I’ve talked about this many times on our 3DMJ podcast, but have never actually written out these ideas until now.
This article will serve as an update on my athletic progress as a bodybuilder after one year of not trying to be one.
SET UP CONTEXT: GOALS
About 13 months ago, I began working with my coach, David Charbonneau, in hopes of making it into the National Pro Grid League (NPGL) one day. And by “one day”, I mean sometime in the next 5 years.
Back then, at the end of 2015, I had already fallen in love and completely committed myself to the sport of GRID for the foreseeable future. (We’ll talk a bit more about what GRID actually entails later in this article.)
Sure, I stumbled upon this sport because I needed something to do in the years between bodybuilding shows, but it is by no means a mere placeholder. This is an entirely new goal that stands alone for me.
In fact, while the search for a new athletic endeavor was at first “what could I do for the next year or two while I put on some size before it’s time to diet again”, has now ended up as “here is this new thing I am obsessed with and I will not stop until it is no longer an option to continue.”
Yes, I love training for GRID that much.
So about January of 2016, I set a new goal for myself and for this stint of my athletic career….I will completely devote myself to the possibility of becoming a professional GRID athlete until I am at least 35 years old. (As I type this, I am 31 years of age.)
If that birthday comes and I am still far from my goal, then I will simply have to reevaluate my priorities and my athletic efforts. Maybe then (and only then), will I decide that this sport is too much for me to succeed at for whatever reason. Maybe that’s when I will do another bodybuilding season? Or maybe I will continue this type of training and channel the emphasis more towards team Crossfit competitions?
Either way, for at least another 4 years, GRID is 100% the goal. And like this article title suggests, this past year unexpectedly created the most productive non-competitive year I’ve ever had as a bodybuilder since first attempting to train for size in late 2011.
Before we get into those benefits I’ve acquired and lessons I’ve learned in the past year, the second part of setting up the article is telling you what I do in the gym everyday.
SET UP CONTEXT: HOW DO I TRAIN FOR GRID?
Here is a short description of the sport taken directly from the NPGL website:
“GRID is a sport featuring two teams racing head-to-head to complete a series of weightlifting, body-weight and other athletic elements. GRID teams must possess intense speed, explosive strength, deep strategy and precise teamwork to complete the races in the fastest possible time.”
If you’d like to learn more about GRID and watch a ton of videos, follow this link: https://www.npgl.com/
So personally, while I do have useful experiences under my belt (like growing up in competitive gymnastics or having done powerlifting meets before), I still have a lot to learn and catch up on.
The two biggest hurdles that were completely foreign to me are Olympic weightlifting and ring skills. (Yes, I know that rings are thought of as gymnastics apparatus, but only MALE gymnasts use them.) On top of that, almost immediately after beginning GRID training, my shoulder began acting up and has developed into an almost year-long issue. I won’t go into that much here in this article, but it’s been a very big challenge to overcome.
All that said, much of my time is still spent lifting weights. I am progressively working towards having increased levels of strength in all of my previous barbell moments from powerlifting (especially squats and deadlifts), while simultaneously learning the VERY technical movements involved in Olympic weightlifting. For those who are unaware, this includes the snatch and the clean and jerk.
If you’d like to learn more about Olympic weightlifting, follow this link: https://catalystathletics.com/
Now to take all of this weightlifting on to another level, I have to learn to do what is called “barbell cycling”. This means that I have to be able to complete lifts at heavy weights multiple times as fast as possible. For example, I can’t just have a strong clean, I have to be able to do 10 to 15 power cleans in a row with over 70% of my 1RM. The weights are heavy, and I have to move them multiple times efficiently, safely, and as fast as humanly possible.
And while most of the basic gymnastics elements come quick to me, there are still a few ways that GRID has leveled up the standards of what I need to achieve. Sure, I can walk on my hands pretty damn fast for a pretty great distance, but I can’t do multiple handstand pushups from a 10” deficit on tiny parallel bars. And like I alluded to earlier, I can use the bar to do pull ups and glide kips that I learned as a kid, but I can’t do the ring elements anywhere near as easily. It took me a few weeks to get a single ring muscle up, and ever since then my shoulder injury was so bad that I am just now (10 months later) able to hold myself on rings and can barely do a ring dip.
I have come a VERY long way this year, but there is definitely a lot more work to be done. Every day consists of lifting, some days have a bit of gymnastics, and most days have 5 to 15 minutes of very intense anaerobic interval training. Occasionally, I’ll do cardio sessions from 20 to 90 minutes in duration for general endurance training or active recovery.
