Bodybuilding vs Starting Strength or Stronglifts

So I imagine the title of this post may cause some uproar from many in the Paleo/Primal community, but I don’t care.

If you look through the archives of this blog, you’ll see numerous posts from me regarding my attempts at following a 5×5 strength program, such as Starting Strength or Stronglifts. In the end, although I put on a positive attitude during them, they never really worked for me. Before I give the wrong impression, let me make it clear that I am certain these are great programs. I spent a number of months working these programs off and on over the past couple of years. If your goal is pure strength, as measured by the amount of weight you can lift, then by all means, these are probably the way to go.

But me? I’m apparently too vain for that. Or I have a unique body that just didn’t respond well to those programs.

Success?

Did I see success while following these programs? Yes and no. It depends on how you measure success. If you measure it Crossfit-style, where success equals increases in analytics (i.e., numbers on a whiteboard), then yes – I went from a 110lb back squat to a 215lb back squat in just a couple of months. But apparently I’m weird, as I don’t give a shit what a whiteboard says or how many plates I’m pulling or pushing. All I care about is how my workouts impact the following:

  1. My overall health, as determined by how I feel (tired, energized, lazy, etc.)
  2. My body – am I looking better or not?

I’m sorry to say that I’ve given up on pure strength routines. I made the stupid assumption, and bought into the hype, that increasing raw strength would magically equate to success as determined by my criteria above. But the reality is that I didn’t feel all that great while doing these programs, and aside from some *very* slight improvement in my physique that was barely noticeable after a few months of doing Starting Strength, I didn’t see any benefit.

Bodybuilding

Not sure if I’m using the terms correctly or not, but about 5 weeks ago I decided to try a more traditional bodybuilding routine. By “bodybuilding” I’m talking about adding in isolation exercises like bicep curls, tricep pressdowns, etc. These types of movements are universally bashed by the Paleo crowd. In addition, I lowered the weight and increased the reps. This is the key thing, I think. I’m still lifting heavy, but not killing myself by adding weight every single workout as prescribed by the 5×5 programs. The routine I’ve followed over the past 5 weeks, every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday, looks like this:

  1. Warm-up cardio for 7 or 8 minutes, typically on an elliptical machine
  2. Mobility – a series of stretches on my hamstrings, calves, quads, followed by foam-rolling to further loosen my calves and then focus on thoracic extension
  3. Goblet Squat 3×12 – using a heavy kettlebell; sometimes I’ll do barbell squats but I’m finding the goblet works better for me
  4. Dumbbell Rows 3×12
  5. Barbell Chest Press 3×10 – for the first 4 weeks I used dumbbells but just switched to barbell
  6. Standing Dumbbell Press 3×10
  7. Dumbbell Bicep Curls 3×10
  8. Dips 3×12 – on a bench, straight-legged
  9. Tricep Pressdowns 2×10 (typically with the rope)
  10. Weighted Eccentric Heel Drops 2×15 (I do these as a healing protocol for my chronic insertional achilles tendonosis)
  11. Plank

I’ve found this routine is working way better than the 5×5 routines I was doing on the other programs. In the 5 weeks I’ve been doing the above routine, I have dropped a couple of inches off of my waist, and have seen very noticeable increases in my muscle definition around my lats, back, shoulders, chest, and arms. With the 5×5-like programs I didn’t see any definition except slight increase in quad definition. Not to mention my appetite increased substantially, I believe due to always shooting for a *very* heavy weight with each workout. But, again, I’m still lifting heavy. But I’m shooting for 80% of my max for the last set of 12 (usually falling short of reaching 12 on that last set), versus 90-100% max like before.

Perhaps most importantly – I’m actually enjoying this program. And I have no doubt that that is adding to my success with it. When I did the other routines, I hated them. Never enjoyed them. After each workout I felt spent and not energized. With this routine I’m feeling great. While I don’t think I’ll ever enjoy lifting weights or working out, I enjoy this program. And it’s nice to finally be able to see some muscle increase in my arms : )

So, the next time you’re on the marksdailyapple.com Fitness Forum or listening to a Paleo podcast and all you hear is snarky comments about the guys in the gym doing bicep curls, feel free to think of me. On paper, a 5×5-like program that focused exclusively on compound movements for very heavy weight should work to bring the smaller muscles along too. But for me they didn’t.

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