Bodybuilders are insane, in a good way. Some consider bodybuilding a sport, and others view it as an art. Regardless of the meaningless classification, it’s the hardest one there is, in my opinion. No sport or art demands more time, energy, and perhaps even finances than bodybuilding does. The workout volume is incredibly high, and the food expenses may require a second mortgage. For high-level bodybuilders, it really is a year-round, 24/7 effort. It demands all of your time. I don’t think any other sport can claim those outside strongman competitors (for similar reasons).
As you probably know, bodybuilding is about building as much as possible while being as lean as possible. There’s more to it, but that’s the basic idea. And to build as much as possible, you have to tear it down as much as possible. That happens through high-intensity, usually high-volume weight training. Building muscle is a very, very hard thing to do unless you are blessed with great genetics. Most people cannot deliver the intensity needed, consistency, or the diet required to build high amounts of muscle. It’s possible for all, but it’s usually a high price to pay that many cannot afford.
That leads to the article. The best way to build muscle is to train to failure. It isn’t the only way. Some newbies stare at dumbbells and grow an inch to their biceps—scientifically proven fact. But for the most part, especially for moderate to advanced-level athletes, training to failure is the only way building muscle will happen.
Why You Don’t Want to Build Muscle
Most athlete with aspirations of playing at the next level wants bigger muscles. And rightfully so. The best athletes tend to have the most muscle. However, from an exercise science perspective, there are seasons when trying to build muscle isn’t appropriate. Intra-season is definitely the worst time to do it. It’s also pretty accepted that the pre-season isn’t a great time to focus on building muscle, either. It’s the offseason where muscle building and overall bulking need to take place.
The reasoning why building muscle isn’t a great idea in-season is relatively simple.
- it requires too much energy, not allowing the athlete to recover properly
- it takes too much time away from practice
- you are already getting beat up from the season; bodybuilding-style lifting will only make it worse
All these reasons are under the same umbrella. It’s too much. Almost all athletes lose muscle over the course of a vigorous season, as the games and practices take up time, and most athletes cannot keep up with the calorie or recovery demands to retain the muscle.
Why You Do Want to Build Muscle
As was said, the offseason is the perfect time to build muscle. During the offseason, you DO have time to recover, and you aren’t going through the rigors of a season.
Bigger muscles offer larger potential. An athlete with bigger muscles is likely stronger, more powerful, and faster than those with little muscle. Every sport is different, and there are only certain amounts of muscle you should have before it starts hurting performance. A 300lb lineman should never beat a 160lb cornerback in a 40-yard dash, even though the lineman has more muscle. Still, for the most part, more muscle leads to better things.
Why Building Muscle Shouldn’t Be The Main Focus
As highlighted above, building muscle is usually a good idea, as it can be helpful for athletes. There are essentially four major attributes in weightlifting:
- Building muscle (hypertrophy)
Of all these, building muscle is the least (or maybe second least, depending on the sport) of the four attributes. Muscle size doesn’t directly correlate to performance. But strength, power, and endurance do.
You’ve heard the saying that muscle weighs more than fat. That’s true. Muscle is heavy and dense. It weighs a lot and could slow you down. That’s why strength training matters much more than muscle-building strategies. Having an optimal strength-to-weight ratio is extremely helpful for most athletics. You only want just enough muscle that is necessary. Any more muscle gives you a negative return on investment. There are almost no scenarios where getting stronger is a bad idea, but the same isn’t true for building muscle.
The same goes for power and endurance. Power is the ability to displace weight in as little time as possible. Vertical jumps, the stride in a sprint, throwing a fastball, and hitting the ball or the lineman in front of you are all examples of high power. Training for power means being explosive. Hopefully, I don’t need to explain the importance of that to an athlete.
Training to Build Muscle vs. Strength and Power
As stated earlier, training to build muscle requires lots of volume, and the best results involve training to failure. This can be catastrophic to the nervous system. Research shows that training for failure requires a lot of time to recover, up to several days. Athletes cannot afford to spend that much time recovering in the middle of a season—failure to recover means lower energy for the next practice and a heightened risk for injury.
Strength and power training is not as taxing. The intensity is still very high, but the volume is much lower, and the rest breaks are longer. In bodybuilding or muscle-building protocols, the aim is to tax the muscle as much as possible in a short amount of time. Training for strength and power (more relevant to athletes) involves using the muscles as explosively as possible in short bouts of effort, requiring long rest breaks for best results.
There are lots of debates in the exercise industry. I’m not going to pretend my exact thoughts are the best, as new research always points in subtly different directions. However, it’s widely agreed that to develop strength and power in the weight room efficiently, you need to leave a little room in the tank. Training to failure usually leads to technical breakdowns, increasing the likelihood of injury. Training to failure also creates unnecessary amounts of fatigue that are hard to recover from. Training to failure should primarily happen in the offseason, if ever at all. It needs to be carefully programmed by a professional. It should really never be a priority unless building lots of muscle in a short amount of time is your top priority. But when strength and/or power training, don’t go to failure.
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