Business Lessons from a Champion Bodybuilder

Contains excerpts from the book: Business Execution for RESULTS, by Stephen Lynch

I was standing on stage at the Mr. New Zealand bodybuilding competition. It was the final part of the show. They were handing out the trophies, and it was down to one other contestant and me. I was confident that I had done enough, but, just as in boxing, you can never be completely sure what decision the judges are going to make.

All the years of brutally hard training and the torture of following pre-contest Spartan diets had culminated in this moment. I closed my eyes and waited.

“…and Mr. New Zealand…1993…open men’s heavyweight division…Stephen Lynch!”

I leaped into the air and waved to my mother and sister, who were jumping up and down at the back of the theater. What joy! What relief! I had achieved my big goal, but it was time to begin something new. I retired from bodybuilding right there and then and set a completely different goal, which has brought me to the point of writing this book. But the way I achieved that goal is similar to the way I’ve helped companies achieve their goals in the years since.

Start with a Big Hairy Audacious Goal (BHAG).

My journey to Mr. New Zealand had started eight years before. My uncle was a police inspector in charge of New Zealand’s diplomatic protection squad. His stories of life on the job seemed much more exciting and interesting than the dry accounting and statistics I was studying at university.

I decided to join the New Zealand Police. At five feet, nine inches tall, I just made the height requirement, so I decided that a little weight training before I started the police academy would help give me more physical presence and strength to do the job. It did, and it also took me in a direction I never anticipated.

After two years of weight training, I’d gained a lot of muscle and literally reshaped my physique. I was genetically blessed with a body that responded well to weight training, and I devoured all the books I could find on the subject to further my results.

It was the mid-1980s; Arnold Schwarzenegger had become the world’s most recognizable movie star, and his success carried the fringe sport of bodybuilding into the mainstream. I decided that I wanted to look like Arnold and emulate his success. When the gym manager suggested I should enter a novice bodybuilding competition, I jumped at the chance. When I won my first novice competition in 1988, I set the big, big goal of becoming Mr. New Zealand by 1993.

Thousands of people begin weight training every year, and many don’t set any goals at all. Others abandon the process without achieving much. Only a tiny percentage of people who begin weight training set significant goals and achieve them. That’s about the same as in business.

According to the International Health Club Association, 90% of those who join health and fitness clubs will stop going regularly within the first 90 days. That’s similar to the percentage of business strategies that fail. Harvard professor Robert Kaplan says that “various sources have reported failure rates at between 60 and 90 percent.”

Why don’t those strategies work? The executives who develop them are smart and savvy. But it’s like becoming Mr. New Zealand: Anyone can create a plan that sounds like it will succeed, but to achieve the goal you have to do more, whether you’re a business executive plotting strategy or a bodybuilder out to win an important title.

It starts with setting a big goal. Becoming Mr. New Zealand was the biggest goal I could conceive of at the time. Today, I help organizations set the kind of big goals that make great companies.

Setting a goal feels good, and it’s tempting to think that setting the goal is enough. It’s not. You have to create a winning strategy to achieve your goal.

It seems like there’s a lot of help available. Every year, thousands of books and articles and blog posts promise to reveal the latest, newest, neatest, unheard-of-until-now way to create a great strategy. Most of them get things only partly right.

The truth is that there’s no magic way to achieve anything important. The way to the goal I wanted was following a rigorous, disciplined process from beginning to end. First, I had to do my homework to find out what really worked for my body. Then I had to use what I’d learned to plan a strategy that would take me to my goal. And then I had to follow that strategy every day, even on days when I didn’t feel like it or when more pleasant distractions were beckoning me. That same outline holds for creating a business strategy that delivers results.

You start the process by setting what Jerry Porras and Jim Collins call a “Big Hairy Audacious Goal.”

Goal Setting Is Not Strategy.

In 1988, I got to the point where I had to make some important decisions. I had set my BHAG to become Mr. New Zealand by 1993. I had also done a lot of reading and research and talked to all the experts I could find: pro bodybuilders, elite athletes from other sports, sports physicians, nutritionists, and others. Now it was time to decide what I had to accomplish in the coming years to achieve my goal.

