a decade; however, I still have 20+ years left realistically to be competitive. Moreover, in my time in this sport, I’ve seen a number of individuals with a lot of potential come into the sport, have huge success, get burnt out, and you never hear from them again.
One of the main reasons this occurs is a lack of sustainability in their approach to the sport.
Our goal as competitive bodybuilders is to find approaches that allow us to improve every time we step onstage, yet also last long enough to reach our genetic potential in the sport. Here are some tips to consider when evaluating if your approach is going to be sustainable long term.
1) Limit the amount of time you are going to extremes
Bodybuilding inherently is a sport of extremes. Competitors shoot for extremes in muscle mass and body fat. As a result, there may be times where more extreme approaches, such as low caloric intake and/or high levels of cardio, may be necessary in the later stages of prep to get a competitor all of the way to stage-lean. However, just because you may need to be using an extreme approach near the end of prep, it does not mean you should be doing so year-round. My advice is to go to extremes when needed, but get back to a healthier and more sustainable approach for vast majority of your training career.
2) Being stage-lean year-round is not sustainable nor healthy
Many individuals get into bodybuilding thinking they will walk around stage-lean year round. However, this is neither safe nor sustainable. Ask anyone who has been stage-lean and they will tell you that they feel miserable when food and body fat percentage are low. In addition, there are a number of hormonal and physiological changes that occur when an individual is stage-lean that are not necessarily optimal for strength gain and muscle growth. I’m not recommending going out and becoming a slob in the offseason; however, finding the body fat level where you feel normal again and not going below it a majority of the time can go a long way towards a healthy and sustainable approach to the sport.
3) Enjoy the process
We are only onstage for very brief periods of time. Most of your time in this sport will be spent doing things to prepare you to look your best onstage. However, I’ve noticed a number of competitors who seem to hate this process. If you hate following your diet, doing the cardio, lifting heavy weights, etc. then why are you doing it? Nobody is making you step onstage and less than a fraction of a percent of individuals make a living off of competing (think top IFBB pros, NOT natural pros here). Ask yourself if this is something you really enjoy doing. If not, you are likely not going to have a long career in the sport.
4) Don’t eat the same thing everyday
When you read most mainstream bodybuilding magazines, you will see diets made up of boring, bland foods that recommends eating the exact same meal plan every single day. There are individuals who enjoy this approach during contest prep; however, this is not necessary. It is also not practical or sustainable to eat the exact same meal plan every single day (offseason or prep) and may set an individual up for micronutrient deficiencies if not properly planned. In addition, elimination of a food or food group you are craving will increase the chance you binge on that food once you get your hands on it. Long story short, have variety with your food selection and eat foods you enjoy in moderation rather than restricting them.
5) Use a flexible approach to dieting
Along the same lines as the previous point, having a flexible approach to dieting is going to be more sustainable long term. If you are following a set meal plan and a situation (such as your friends wanting to go out to eat, something comes up a work, you run out of a food you were planning to eat, or you miss one of the times you are planning to eat) comes up what are you going to do? During prep, the best answer is probably to be more strict with things; however, during the vast majority of the year when you are not dieting, enjoy the meal with your friends and don’t sweat it if the meals you end up eating are different than what you had originally planned. As long as you are accounting for the macronutrient content of the foods you are eating, you won’t set yourself back a bit and fitting bodybuilding into your life will likely be more enjoyable.
6) Enjoy your training
I often hear individuals at the gym complaining about their current workout and looking for a new because they do not enjoy their training plan. Although a periodized plan is likely superior to just going into the gym and doing whatever, for some individuals doing a periodized, pre-written plan with lifts, sets, reps, rest periods, etc. takes the fun out of being in the gym and simply lifting weights. Others thrive when training is programmed out in a great amount of detail. Ultimately, if you do not enjoy what you are doing in the gym, you aren’t going to keep doing it for a long-period of time. Vary your training if you are getting bored with it and find things that are both effective and that you enjoy doing so that you can do them for a long period of time.
7) Take days off from the gym
It seems all-too-common to find competitors who are in the gym pounding out 1-2+hr workouts with weights 7 days of the week. Many of these individuals will complain that their joints hurt or of being mentally and physically fatigued. You will also see them pounding through workouts with joints that hurt before they even got to the gym, making the issue even worse. The gym will always be there. Take time away when you need it and allow yourself to recover so you can continue to hit the weights hard long-term.
8) Don’t sweat the small details
Many competitors worry about small details that may or may not be beneficial. Even if these practices were beneficial, the effect is oftentimes extremely small and the approach itself is often tedious. Instead of stressing over small details, worry about the big picture things that are going to help you make progress. Take in adequate calories consistently, eat adequate protein consistently, eat a variety of foods from all food groups consistently (unless you have a medical reason not to), and focus on increasing strength in the gym over time and you will be amazed at the progress you will make. Once you have these things in check, if you want to try testing out some of these small details, feel free; however, if you find they are not worth the stress of doing them, stop and focus on the basics.
9) Have a sufficient offseason between contests
It has become common to see competitors compete in shows throughout the year and then pick right back up the following year with the first possible show they can enter. These competitors usually do not place as well as they had hoped or they may find they placed well at first and over time they have begun to look worse. In addition, they normally don’t make progress from show to show because they do not give themselves adequate time between contests to make progress. I often hear from clients that they want to compete now because they want to win a pro card; however, the best way to contend for a pro card often is to take a sufficient offseason to let bodyweight drift up a bit and focus on pounding heavy weights to add more size. This may not be the most popular approach with some competitors; however, having an adequate offseason is generally in your best interest in order to make progress, stay healthy, and stick with the sport long-term.
10) Have balance with life
Most of the top natural pro bodybuilders have balanced lives. They are successful in their real jobs and spend time with family and friends. Bodybuilding should enhance your life, not control your life. If you find yourself making excuses for not doing things due to your bodybuilding goals during periods of time (especially when you are not dieting for a show), you may want to reconsider your priorities.
I hope this article has made you take a look at (and maybe alter) your own approach to the sport of bodybuilding. My goal for all of you is to be competing in 5, 10, 20 years down the road; however, this will only happen if you have a sustainable approach to the sport. I hope these tips will help you to develop just that.