How bodybuilders train

It’s no secret that I’ve advocated for the use of mixed repetition ranges for the optimal development of strength and hypertrophy, contrary to the rather rigid fixed hypertrophy guidelines that abound. Unfortunately, while I’ve been able to make a case based on the scientific literature for why loading variation is ideal, my practical arguments have always hinged on my own practical experience and anecdotal accounts from real lifters. There’s nothing wrong with this, but relying on informal data like this can make for a hard sell. Fortunately Hackett et al (1) put together a survey of the training practices of competitive bodybuilders that allows us a closer look at how bodybuilders really train.

The authors surveyed 127 competitive bodybuilders with an average of eight competitive years of experience that had all competed within the last 12 months. Of these 127, 73 reported competing in amateur competitions and 54 in natural competitions, and only two had placed in a major international competition (referred to as Elite in the study). Each bodybuilder answered 24 questions that addressed their background information, strength and aerobic training as well as ergogenic aid use (steroids and supplements). The survey was set up so that participants could only complete it once, and data was divided to allow comparison between off-season and pre-competitive training practices. The two elite bodybuilders (international competitors) were discussed separately in the paper, however with only two identified it’s hard to get an idea of how pervasive any training-related differences are between the groups.

Bodybuilders love body-part splits

In the least surprising news this year, bodybuilders love body-part splits as opposed to full body training, with the majority hitting each body part once per week (68.8% of respondents) and the remaining favouring twice per week splits. There weren’t many differences between the standard competitive group and the elite two, however they did identify that they trained with heavier loads (1-5RM), had slightly longer rest intervals of 61-180 seconds vs the competitive group’s preferred range of 61-120 seconds, and did no aerobic exercise (compared with 64% of competitive respondents) during the off-season. What’s also interesting is that the two elite bodybuilders maintained their heavier training longer into the pre-competitive season, whereas the other bodybuilders followed the expected, but not necessarily optimal changes early into the competitive season (fewer sets per exercise, increased repetitions per set and shorter rest intervals).

Emphasis on volume, but not at the exclusion of heavy weights

I’ve talked previously about how the optimal blend of strength and hypertrophy occurs with a variety of loads, and how different training goals shift the emphasis between lower-load, high repetition or high-load, low-repetition work. In this case, our bodybuilders emphasize higher-repetition training, but this is not at the complete exclusion of heavy training (20% used a 4-6RM as part of their off-season training). It’s always nice to put a graph to a theory, and this study provides a nice quantification of the fact that while lower load, higher-repetition training is definitely prioritized, bodybuilders still venture into the heavy weights.

Nandrolone is the drug of choice

The rest of the paper is an interesting read, especially if you’d like to know the drugs and supplements of choice between the off and competitive season so be sure to check it out. Much of what you’ll read conforms to the almost standard practices that we’ve come to associate with bodybuilding. While we can’t judge the efficacy of the methods based on papers like this, it’s still nice to know what techniques are the most popular among specific groups in the gym.


    Shane says:

    I was just wondering if the elite lifters were identified as being part of the 2x week for each body part?

    Dan Ogborn says:

    The elites used a five-day split, training at most two muscle groups in a session with each muscle once per week.

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Dan Ogborn