Goal setting alone is not enough. You need to choose a wise strategy in order to achieve your goal. Strategy is making smart choices about what actions you will take to get the results you want in the future.

All my choices had to support my big goal of winning the Mr. New Zealand title, so let me share something with you that very few people know. There are lots of people with great-looking bodies in the gym or on the beach, showing off their muscles. They may consider themselves to be bodybuilders, but they’re not the ones who win the big competitions. The champion bodybuilders are covered up for most of the year.

Core vs Non-Core Activities

My research told me that I needed to do some very specific things. One was that I had to forego looking good in the short term in order to build the kind of body that would be able to win the national title later. I needed to bulk up, increasing my body weight by 50 percent. I actually grew from 190 pounds to 260 pounds, at a height of 5’9″ (86 kg to 118kg at a height of 1.75m). If you saw me at the gym or on the beach in those bulking years, I wasn’t showing off my body at all. I was the one who stayed covered because of the way I looked.

Bulking up meant forcing myself to eat huge amounts of food whether I felt hungry or not – for three years! In a normal day, I ate two whole chickens, a large steak, plus several eggs, several slices of bread, rice, oatmeal, protein shakes, and more. Bulking up also meant ferocious workouts that literally made me vomit or faint.

On the plus side, I got bigger and bigger. On the minus side, the process gave me a huge body with a head that looked like a pumpkin. The heavy weight training ensured I never got fat, as most of the calories I was consuming were converted into muscle, but “bloated” is probably the word that comes closest to describing the way I looked. Trust me, I was the last one to be showing a lot of skin at the beach! I looked more like something out of professional wrestling. Little kids would stop me in the street and ask, “Are you a wrestler?”

And then, when it came time to think about competing in the Mr. New Zealand contest, I had to turn everything in reverse. I had to follow an extreme deprivation diet to strip away all traces of body fat and reveal the new muscle I had built underneath. In the months before the national final competition, I went on a near-starvation diet, counting every calorie to get to the weight, the body fat percentage, and the “cellophane-wrapped muscle” look that would win the title. I think that was the hardest part of all, but it was among the wise choices I had to make about training, diet, and preparation if I wanted to become Mr. New Zealand.

You need to make wise choices for your business, too, and some of them won’t be glamorous at all. In fact, sometimes they’ll be just the opposite of what every other company and the pundits think is the best strategy.

To get the results you want, you have to do the right things. Everybody tells you that. What you don’t hear often enough is that you also have to stop doing anything that isn’t the best choice for getting the results you want.

The biggest thing I had to give up was winning competitions. My strategy required that I abstain totally from competing from 1989 to 1992. I needed one long cycle of bulking up and dieting down, and that meant not competing at all for three years. That was very hard for me.

Frankly, I liked competitions – feeling the thrill of victory and standing there on the stage, receiving the applause from the audience. I would have loved winning more trophies and working my way up the rankings, but I had to say no to that experience if I wanted to achieve my goal by the fastest, most efficient route possible. So I sat at the back of the bodybuilding shows every year, muttering under my breath and telling myself to be patient and that my time would come. Saying no to some things was just as important as saying yes to other things. Here are two more examples:

Yes: Heavy weight training

No: Aerobic exercise and other sports like rugby, tennis, swimming, and hiking

Yes: Plenty of rest and recovery, early to bed, and diet soda.

No: Late nights, nightclubs, partying, or alcohol

In other words, achieving my BHAG meant saying no to a lot of things I liked doing but which weren’t the fastest route to achieving my goal. Strategy is making wise choices about what to do and what not to do so that you ensure your future success. The “not to do” part doesn’t get discussed that much, but the top experts in creating a winning strategy think it’s just as important.

Here’s Peter Drucker:

“Leaders must decide: What is our business? What should it be? What is NOT our business? What should it NOT be?”

And Michael Porter:

“Many managers do not understand the importance of having a clear strategy. Strategy is about making trade-offs. The essence of strategy is choosing what NOT to do.”

You get the idea. Deciding what NOT to do is every bit as important as deciding what to do.

Keep The Score (And Keep it Relevant and Achievable).

When I was working toward the goal of being named Mr. New Zealand, I measured several things so that I would know how I was doing. They were my personal Key Performance Indicators (KPIs), or Metrics.