GRID is a crazy mix of strength, skill acquisition, speed, and short-term endurance, which basically feeds into every part of athleticism that I love.
It’s also why I pretty much know that when I DO compete in bodybuilding again (whether that’s 5 or 15 years from now), I will never go back to how I was training for bodybuilding before. I have learned that I mentally and emotionally thrive on a mix of lifts and movements that are fun, challenging, and exciting. Olympic lifting is now one of my favorite things in the world, and those are skills that I would hate to lose or regress in by cutting them out of my programming.
With our contextual set-up out of the way, let’s finally go into the many reasons that this past year of training for GRID makes me a better bodybuilder.
MY RELATIONSHIP WITH FOOD AND BODYWEIGHT
I’ve never had a discipline problem with contest prep. I never found it insanely difficult to perfectly hit my allotted amount of carbs, proteins, and fats per day. Dieting when it’s time to diet is so black or white to me as an athlete, and I’ve never struggled with adherence at all.
However, off-season was always quite a shit-show. In fact, I never really allowed my self to have an “off-season” to begin with. After my 2011 season, I wanted to compete again right away in 2012. I ended up bailing on that season because I realized in early 2012 the importance of having a coach, and I wanted to wait until I found the best one.
But between my last show of 2011 and the time I started working with Alberto Nunez in early 2013, I only allowed myself to gain about 15 lbs. For me, this was maintained while eating somewhere between 1400 and 1600 calories on normal days, and 1700 to 1900 cals once every week or two. I was not contest lean, but I was not fed enough to make any improvements.
I might have gone through those 2 years with maybe 5 to 10 days where I didn’t precisely weigh and track my food at every single meal. While this may seem like dedication to some, I was actually shooting myself in the foot the entire time. I was scared that if I weighed any more, then I wouldn’t be able to diet efficiently when the time came.
In my brain, I had assigned 130 lbs as the top end of my off-season weight. (I was about 117 lbs on stage in 2011.) While mathematically, 13 lbs seems like it’s enough weight to allow for some growth, it truly wasn’t.
By the time I got back on stage in 2013, I was definitely leaner around 115 lbs, but I was not any bigger. I did not have a very productive 2012 because I was overly neurotic. I had trained myself to ignore hunger signals and to simply be a robot.
Sure, on one hand, being numb to food made life easy in regards to counting my macros and sticking to my bodyweight. But on the other hand, not feeding myself enough to support muscular growth was killing my long-term progress.
I’d like to say that after 2013 I was “cured” because of all I had learned from my coaches and teammates from 3DMJ, but I wasn’t.
After 2013, with powerlifting as my next bodybuilding off-season goal, I thought I would compete in the 132 lb weight class. Once I passed that and we agreed that 138 to 145 was more my target, I had to learn to settle there. I was NOT happy about this.
Because I knew I was just buying time until I could hit the figure stage again, all I saw was way too much fat for someone who claimed to be a bodybuilder. I wasn’t depressed, but I wasn’t happy. I understood the rationale for being this heavy, but somewhere inside me I was always kind of irked. How could I call myself a bodybuilder if I didn’t look like one?
So in subconscious efforts to continue feeling the part, I continued to track my macros every day, weigh my food every day, and step on the scale every day. I was still behaving like an in-season competitor without the progress to show for it. Sure, I was stronger, but I was also a heavier human. It sort of cancelled it all out for me emotionally.
And then came GRID, and I could finally let go.
Within the first week of GRID training, I had what coach called “testers”. This meant going to the gym and doing a whole bunch of crazy movements I had never done before, and doing them for time. Considering I had not done any type of endurance training in YEARS, I was not amazing at this stuff. I was huffing and puffing like crazy, and I had not felt that slow in a very long time.
However, I was actually hungry. I mean REALLY hungry.
For the first time in 4 or 5 years, I noticed my body wanting more food. I literally could NOT stop eating for the first couple months of GRID. And although I can’t say that I was stoked about my physique, I truly was SUPER stoked about my workouts.
The balance had finally shifted. I cared way more about how I was being fueled for my workouts than I did about how I looked. I was averaging somewhere between 2100 to 2600 calories a day for the first couple of months in GRID.
Early in 2016, I was weighing in around 150 lbs and I finally saw my physique starting to change. A full 2 years after my last figure show, I finally felt like I looked like I lifted weights again.
Although my upper body was not getting much action because of my shoulder injury, my legs and glutes sprouted like crazy.
