Bodybuilding, simply put, is the art of sculpting a muscular, symmetrical, and visually appealing physique. It is different than strength training because it focuses on hypertrophy (muscle growth), and aesthetics (how the body looks) instead of plain strength training or simply lifting heavier weight. There are higher rep ranges, and more accessory exercises to isolate muscles and make them pop. Don't get confused, bodybuilders are strong as hell, but they aren't squatting 800 pounds to get a 1 rep max. That's not necessary to look like a Greek God. Or, these days - the Hulk.
A bodybuilder typically trains a specific bodypart each day of their training split. A split is breaking up a workout routine into smaller parts, so you can do more exercises per bodypart. This is why you hear a lot of people talking about "shoulder day" or "leg day." They are usually in the gym 5-6 days a week and work in the 6-12 rep range for hypertrophy. They will usually start with barbell work, just like any strength trainer, but then they isolate muscles with dumbbells and machines, and often work until failure, which general strength trainers do not do.
You may hear some know-it-all at the gym say machines are bad, the Smith Machine is terrible, functional training is the only training that matters, isolation exercises are for suckers, and barbells are all you need. But this is a load of crap when it comes to bodybuilding. Bodybuilders would not be able to get definition and size in their smaller muscle groups without the machines and isolation work. And you go tell a bodybuilder (s)he isn't strong. Better yet, do a bodybuilding workout. Once you pick yourself up off the floor, come back and see me.
Many bodybuilders are recreational, but some go pro and compete. There are many categories for different body types. And if you think you can only compete if you take steroids, think again. There are plenty of all-natural organizations to choose from.
Bodybuilding is a great way to build your physique. Lifting weights increases muscle mass, which in turn makes you bigger and stronger. It also helps you burn more fat at rest. Retaining muscle has high energy requirements, so simply having more muscle on your body burns more calories, regardless of what you are doing. Bodybuilding also builds stronger bones, lowers cholesterol, and reduces your risk of heart disease. But, wait.... there's more! Bodybuilding is beneficial for reducing stress, anxiety and depression. And, let's be honest - a sexy, strong body goes a long way towards building self-confidence and self-esteem.
Bodybuilding really gets you in tune with your mind-muscle connection. When you are doing large, compound movements, you are focusing on keeping your whole body tight and proper. When you are getting into isolation work, you feel muscles you never knew you had and now, you not only feel them, but you can have control over them! Bodybuilding is also excellent for symmetry. If you work with "barbells only" for too long, your stronger side will subconsciously do more work and often cause disproportion in both size an strength. When you train each side individually, you keep it even and can train up any weak points.
The Bad & The Ugly
So, what are the risks and drawbacks? For starters, there is always risk of injury. You can buy a one way ticket to "snap city" if you don't use proper form and technique. You know what I mean, you've seen the dude swinging his back into dumbbell curls, or trying to wrangle a bench press bar that's tipping all over the place (but he's got three plates on each side, dammit.) With bodybuilding, you need to check your ego at the door and control the weight. But, even with perfect form, you may experience a pulled muscle from time to time, or a joint or ligament that gets inflamed. You'll pull out the Advil and Tiger Balm once in awhile. And, you might need to take a short break while something heals up. The risk for more serious injury goes up when you bite off more than you can chew, get impatient with your progress, or don't clear your mind and focus while you are in the gym.
Bodybuilding can get expensive, once you start buying belts, wrist wraps, shoes, supplements, and gym memberships. The deeper down the rabbit hole you go, the more $$$ you spend. I went from just toting a water bottle, to carrying a gym bag with grip gloves, wrist wraps, a lifting belt, headphones, and knee sleeves, among other little odds and ends. And don't get me started on going pro - it's like any major sport, you will pay competition fees, coaching fees, equipment and wardrobe fees.... tanning fees, etc. However, If you stick to just the basics with supplementation and simple, sturdy, lifting gear, it won't be too bad. Most gyms these days run specials all the time and you can get them for as low as $10 a month. Still, this requires a monetary investment.
There is one drawback that no one talks about much: body dysmorphic disorder. Just as the anorexic is never satisfied with their weight loss, the bodybuilder can become perpetually dissatisfied with the appearance of his or her body. Once you start tinkering around and build one part up, you realize another part isn't "good enough." Or your big parts are never "big enough." Constantly scrutinizing your musculature and form takes it's toll. Getting super-lean messes with your head, too. Stage weight has you shredded, dehydrated, and depleted, but boy do you look amazing. This is why many people end up suffering from post-contest crash, when the high wears off and you have to go back to "normal." Your body needs all this nutrition because it was running on fumes for a month or two, and it compels you to binge. Many competitors get stuck in a binge cycle for weeks (sometimes months) afterward. You have to make sure your contest prep and refeeding schedules are manageable. People really need support during these times.
And last, but not least, is the risk of getting suckered into drugs and scams and quick fixes. Bodybuilding takes years. You have to accept that. I'm talking 5 years minimum to bulk and cut and build a truly impressive package. Don't get me wrong, along the way, you are going to look hotter and fitter. But, if you look at popular bodybuilders, their bodies are not achieved in a quick transformation. It is the result of years, building layer upon layer of muscle and then chiseling and refining. So, drugs, fat burners, testosterone boosters, and all that junk will not turn you into Arnold. Really, even if you do steroids, you can still be a mess if you don't put in the incredible amount of work it takes to be a pro bodybuilder. We all know that dude at the gym who is juicing, but half-repping and not taking care of himself and just looks puffy, or the girl who is micromanaging her calories so bad, she's shredded as fuck, but resembles Eddie, the Iron Maiden mascot. Neither will ever have an impressive physique. Don't be that guy or girl.
My hair is falling out.... but I'm 7% bodyfat!
Is Bodybuilding for You?
It sure can be! If the thing you are most hung up on is the way you look, bodybuilding is a great idea. Be sure to follow beginners' plans to start out, and gradually work your way into a proper split that suits your schedule and goals. Remember this is a long-haul and not a quick fix. Don't expect to look jacked and shredded by next year. Be prepared to eat well, meal prep, rest, drink gallons of water, and become a total gym rat, taking selfies in front of the dumbbell rack. Oh yes, you will do it. It's an addicting lifestyle that can reap healthy rewards, along with weird habits like saying "no" to parties, taking shaker bottles everywhere and wearing spandex to work.
But if you don't have the time or inclination to take it that far, you don't have to go full-bodybuilder. You can lift for power, strength, maintenance, or a sport and still incorporate some bodybuilder accessory work to round out your gym routine.
A few great introductory resources to get you started are: