I remember the first time that I stepped into a college weight room. I was confused because it was very different from any training I had done before in my life. The idea that lifting could help me beyond just looking good excited me. I had been lifting since I was 12, but never anything like what I saw in the weight room. I had been training for years like a bodybuilder. It gave me the physique I wanted, but I never ran faster, hit the ball farther, jumped higher, or anything else useful for an athlete because of it.
My experience is not unique, and there are many athletes who miss the mark because they believe all training is created equal. If the workout is hard, it must make you better. This is not inherently wrong, but better looking is not the same as a better athlete. This article will compare strength and conditioning to typical bodybuilding training. Neither forms of training are right or wrong. It all depends on your goals in training. For that reason, I will start with the goals of training as an Athlete and as a bodybuilder.
Goals: Body Builder
The goal of a bodybuilder is to Increase overall muscular size regardless of increases in strength, power, or overall function.
The goal of an athlete is to increase strength and power in functional patterns that are specific for sport regardless of increases in overall muscular size, taking into consideration how training affects the risk of injury.
The goals of a bodybuilder and an athlete couldn’t be more different. For that reason, their training should be just as different. There are a few exceptions, such as football lineman or throwers in track who do need a size for their sport, and even those examples are certainly very different kinds of size increases than a bodybuilder. Now let’s take a look at how these varying goals play out in the weight room.
Characteristics of Body-Building
1. Training to Failure
When bodybuilders train, they are focusing on creating as much muscle breakdown and fatigue as possible in a specific muscle group. Every day a bodybuilder will likely train their muscles exhaustion in at least one of their exercises.
2. High Volume Lower Intensity
The vast majority of body builder’s workouts are going to be high volume 8-12 reps at a controlled pace with relatively low intensity.
3. Short Range of motions
Body Builders train in a shorter range of motions for a couple of reasons. Firstly, they want to increase time under tension. A shorter range of motion keeps the muscles working during the entire set. Bodybuilders do not lockout on any repetition except their last one because locking out even for a moment stacks the bones on top of each other, and less muscle activity is needed to remain there. The second reason is that shorter ranges of motion create tightness, which can actually be beneficial for a bodybuilder. When a muscle is tight, that means that it is in a shortened state. When the muscle is in a shortened state, the fibers are stacked on top of each other, giving the muscle the appearance of being larger. When the goal is purely aesthetics, this is actually a good thing.
4. PNF Fatigue
This goes along with training to exhaustion, but bodybuilding style training produces significantly greater fatigue in the peripheral nervous system than in the central nervous system. This means that the brain is still able to send impulses, but the impulses cannot get the muscle to contract because of built-up fatigue.
5. Single Joint Movements
Bodybuilders will typically perform their exercises in single-joint isolation movements. They will use free weight or isolation machines to achieve this. This goes along with their goal of working to exhaustion. The best way to work a muscle to fatigue is to engage it without the assistance of any other joint or muscle group. Even the movements that are more compound in nature will be performed in a way that reduces the involvement of other joints. For example: performing an RDL instead of performing a trap bar deadlift because it will reduce the glute and quad involvement in the lift.
6. Isolating Muscle Groups
This goes along with single-joint movements. The reason a bodybuilder will only work one joint at a time is so that they can focus on a single muscle group. A typical bodybuilding program will pick one or two complimentary muscle groups in a single day to train. For example, having a day devoted to back and biceps and another day devoted to chest and triceps.
7. Unilateral and Bilateral Training
Being balanced is crucial for a bodybuilder, not necessarily for injury prevention as it is for an athlete, but because symmetry is a scoring criterion in bodybuilding competitions. For this reason, bodybuilders utilize some forms of unilateral training (dumbbell work primarily) in order to prevent one limb from taking more of the load at the expense of symmetry.
8. Training at Multiple Joint Angles
A bodybuilder will train at multiple joint angles because when you train at a different joint angle, it can change the prime mover. The easiest example is the bench press, where a bodybuilder will utilize a decline, flat, and incline bench to recruit muscle fibers from different sections of the Pectoralis. All three engage the Pec muscles, but different fibers play a more important role as the joint angle changes. This is an even more extreme form of isolation training, where you not only emphasize one muscle at a time but one section of one muscle.