KPIs are important in business. They were important in bodybuilding, too. Unless you are measuring what you are doing every day, it is easy to kid yourself when you are training. To defeat that tendency, I carried a journal and wrote down how many days per week I worked out at the gym. I recorded every set of every exercise I did, how much weight I used, and how many reps I performed.

You may feel like you are working hard and training to the point of failure, but unless you have done at least as many reps as you did the last time you performed that exercise (and preferably one or two more), and unless you have added a couple of extra kilograms to the barbell, you are not actually making progress.

The same is true about diet. You might be climbing the walls with hunger when you’re on a pre-contest bodybuilding diet, but unless you are measuring your calories and macronutrients, you may still be eating too much food to achieve your desired body fat percentage by the contest date.

I weighed myself every week on the same scale. I measured body fat as well, with the same person and method every time. I weighed every food item I consumed every day, referring to the nutrition almanac to determine the exact number of grams of protein, carbohydrates, and fats and how many calories I ate daily. I plotted these four data points on a graph every day, and plotted my body weight and body fat percentage on a graph every week. Monitoring my nutrition became a science.

Tracking my workouts and food intake was my “accounting” function. Your brain may be telling you otherwise, but the numbers don’t lie. It’s easy to kid yourself to think you are making progress when you are not.

I might have a target of doing sets of bench presses with 400 pounds (185kg) on the bar by the end of the year. But if I’m currently only bench-pressing 350 pounds, then putting 400 pounds on the bar today and expecting to be able to lift it is both dangerous and stupid. Instead, I need to add a couple of extra pounds to the bar and work my way up to 400 pounds over time, something like the following:

I set my “green” level of performance as bench-pressing 355 pounds this month. During the month I’ll get used to doing sets and reps with that weight, and I’ll feel good about the progress I make. I’m working hard and “in the green” with my training for the whole month. Next month, I might raise my green level of KPI performance to 360 pounds. The month after that I could raise the green level to 365 pounds.

I train as hard as I can and make performance visible so I don’t kid myself into thinking I’m making progress when I’m not. I also need to make as much progress as possible, and that means setting aggressive goals. But I need to recalibrate my green performance threshold every month so that the weight I’m using and the reps I’m doing are relevant and achievable based on where I am in my training cycle. Sometimes that means lowering my monthly goal.

There’s a cycle to bodybuilding competition: You bulk up and get bigger and stronger for months (or years in my case), but then you have to start dieting to be ready for a competition. I had to follow a strict food discipline so that every bit of fat melted away to show my new, more muscular body underneath. That created another goal-setting challenge.

You see, your body weight has a direct correlation with how much weight you can lift, so, as my body weight plummeted, I had to adjust my lifting goals downward. In the bodybuilding pre-contest phase, lifting a weight that I could handle easily only a month or so before would quickly become impossible. When I was dieting, my exercise goals and green level of performance needed to be adjusted downward so they were achievable and relevant to the situation.

Every business I’ve ever seen has some kind of cycle to contend with. You must keep your goals relevant and achievable when you’re in the upward part of the cycle. Small wins along the way add up to big wins. But when you’re in a downward part of the cycle, you must adjust your goals to match the reality of the situation.


Many years later, the disciplines and lessons I learned from competitive bodybuilding continue to stand me in good stead. Physically, I’m a scaled-down version of my former self these days, but I still get up at 4 a.m. and work out 6 times per week, as well as practice yoga to keep in good shape.

I realized the core principles which enabled me to succeed as a bodybuilder could also be applied in business and that is where I have focused my energies since. As a business coach, I’ve had the privilege of personally working with many hundreds of CEOs, supporting them to create and execute their winning strategies, and as a speaker, I’ve been privileged to reach tens of thousands of businesses leaders around the world to help them achieve their goals.

Along the way, I captured the lessons learned in my book: Business Execution for RESULTS – A Practical Guide for Leaders of Small to Mid-Sized Firms.

This article contains a small selection of anecdotes included in the book. Whether you are a bodybuilder or a business leader, I trust you will find these lessons equally valuable.

Contains excerpts from the book: Business Execution for RESULTS, by Stephen Lynch


Until next time…