About 6 months into GRID training, I noticed that I was adapting to the workload. I was overly full on the previously-needed 2100-2600 calories and have been consuming somewhere between 1900 and 2100 most days in these most recent months. My bodyweight has also been somewhere around 145 lbs as of late, and it’s the best 145 has ever looked on me.
To sum it up, I now know how to FEEL again. I don’t weight my food every day, I don’t track my food every day, and I don’t step on the scale every day. All of those things might happen every week or two just to check in and see where I’m at.
But in general, the feels matter most. I eat when I am hungry, in the amounts that feel right. If I don’t eat enough, I feel weak in training. If I eat too much, then I feel sluggish. If I eat the wrong foods, my stomach will tell me. If my clothes feel tight or loose, I know something is generally off in my approach.
In essence, GRID has taught me to eat like an athlete again and to respect my body’s needs. Food and sleep are bigger priorities than ever, while now stressing me out less than ever.
DETOURING MY IMPATIENCE
Now let’s be clear, I’m not saying GRID is “better” than bodybuilding. I 100% love bodybuilding as a sport, and I think that contest prep is one of the most transformative and rewarding processes I have ever been through.
I highly respect both of these sports in different ways, and I do not think that this is a binary thing.
A lot of people will ask “Now that you’ve switched from bodybuilding to GRID…”, and this is simply the wrong question. I am currently training for GRID, and will compete in bodybuilding again when I am done.
As mentioned earlier, I am 100% devoted to this until I am at least 35. But maybe I do it until I am 45? Or 50? None of this scares me, because I know that bodybuilding will always be there. Not only will it always be there, I am still constantly growing my body which means I am still training for it.
Whether GRID, CrossFit, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, strongman, or anything else that involved progressive overload and muscle mass accumulation, I am STILL building my body. And I will STILL be in a better place to start a contest prep diet whenever I so choose.
GRID has just been the first and only thing difficult enough and fun enough for me to be able to let go of the stage and allow progress to happen.
And because GRID really is so incredibly difficult on my body, I know that I cannot do it forever. There will be a time when I am just too beat up to lift extremely heavy weights at sprint-like speeds. But luckily, when that time does come, I will be in a position to simply diet again and get on a bodybuilding stage.
Because muscular growth is not bound to specific movements and has no direct relationship to speed or absurd amounts of skill, it gives me the comfort of knowing that I can be an athlete for as long as I want. I mean I’ve seen people in their 60’s and 70’s kicking ass in bodybuilding master’s classes! As long as I can leg press and curl my biceps, I’ll keep on competing to the best of my abilities for decades to come.
PUSHING THE VOLUME LIMIT
Because bodybuilding training is typically monitored in programs where the volume can be calculated and accounted for, it is usually highly organized. With muscle mass accretion as the general goal, it is also important to create a symmetrical physique and spread training in an evenly-distributed manner in accordance to your physical appearance. This has traditionally created programs that have body-part splits, or certain days designated to train certain muscles of the body. While this is not necessary, it is an efficient way to monitor work and recovery, and it’s what I typically adhered to for the last half decade of my life.
However, most performance-based sports require the use of the full body during every practice session. GRID falls into this category.
Even if I have a day that focuses on upper body strength, I will still generally use my legs for cardio and endurance training. Even though jerks LOOK like an overhead pressing movement to most people not familiar with Olympic weightlifting, it is actually a very fast and powerful full-body movement using extremely heavy weights. While I may not actually squat on some days, the legs are definitely always contributors to at least a few movements, and vice versa.
GRID matches are 2 hours of full body movements at 100% full speed, and that’s what we generally prepare me for. With this new performance goal, I have become an athlete who trains full body 5 days a week, sometimes twice a day.
While this isn’t a novel idea or system for many sports, athletes, and coaches out there in the world, it is something that I had simply not been accustomed to doing anymore. This year has been a great reminder of the way I used to train in gymnastics as a youth athlete and in cheerleading as an adolescent athlete. There is a job to get done, there are skills that need practice. I don’t think about how it feels in my muscles anymore, I just think about completing the task at hand.
A couple years ago, I would have performed somewhere between 70 and 120 working reps of squats per week, usually split between front squats and back squats. Nowadays, that’s more like 200 or 300 per week, including front squats, back squats, overhead squats, cleans, snatches, and dumbbell or kettlebell accessory movements.
I’m not saying this is a “better” way of training, but it sure has been an eyeopener as to what I am capable of. Sure, my lower half has grown tremendously, but this may also have a lot to do with my nutritional intake, as discussed above.
