“Big Lift” Does Not Always Mean “Look Good”

Read time: 2 minutes

I’m posting these videos of me during a weightlifting meet from 2 years ago to show a couple of points.

First, a 3-day fast allowed my body weight to drop aggressively, in order to qualify for a weight class of 69 kg (151 lbs). In 72 hours my body weight dropped from 160 lbs to 149 lbs (over a 10-pound loss!), and all without losing explosive strength.

In this Olympic-style weightlifting meet, I lifted my personal records in both the snatch, and the clean and jerk. I also won my weight class against guys in their 20s. I was 40 years old here.

Snatch lift — body weight 149.6 lbs.; barbell weight 202.2 lbs. :

Clean and Jerk — body weight 149.6 lbs.; barbell weight 246.4 lbs. :

So, a 72-hour fast doesn’t seem to diminish explosive strength. I drank a lot of water, though, but ate absolutely no food until after the morning weigh-in; but, even after the weigh-in I didn’t eat that much… an apple and a handful of nuts.

Second, although I was decently strong, from training this style (lots of heavy squats, deadlifts, presses, and the various explosive lifts) most of the muscle mass I gained was in my torso, hips, and thighs. (And I suffered lots of tendonitis, but who said competitive sports are healthy?).

I had little muscular development in my shoulders, arms, upper back, and calves, and my wife said I look like a cartoon when I wore swimming trunks.

It wasn’t exactly the look I cared for, and I felt shitty on most days. I lived with a pack of ice.

So doing the “big lifts” isn’t going to always get you balanced aesthetics. You’ll gain muscles, all right, but just mostly in the torso, hips, and thighs. This is a result of a functionally strong body, no doubt; however a more balanced distribution of muscle for an attractive physique does not necessarily result in a less functional body.

So although I still do the “big lifts” once in a while, I spend more time doing targeted muscle work: lateral raises for the delts, biceps-curls and triceps-extensions for the arms, dumbbell rows for the upper back, etc. After a year of changing my exercise priorities, the proportion of my body improved. It looks the way I want, and my wife Lori likes it, too!

And, I’m still very functional as a person. I get through my day just fine — except my physique looks more proportioned, and I feel way healthier.

I believe that personal trainers are too obsessed with the bastardized method of functional training — in the early days with silly circus-balance training better reserved for seals and clowns, and now with “sport-specific” training better reserved for NFL linebackers and Eastern-Block Olympians. In general, I prefer to help people become adequately strong, agile, healthy, and good-looking. They’re real people, with normal lives.

Keeping my exercise philosophy simple and realistic makes my service far more valuable to clients than making myself seem like a pedantic exercise wizard.

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17 Responses to “Big Lift” Does Not Always Mean “Look Good”

  1. Chris Robbins says:

    I was wondering which type of IF you practice. Leangains, warrior diet, ESE? And, if you do ESE, do you do one or two fasts a week?


    • Johnny says:

      Hi Chris,

      I keep my IF generally flexible, but most of the time I follow the Warrior Diet pattern, eating my first meal around 4 or 5 PM. Although the Warrior Diet includes some food during the day (light fruits, eggs, etc.), I usually don’t consume anything but a couple cups of coffee with some heavy cream.

      I also am influenced heavily by Lean Gain’s fasting window — 16 hours of fasting. Except, I sometimes fast between 16 to 18 hours.

      Another IF pattern I’m influenced by is Fast-5, in which the first meal is eaten at 5 PM and the last at 10 PM. Although my first meal is around 4 or 5 PM, I usually eat my last meal right up to before bedtime, and that could be 10, 11, or midnight.

      To give you a brief but more concrete structure of my fasting philosophy:

      -Eat later in the day, like around 4 or 5PM, when eating most often counts.
      -Later in the day is when you get to sit down with friends, family, and celebration, and enjoy really good food without rushing. Oh, and happy hour usually happens later in the day!
      -Later in the day and into the night is when I tend to “just eat.”
      -Fasting in the morning and through the day makes sense as fasting increases the sympathetic nervous system for wakefulness and energy, allowing for work, play, and mental focus.
      -Eating in the evening stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system for relaxation and higher quality sleep.
      -Fasting for 16 to 18 hours means that the digestive system is resting and the body in greater fat metabolism for more than half of the time in a 24-hour period. In simplified terms, you’re either storing consumed energy (fed state) or burning stored energy (fasted state) — I like to make sure there’s a balance.


  2. Dan says:

    Wow…very well done! How long did you train/compete in that style?

    What is your opinion then on programs like Stronglifts (i.e. 5×5)? Or how about Crossfit? Too much lower body emphasis?

    Keep the posts coming…you definitely have one of the better blogs around!

    • Johnny says:

      I’ve always messed around with power snatches and power cleans, but never got serious until a few years ago. I trained exclusively like that (heavy lifting) for about a year before the competition. Now I do it on occasion.

