Are Bodybuilding Workouts Appropriate for Athletes?

STACK Expert Matt Tanneberg explains the differences between strength training for bodybuilders and performance athletes.

Are bodybuilding workouts appropriate for athletes? The short answer is no. There is, however, an element of bodybuilding training that athletes can incorporate into their routines.

Who has seen a meathead working out at their gym? Everyone raise your hand. How many of you have seen a meathead throw a baseball or a football? How about shoot a basketball? Elite and aspiring athletes don't need to build muscle the same way that bodybuilders do. Athletes need to maintain and develop lean muscle mass. Beginner and high school athletes are still growing and will be able to develop muscle; however, it is not the same muscle mass that a bodybuilder is working toward.

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Bodybuilding is all about developing muscle mass. The lifts are slow and controlled, and sometimes negative lifts are used to build as much muscle as possible. Athletes need to develop sport-specific and movement-based strength. Basketball players must develop leaping ability. Hockey players must develop lateral and rotational strength through different planes of motion. Baseball players must develop fast-twitch muscle fibers with rotational strength. Football players must develop traditional strength along with speed, quickness and lateral movement.

The big problem with bodybuilding training for performance athletes is that bodybuilding traditionally occurs all in one plane. Think of the Bench Press for example. No rotational or diagonal movement is involved. When in a sport are you only moving in one plane? Hardly ever. Athletes move in multiple planes at all times, with their upper and lower bodies doing different motions in different planes at the same time.

Also, bodybuilders focus on developing muscles, not movement. For example, many bodybuilding exercises isolate a specific muscle. Training in this compartmentalized fashion does build muscle, no doubt. But when you get stronger, you need all of your muscles to work together in a cohesive fashion. If you have imbalances or lack the neurological ability to fire your muscles in a coordinated fashion, then one muscle may give out—as shown in STACK's bodybuilder versus athlete 40-Yard Dash article.

The kind of strength athletes must develop includes core stability with lateral movement, rotational elements and upper- and lower-body coordination. Ideally, athletes strive for cardio capacity, strength, plyometric power and mobility. Circuits that include full-body movements—strength training combined with cardio and plyometrics—are ideal for athletes in any sport.

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The one element of bodybuilding that athletes can use in their training programs is the compound set. In a compound set, you perform two exercises that work the same muscle group in quick succession—e.g., working your chest with a set of Bench Presses followed directly by a set of Push-Ups. Athletes can use compound sets in their training on occasion, but they must be careful to strengthen their backs as much as their chests, their hamstrings as much as their quads, etc. Asymmetries and imbalances throughout the body are one of the biggest risk factors for injuries in athletes.

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