Here is a topic that needs some simple explanation to address the confusion among young athletes. In this article I will try to explain the difference between being “in shape” vs being “shredded.” This line of thought for me started a year or so ago when I recently finished my recent “bulking” phase.
What is Bulking?
For those who are unaware, bulking basically means that you train for muscle growth (hypertrophy), and skip the cardio to maximize your gains. So, as I was saying, I finished my bulking phase, and had not done any running, biking, skating, etc., for a couple of months. I was going on a hike with some of my friends (who I also train as athletes) and was commenting on how they were in much better shape than I was and they would beat me on the hike. They actually argued with me (I am known for being in great shape physically and going at a very brisk pace on hikes), stating that I was in shape, just look at me! Here is where they made the mistake: When it comes to the fitness and athletic world, looks can be very deceiving.
Take, for example, a bodybuilder. Let’s say Arnold Schwarzenegger in his prime (circa 1970). He looks jacked, strong, shredded, and in the prime of his career. He, however, is not “in shape.” The huge difference comes down to physiology, not aesthetics. To put it one way, one can be shredded, but not in shape, and one can be in-shape, but not look shredded. It all comes down to how one defines each phrase.
What It Means To Be In Shape
Being in shape means you are in good overall health and in good physical condition, particularly your cardiovascular and muscular endurance system (meaning you can go for a long time). Being shredded, jacked, or any other meathead term means you look like you lift, you have visible abs and definition in your muscles. When someone looks at a football lineman, the word “shredded” does not come to mind. However, these guys are in VERY good shape physically (both in strength and capacity).
When you look at a bodybuilder on stage who may fall over because they haven’t eaten anything other than celery and a breath of fresh air in 6 weeks, the term “shredded” definitely is what I think of, but in-shape is not. These big muscular dudes/gals probably couldn’t jog more than a few hundred meters before fainting, yet alone go all-out in a sporting event for 60-90 minutes. What I am trying to say is that while aesthetic goals are great and almost everyone wants to achieve them, it is very important to focus on what you need to do and train for that goal. If you are a bodybuilder and figure competitor, do your body part routine and experiment with the “juice.” If you are a high-performing athlete, stick with the (and I hate to use this term) “functional” training and leave your Bicep Curls at the DB rack.
In today’s society, everyone focuses too much on the outward appearance of athletes (and non-athletes) and gives praise to anyone with abs and some vascularity. When you go into any grocery store, all of the magazines have scantily-clad men and women with titles like “Get these Boisterous Biceps in 6 weeks” or “Starve yourself shredded in 5 easy steps!” While these sound amazing, as an athlete these are not paths you want to venture down.
Yes, having better body composition can be very beneficial in sports, as that can help you increase your relative strength and power metrics. However, doing what bodybuilders do to get the way they are will not help you. So, now to return to my earlier point on being “in-shape” vs “shredded.”
Training like a bodybuilder will get you shredded, as long as you are disciplined and stick to the program and nutritional recommendations too. However, you are not a bodybuilder. You are a high-performing athlete who needs to be able to perform at break-neck speeds and think on their feet while trusting that their body will respond when called upon at game time. For you, training like a bodybuilder will not improve your game, although it may look like it does.
Going back to my Arnold example, when people see someone like that, they think, “wow, he’s jacked and works hard. If I train to be strong like him that will help my game.” So, they spend hours doing Bicep Curls and DB Flys to develop muscles. Then when training camp rolls around, they look good. Everyone is impressed by their six-pack and the definition in their calves.
Then they get out on the field and—nothing. Their play suffers because they are carrying around all this extra muscle weight, but they don’t know how to properly use it in their sport. They get winded by the end of the warm-up because instead of doing sprints and shuttles, they were walking on the treadmill for 45 minutes in a fasted state to lose that last 0.5 pounds of fat on their left pec muscle. Due to the lack of conditioning and proper neuromuscular training (brain control of muscles in specific movements relating to sport), they don’t make the team or are relegated to being a bench player for the season. But, who cares, they have abs right? Sure, think what you want. In the end, YOU need to sort out your priorities.
However, if you value your sporting career and want to improve as an athlete and not just as a Greek god statue, let’s see how this could play out differently for you.
You go to the gym with your buddy, but while he jumps on the bicep machine or leg press, you head to the squat rack and do some Power Cleans, Squats and Deadlifts. You train movements not muscles. You perform sprints with adequate rest intervals to maximize your speed, and you throw in the odd set of Curls or Triceps Extensions when your program allows it.
By the end of the offseason, you look stronger. Not as big as your meathead buddy, but strong AND fit. You’ve been doing the conditioning at the end of your workouts as coach asked, and you feel ready for your season. You get to training camp and only one friend comments on how much better you look (because everyone else is trying to count how many abs your friend has). Then you put your jersey on (and you look the same as everyone else), and go out to play.
This is where the story differs drastically. You are the first one done every running/skating drill. You rip around everyone and score the most goals/get the most points in every scrimmage. You make it look effortless and you are having so much fun. Meanwhile, your buddy is the one struggling to catch his breath, can’t catch a pass because he can’t think past trying to move one foot in front of the other, and has to stop to catch his breath every second drill, which takes him away from the scout’s eyes and allows more time for you to shine.
In the end, yes, he has his abs and his biceps, but you just made the starting lineup for the team you were a long shot to make. It’s not about how hard you train (although you do need to train hard), but it is about training smart and doing what will make you better at your sport.
Train hard, but train smart!
Photo Credit: DjordjeDjurdjevic/iStock