      It’s hard to see with the lifting suit in the video, but training frequently like this thickened my waist. The Olympic lifts are great in that, if done right, they’re one of the best “core” exercises. But, done often enough, they’ll thicken the trunk.

      That’s cool to some people, and it’s necessary for those whose goal is to lift very heavy weight at meets… but I have little interest in lifting more weight.

      I enjoy being strong, but I enjoy more being light, healthy, and proportionate.

      The 5X5 program is great for getting strong. Where my body is, I use this training structure infrequently… to maintain strength more than anything.

      CrossFIT is very effective for developing general physical preparation, or general fitness. I believe that CrossFIT, as prescribed by corporate, is a sport in and of itself, and as such it is in the arena of developing athletes for such a sport.

      And, like I mentioned in my post, competitive sports are not always healthy. CrossFIT, for many people, is not a sustainable training methodology, but is a great training philosophy if cycled appropriately within a yearly plan.

      I CrossFIT on occasion. But to develop a healthy and aesthetically pleasing body, I don’t believe CrossFIT is the ultimate means.

      In the end, I guess it depends on the person’s goal. When the apocalypse descends on the world and you want to fight zombies, then CrossFIT, in its pure definition, is a great training concept.

      I don’t expect to be fighting any zombies in the future, and I believe that I’m strong and conditioned enough to get out of my own way!

      Thank you for your compliment about The Lean Saloon. I’ll keep writing if you keep readin’.

      My very best,

  3. Bangkok Jay says:

    Hi Johnny,

    Great post with the emphasis on aesthetic physique. Not sure if you know about Rusty at fitnessblackbook but he also advocates a lean, “hollywood” look and minimises legwork (apart from cardio, bodyweights, etc). You guys have overlapping viewpoints.

    Personally my lower torso has always been too large from both genetics and taekwondo (stances) training from youth (i think). So I’m happy to hear that the big lifts aren’t always necessary and that targeted muscle growth is possible within reason.

    That said, what is your take on kettlebells vs dumbbells for hypertrophy (not conditioning or functional strength but pure aesthetics)? Thanks.

    • Johnny says:

      Hi Jay,

      I like Rusty’s view on aesthetics, too. I think we both understand human’s natural instinct to identify and appreciate form — that beauty doesn’t exist just in the eye of the beholder but in the form of the object.

      Of course, I’m commenting purely on visual beauty, not the inner beauty determined by, say, a person’s character and kindness. In humans, those things matter.

      My overall message is, given the modern conveniences of our culture, we should have exercise commitment but we shouldn’t have gym-obsession.

      I like kettlebell use, but it’s not so much the equipment itself, but how it is used. I regularly use kettlebells but more for increasing whole-body metabolic processes, which means I use relatively light kettlebells — 12 to 20 kg (25 to 44 lbs.).

      I avoid doing too much kettlebell swings as they emphasize the inner thighs, hamstrings, hips, and trunk. I use them more for combination lifts like: curls + presses + overhead lunges; hang power cleans + push-presses; one-arm power snatches; using two KBs, pushups + one-arm row, etc.

      Then of course, the basic isolated stuff like lateral raises, front raises, bent-over raises, military presses, even lunges.

      Again, for me, it’s not so much the equipment as how it is used.


  4. Bangkok Jay says:

    Thanks, Johnny, you beat me to the punch. Came online just to clarify my question but you’re too quick like a saloon shootout!

    My equipment is limited to none, doing mostly bodyweight exercises (2x/week), with a focus on losing bodyfat (201lbs>171lbs in 6 mo’s) through diet with another 10-15 to go. Always had big chest & triceps (muscle memory) so the pressing movements help retain the muscle there. But I’m trying to target better shoulder volume/density and biceps secondary; hence my consideration for dumbbells (35lbs) and a return to limited iron. Never used kettlebells before but I had hoped they might be used in the same way to target the shoulders & biceps, in addition to their intended use in overall body conditioning (less a priority).

    Thank you for the warning on the kettlebell swings per the lower torso and the recommended mentioned exercises. A local Thai company finally is making kettlebells here (16&32kg). So the bottom line is: am I better off with a pair of 16kg kettlebells or a pair of 16kg dumbbells? Or both? Having less knowledge of the usefulness of the kettlebells brings clouds to my own judgment.

    No longer a gym obsessive. Losing the excess weight through eating paleo on 18/6 daily IF is just a means to insure I’m around to see my son (2) grow to be a man. But it has brought about nutritional enlightenment as well as a renewed appreciation and true belief in body recomposition. Generous folks like you are to thank for that. 90% of the efforts have been and will be diet-focused. But the 10% has now inspired me that great aesthetics is well within reach for this 18yr old living in the body of a 42yr old.

