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A Supposedly Fun Thing I'll Never Do Again
Longevity Learnings from My First Bodybuilding Show
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I have been starved, depleted, spray tanned, spray tanned again, and judged.
My first bodybuilding show is over. It was a great experience and a successful result. My main goals were to be mid-single digit body fat and to maintain as much muscle mass as possible through prep. Mission accomplished.
I was 6.3% body fat at 182 lb as measured by a DEXA the day before the show, down from 12.7% when I started training in December. Over that time, I added almost two pounds of lean tissue while dieting. My coach, Sam Okunola, programmed my training and diet perfectly.Adding lean tissue while dieting is my proudest achievement as usually one loses lean mass during the extreme depths of a bodybuilding diet.
While I hit my goals and had a ton of fun prepping (even while starving), but I probably won’t do another show.
In David Foster Wallace’s essay “A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again,” he describes an odd juxtaposition of the luxury cruise industry. For him, the extremes of comfort lead to internal anxieties and discomforts.
For me, the extremes of bodybuilding never led to internal anxieties or discomforts. Those extremes did teach me that the objectivity and function you get from the other strength sports is more appealing than the beauty of aesthetics.
However, the extremes of bodybuilding taught me more about diet and hypertrophy than I knew before. There are three major ideas and tools that I plan to keep in my training even if I never do another bodybuilding show:
Strength vs Muscle.
No other strength sport requires the nutritional competence and commitment as bodybuilding. You could argue that bodybuilding is, first and foremost, a diet sport rather than a strength sport. You are judged on appearance, not strength.
To achieve a stage-ready physique, you must weigh and track what you’re eating. Weighing is critical to successful tracking.
Most of us eat more than we think we do and more than we need to, even as athletes.
If you were to start religiously tracking, I bet you’ll find that what you thought was a serving of peanut butter or cheese was actually two and a half, or that you eat way more calories from sauces and dressings than you realize, or that you can eat way more vegetables per weight than you probably did before.
Only by knowing the specifics of portion size and macro content can you make precision modifications to get to low single digit body fat in bodybuilding. But that level of tracking is just as useful for someone trying to go from 20% to 15% body fat. Correcting portion sizes will go a long way for that person without any other major diet changes.
Bodybuilding convinced me that everyone should commit to tracking their diet for a month at least once in their lives just to understand portions and build awareness of diet behaviors.
I used MyFitnessPal to track my diet. It’s easy and free. There are other similar options. It really doesn’t matter which one you use. Just try the diet tracking and see how it changes your eating habits.
Meal Prep for Consistency
Steve Jobs famously wore the same black turtleneck sweater every day as a sort of uniform. A benefit of uniforms is they eliminate the perpetual need to choose what clothing to wear.
We give ourselves too much choice in many things, especially what we choose to eat. Choice leads to variance, and variance leads to inconsistency.
In bodybuilding prep, and for any diet, life is easier when you create a set of meals that you enjoy enough to keep eating over and over that also let you meet your calorie and macro targets.
With a 2,250 calorie goal toward the end of prep (pre final week), my general stable of meals looked like this:
Pre-Breakfast (pre workout): Cream of rice, a tablespoon of peanut butter, strawberries, blueberries, whey protein. Aimed for some faster carbs here to fuel my workout.
Breakfast (post workout): two whole eggs, three egg whites, Dave’s Killer toast, Fage 0% yogurt with some Kashi cereal sprinkled on top. Aimed for my highest carb intake of the day here.
Lunch: chicken, rice, broccoli.
Dinner: ground turkey, sweet potatoes, green beans.
Post contest, I plan to use a similar structure, up my calories to a level slightly above maintenance level, add a fifth meal, and switch a few of the foods to likes I enjoy more (e.g. ground beef over turkey).
When you figure out what you want to eat consistently to hit your goals, you shed the stress of diet choices. Discipline equals freedom.
Strength vs Muscle
Discipline equals freedom, but more muscle doesn’t mean someone is stronger.
For anyone not engaged in the strength game, this may be a surprise. A high-level 200 lb powerlifter or strongman will almost certainly be stronger than a 200 lb bodybuilder even though the bodybuilder will be physically bigger.
I always knew muscle and strength were related but not equivalent. I didn’t fully appreciate it until training as a bodybuilder.
My training helped me gain some lean mass while dieting, but I am certainly weaker than I was pre bodybuilding show. I bench less. I log press less. I can’t farmer’s walk as much.
Since I didn’t lose lean tissue, it’s likely most of the strength loss is from less specific training for strength activities. I suspect I’ll regain my strength quickly. I also think I can better balance my strength work with hypertrophy work to do a better job with muscle size. Prior to my show, I did very little hypertrophy work. My current theory is that doing somewhat less strength work and somewhat more hypertrophy work will help my joints feel better and help me look better, too.
Celebrate the Old Guys
Here’s a bonus learning: Strength is for all ages. At the show, there were several guys in their 50s. Many of them doing their first show. There was a guy who was at least in his 70s. I’ve written before that I believed bodybuilding was the best sport for longevity because it incorporates dietary regimen with relatively joint-friendly strength work. The age of those competitors helps demonstrate that point.
Anyone who can prep themselves to step on a platform or stage in their 50s, 60s, or 70s has all the tools to live a long, strong life. Those competitors are probably healthier than most 30 year olds.
I started reading Peter Attia’s Outlive around the time of the show. In it, he begins by describing the difference between longevity and healthspan. Longevity being how long you live. Healthspan being how long you live free of disease.
Seeing these older men on stage inspired me to think about strengthspan, which is how long you can be athletically strong and competitive. All strength athletes should aspire to stay strong and athletic and competitive as long as possible. That’s the mission of The Highlander — to help strength athletes live stronger for longer. In maximizing strengthspan, I believe we all naturally maximize our healthspan and longevity.
As for what’s next for me, it will probably be an Olympic, powerlifting, or strongman competition, but I expect to train and compete for a long time. Maybe you’ll see me on a bodybuilding stage again when I’m 50. Never say never.
Stay stronger for longer.
Disclaimer: The Highlander is an educational Substack about how to live stronger for longer. As with all exercise, and health advice, consult with a doctor and/or trainer. This is not medical advice.