It has also opened my eyes as a bodybuilding coach and has lead me to push my athletes a bit more in certain areas to see if we can possibly get more out of them, too. Some athletes do not need this nudge, but others have seemed to benefit. The way I now see it, if one of my athletes has the time and energy in their off-season to make an effort in generating strength and size gains just a little bit faster, then why not give it a go? It’s just another tool in the toolbox and another experiment to collect data going forth.
DAILY PROGRAMMING AND RECURRING TESTS
One of my favorite things about being an athlete is having a coach.
But with bodybuilding, this is not necessary a lot of the time, especially in the off-season. Because the physical changes happen so slowly, it may be weeks or months until we know if something is “working” or not in terms of strength or hypertrophy. And even in-season, weekly coaching check-ins are about as often as you would ever need them because dietary changes do not typically make or break a physique overnight. Once you know how to lift, you simply follow the plan, and wait for the changes to occur.
With GRID, my coach programs for me every day, and I love it like crazy. Sure, we follow regimented cycles of Olympic lifting and barbell strength exercises that start every workout. But the skill work, conditioning, and endurance is different every day. There are simply too many movements that must be mastered and they cannot be left out or forgotten. There are damn near 100 different elements in GRID that involve all kinds of apparatuses and are performed in different combinations. This is why David is such an invaluable resource for me, especially since he has been working with one the best teams in the league since it started. He has insight and experience far beyond what I could ever do for myself in the gym.
And aside from all these obvious programming advantages, letting someone else have control of my daily training does a lot for me mentally. I am a chronic over-thinker in every avenue of life. I don’t know how to shut off my brain at all, and if I had to program for myself I would be second-guessing it every step of the way wondering if I was doing the right thing.
Additionally, daily programming gives me someone to impress every day. I have never been a lazy athlete, but I do notice the little voice in my head saying “David will see these numbers and he is one of the people in charge of recruiting athletes for one of the best pro teams in the league” all the freaking time.
With bodybuilding, completing the workout was completing the workout. With GRID, I have some sort of test almost every day and I want my training log to show progress as often as possible. When it comes to lifting, I usually have the option to “work to a heavy single” and I try to beat my previous weight lifted as often as I can. With conditioning, I always have to report a time for completion and I try to beat my previous attempt at all costs.
I feel like there’s this daily opportunity to show tangible progress to David so that I can hop on his recruiting radar as soon as possible. There’s a definite sense of urgency with every day and I completely thrive in that psychological environment.
SUMMARY: CARING LESS FOR BETTER PROGRESS
In summary, I could say this article is about the fact that temporarily letting go of bodybuilding is the best I could possibly have done for my bodybuilding career. And when I say “temporarily”, I’m not afraid of that possibly meaning 2 years, 10 years, or 15 years.
My physique, my strength, my mentality, my relationship with food, and my push towards progress are better than ever.
Now I don’t think this is a common road for those wanting to get better at bodybuilding, nor is it one that I think anyone else should take. This article is not a sales pitch for GRID, but simply a possible encourager for people who think that there’s no way they could be long-term happy in bodybuilding.
I know many physique athletes who lose themselves in a mess of chronic dieting and emotional attachments to the scale year round for decades on end. I also know many who enjoyed contest prep, but it distorted their reality to a point where the only way to get out of that cycle was to swear they’d never compete again.
I refused to accept either of those realities and kept searching until I found my thing.
Discovering GRID was the only way that I could let go of my constant need to over-monitor and over-analyze the daily state of my physical appearance. Sure, it is now an entirely new obsession, but it is a much more productive obsession.
I now train to acquire skills, not to put on muscle. I now eat more to perform, not eat less in fear of losing my leanness. Both of these statements are incredibly ironic, as I am now finally in a state where I have been acquiring more muscle mass than ever before and am leaner than my previous off-season figure physique ever was.
There are people who are fully content and satisfied with the slow drudge of decades in and out of bodybuilding seasons for a lifetime. I simply was not one of those people. I feel in love with the chase of contest prep and quickly fell out of it as soon as off-season mode had to happen. Rather than saying “bodybuilding isn’t for me”, I took it upon myself to find a way to make it for me.
I don’t believe in settling, and I don’t believe in forcing myself to like things. I did not like the traditional off-season, so had to change it.
This is how I plan to continue handling all things in my world for years to come. If I want to continue making progress in all areas of my life, I must question the conventional and take the road less travelled with every chance I get. It has done nothing but serve me in the past, and I look forward to where it takes me for many years to come.