    Hope that helps. Ruefully shamed for my own indecisiveness,

    • Johnny says:

      Hi Jay,

      If I were to chose one over the other, I’d chose dumbbells. You can still do swings with them, yet are less cumbersome for full ROM movement like biceps and triceps.

      I think strength training is necessary to build added muscular bulk, but becoming lean and muscularly defined can absolutely be attained with diet and mostly body weight exercises.

      A few people I have worked with have attained very sharp and impressive (sexy) physiques from nearly just body weight exercises.


  5. Jordan says:

    This is a wonderful breath of fresh air.
    You, Rusty, and John Barban hit the nail on the head: we train mostly for physique! Duh!

    For a while, I’ve been doing some isolation work like hip bridges and one arm slides (a plank variation… hmm, are planks considered isolation?) I’ve recently starting working on my bi’s, tri’s, and shoulders. Maybe it’s just my imagination, but it seems like my biceps are already a little better, and I haven’t even done that much yet.

    I’ve been thinking about having a workout schedule similar to yours. I would do mostly the iso work (plus compound exercises like rows and chest presses,) once a week, and then a circuit training workout using bodyweight exercises like push ups, body rows, lunges, bodyweight squats, hip bridges, and planks. I feel like that circuit would hit the big muscles sufficiently, and get some cardio in, too.

    I know John Barban works out four times a week, you work out less, and you both look great. So I’m still mulling over how often to work out. Obviously my preference would be to work out less, lol! But I’ll do whatever it takes to look better- within reason, and without pain. (Hey, that was clever!) I may start with 2x/week and make adjustments when/ if necessary.

  6. Jordan says:

    One more thing, I had no idea you were in your 40’s! Good job, man! 🙂

  7. Johnny says:

    Hi Jordan,

    Thanks for the comments. I think starting out 2X/week is a perfect base, and (like you are planning) adjust from there. Everyone is different!

    Take care,

  8. Michelle says:

    I really enjoy this blog. Your advice is really wonderful and down to earth.

  9. Doug says:


    I would guess that your background in Olympic style lifting has made it much easier for you to develop that more balanced “superhero” physique.

    My background is in power & strongman training.

    But over the past few years, I let go of this style of training (variety of reasons) and switched to a much “healthier” and aesthetically pleasing physique.

    Unlike other guys & gals who have focused exclusively on sculpting their body for a specific look, I (and you) have a base of strength that has allowed me to make changes much faster.

    For example, up until 4 years ago, I had never focused on any form of lateral raise for my shoulders. But, unlike the typical gym rat, I was able to start doing sets of strict lateral raises with 70-80 lb DBs and very quickly increase my shoulder width as I dieted down to shrink my waist.

    Within 3 months, my physique was totally different.

    Your Olympic lifting does create a very specific body type, but it also gave you advantage over the average Joe

    • Johnny says:

      Hi Doug,

      You’re absolutely correct. Heavy lifting can stimulate neural drive systemically. This facilitates the *potential* for strength development throughout the body, even peripherally.

      But in my opinion, location-specific strength is not maximally developed until you focus on that body part (arms, shoulders, etc.).

      The science between endogenous hormones (commonly triggered by heavy lifting) and hypertrophy is not strong, so at this point it seems the greatest contributor to muscle increase is still direct mechanical stimulus to that muscle.

      Just heavy deadlifting won’t optimize the development of the arms. You gotta hit the arms directly.


      • Stephon says:

        First off been reading your site for about a week and one word…finally! I too was obsessed with mass and size and at 5’5′ I ballooned up to 186lbs,I also aquired a lot of bodyfat then too.Now I too desire to be lean and asthestically pleasing to the eye,as well as the fact that I like wearing fitting hip clothes and that weight forced me to wear baggy, concealing, clothing.

        Now I am down to about 162lbs and 15olbs is my goal.I want to lose a bit more mass as well as bodyfat and as of now I have been eating paleoish for about 3 mos.I went from 3 days a week of heavy compound lifting( 5×5 type training) to one strength traing day and some bodyweight workouts to your schedule of 2 days a week adding some isolated work,and it actually felt good doing bicep curls,lateral raises,and tricep exts again.

        I didn’t mean to blabber off so much,just trying to give you an idea of where I am.My question is as far as isolation exercises which do you think are the best for biceps,triceps,and shoulders/abs?and possibly rep range I did supersets with 1 drop set within a set,is this good or too much.I would appreciate your input,please.
        Thank you

  10. kevin says:

    Hi, I have always been told that to speed up your metabolism and feed your muscles during recovery, you need to eat small amounts of protein every two hours or so. whether it be meat, chicken or eggs. so when you talk about fasting through out the day how does that help your muscles repair? It sounds like your experienced in this area, but it has confused me a bit.

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