9. Lifting Frequency 5-7 Days Per Week
The nature of bodybuilding allows for the lifting frequency to be much higher than athlete training. The isolation movements allow the bodybuilder to train to complete exhaustion in one muscle group while leaving the rest of his body with little to no fatigue at all. PNF fatigue is also very localized to the area trained, so this style of training allows the bodybuilder to safely train three or more days in a row without putting the lifter at risk of overtraining.
10. Speed of Contraction is Irrelevant
For a bodybuilder, it does not matter if they are able to produce force rapidly. They may utilize power movements as a method of cross-training or to increase hypertrophy in Type IIX muscle fibers, but for a bodybuilder, function (speed of contraction is a functional component of training) is irrelevant.
Characteristics of Athlete’s Training
1. Very rarely training to failure
The only time an athlete should fail during a lift is if they are maxing out or if they are working on building hypertrophy. Training to failure is training the muscle to give out under external load, and that is something that cannot happen in the competition field.
2. Low volume High Intensity
This is certainly not always the case, but athletes will typically work in lower volume ranges 1-6 reps for higher intensity.
3. Full Range of Motions
Athletes train in full ranges of motion, which includes locking out for two primary reasons. The first is that training in a short range of motion makes an athlete tight. Some muscle tension is good. Too much can increase the risk of musculoskeletal injury. Training in a longer range of motion has actually been shown to be equally if not more effective than static stretching. The second reason is that strength at end ranges is crucial for athletic movements. The ability to forcefully extend the hips is how athletes are able to sprint and jump. If the athlete never trains their hips to fully extend, then they will not be overly effective as an athlete.
4. CNS Fatigue
The training that athletes use is going to fatigue the Central Nervous System far more than the Peripheral. This is important for an athlete because most adaptations for strength and power need to come from the Central Nervous system. When you fatigue the CNS, the brain is not able to get effective electrical impulses to the muscles to cause a coordinated contraction.
5. Multi-joint Movements
Athletes Train multi-joint movements because nearly all athletic movements involve multiple joints working at the same time in unison. Training should replicate what the athlete is going to see on the playing field, so that must include multi-joint movements
6. Compound Movements
Since athletes use multi-joint movements, all of their movements are going to involve multiple muscle groups. This is in contrast to bodybuilders who isolate sections of individual muscles. Athletes work multiple groups of muscles at the same time because no muscle works in isolation on the sports field.
7. Unilateral and Bilateral Training
Athletes use a balance between unilateral and bilateral exercises. Unilateral training is important for injury prevention, coordination, balance, and functional strength, while bilateral is much more effective in developing max strength and power.
8. Training at Multiple Joint Angles
An athlete trains at multiple different joint angles, not to isolate or hypertrophy a section of a muscle. The athlete’s body needs to be able to produce and resist forces in a variety of joint angles due to the nature of the sport. It is important to have a variety of joint angles to reduce the risk of injury and optimize performance.
9. Lifting frequency 3-4 Days Per Week
Due to the nature of strength training athletes will use, they cannot lift more than 3-4 times a week. Athletes are using compound multi-joint movements that work large sections of the body. CNS fatigue also has much more of a global effect than PNS. For this reason, an athlete needs greater recovery time between lifts than a bodybuilder. An athlete is more likely to have a program that involves three full-body lifts per week with a day off between each or an upper-body lower body split for four days per week.
10. Speed of Contraction is Crucial
The speed of contraction is one of the most important trainable attributes of an athlete. An essential component of training an athlete is to increase the rate of force development. The person who is able to produce force faster is likely a better athlete.
The Differences between bodybuilding and training as an Athlete are numerous, and I have not listed them all here. Still, there is a time and a place for an athlete and a strength coach to take some lessons from bodybuilders. Bodybuilders are experts in bulking up, so it is beneficial to utilize some of their techniques during the off-season when increases in muscular size is a focal point. Some things though an athlete should never adopt from a bodybuilder, such as; compromising speed of contraction or avoiding end ranges of motion. If you want to optimize your performance, training as a bodybuilder is not for you.