Weightlifting is primarily about how much weight you can lift, and there have been weightlifting events for thousands of years. The purpose of training as a weightlifter is to make you stronger. Bodybuilding, on the other hand, is about using weight training to improve the size and shape of all the muscles to achieve an aesthetically balanced and proportional look.
Bodybuilders get stronger, but some of the biggest are not as strong as you might think. But that was never the case with Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman.
Ronnie, an eight-time champ, was the third Mr. O to come along in the modern era of “the big man.” There was Lee Haney, Dorian Yates, and then Ronnie. Lee trained very hard and heavy, but his approach was pretty traditional. Dorian, on the other hand, used a super-intensive “heavy duty” method with lots of negatives, forced-negatives and eventual injuries. Dorian intentionally sacrificed his body to achieve his championships.
Ronnie had a different workout strategy. There has always been some debate as to the most effective way of achieving the “bodybuilding effect”— that is building big, full, and shapely muscles. How much weight, how many reps, sets and exercises? Ronnie has somewhat rewritten the rule book on this subject. He was known for doing more reps in a set, often 12 to 16, with extremely heavy weights. I once watched Ronnie doing dumbbell shoulder presses with something like 170 pounds and asked him later how he was able to so many reps with so much weight and he told me, “I started out using high reps with lighter weights and then worked uptdo heavier poundages.”
When it comes to building muscle size it seems you need to use a resistance at least equivalent to 75% of your one-rep max. Heavier is OK as long as you do enough reps because it’s that combination of enough reps and enough weight that creates the bodybuilding effect. Weightlifters generally don’t do enough reps or enough different exercises to look like bodybuilders. But a great deal of response to muscle training is dependent on genetics. How much muscle fiber of what type do you have distributed where? Skeletal proportion, length or muscle belly of various muscles.
Genetics is why Lebron James never had to choose between playing basketball and becoming a jockey. If you don’t believe in the limitations of genetics, try getting taller.
Some people, including bodybuilders, are just naturally stronger than others. And the stronger ones get special rewards when exercising that strength. It’s both physically and psychologically satisfying. So Ronnie most probably developed his training style because it felt good.
Joe Weider always advised bodybuilders to listen to their bodies and that is exactly what Ronnie and the other Mr. Olympia level pros have done.
By the way, the scientific description for the volume of training necessary to create results is time under tension. Each rep is fairly short so you need enough of them to put your muscles under tension for about 60 seconds. This turns out to be about four to five sets of four to five exercises — pretty much the kind of workout bodybuilders discovered by trial and error over the decades.
The top bodybuilders are all genetic geniuses so many can use a workout style that is not first rate in terms of effectiveness and efficiency and still make excellent gains, but the higher you go in the sport the more small differences start to matter. Why settle for anything but being your best?
I’ll have to admit that, after working with bodybuilders for 40 years, Ronnie is my favorite of the modern competitors. The shape and fullness of his muscles — not just their size — continue to amaze me. It also happens he was one of the strongest bodybuilders, which made his use of heavy weights for high reps so impressive.