Athletes are not bodybuilders. Now, before I get shoved into a gym locker by 250 pounds of hairless muscle, let me clarify; a bodybuilder is an athlete within the confines of their sport, but they’re atypical. Bodybuilders need muscles for “show,” while most athletes need muscles for “go.”
A bodybuilder doesn’t need to absorb impact, generate force while managing instability, cut, plant, pivot or any of the myriad things most field and court athletes need to do. With such different needs, why do so many young athletes model their training split after a bodybuilder’s? And what kinds of alternatives do they have?
The Influence of Bodybuilding
Find someone who doesn’t know who Arnold Schwarzenegger is. Go ahead, I’ll wait. Better yet, find someone in a gym who doesn’t know the Austrian Oak, hasn’t seen Predator or Terminator or Conan the Barbarian. The fact of the matter is that strength training, particularly in the mainstream, owes an enormous debt to bodybuilding, not just Arnold but greats like Frank Zane, Lou Ferrigno and Steve Reeves.
In addition to these literally larger-than-life figures occupying so much space in our pop culture–after all they gave us the Terminator, the Incredible Hulk and Hercules–their results are rather hard to miss. An elite athlete in street clothes may or may not look like one, but it’s hard to miss Ferrigno’s 22 1/2-inch biceps. And while an enormous number of young athletes don’t have access to a true strength and conditioning professional, almost anyone can find a bodybuilding magazine or their online cousins.
While some of the methodology rooted in bodybuilding has its place in an athlete’s training plan–any coach worth his clipboard understands the overload principle–we can make better use of your “arm day” by looking at how a training split can fit an athlete rather than vice versa. With that in mind, here are five training splits for athletes, as well as a quick look at the benefits of each.
Strength and speed are skills, as much a product of neuromuscular efficiency as they are of muscular size, and like all skills, practice makes perfect. There’s an old adage that illustrates our intuitive understanding of this concept: If you were told your life depended on adding 100 pounds to your Bench Press in a year, how often would you bench? Often dismissed as only for beginners, a full-body training plan can offer benefits to people of any training age; I’ve got more than 20 years of training under my weight belt and am seeing tremendous results from a full-body approach to my own training.
Pro-Tip: Frequency over volume! If you’re squatting four days a week, it’s best not to hit too many sets or variations. Experience is the best guide, but 3-4 sets per workout for the big lifts is a good starting place. Training days can simply be duplicates of each other, or slight variations for a more robust movement library.
- Barbell Row
- Incline Bench
- Cable Row
- Military Press
A running back or a lineman, a goalie or a forward, hockey players or tennis player, just about every court and field sport in existence demands two things of the athlete—linear (straight line) and multidirectional (lateral or rotational) movement and force generation. The hockey player’s fast-break speed requires linear force, while their slapshot is multidirectional. A running back jukes and cuts (multidirectional) and then powers through the hole in the defense (linear). By splitting their training according to the demands placed on their body, the athlete can focus on prepping, rehearsing, and developing speed, strength and power in those movements more effectively. Linear days tend to be big and basic, while multidirectional days introduce different planes (directions) of motion, and often demand the athlete either create or resist a rotational force. Although incomplete, a basic strength block might look something like this:
- Lateral Lunge
- Single-Arm Landmine Press
- Single Arm KB Swing
- Quadruped Dumbbell Row
- Single Arm Power Sled Row
This split is just a fancy way of saying front and back, and by splitting the body in this particular way we can challenge muscles that work together in sport in a similar way in our training. Over the past few decades kinesiology (the study of the mechanics of body movements) has looked increasingly at what are often referred to as myofascial “chains.” In simple terms, these are groups of muscles that, rather than existing in isolation on an anatomy chart, work together to generate force.
Some of the most powerful chains of muscle are run from head to toe along the front and back of the skeleton. This training split can be as simple as pairing lower-body knee-dominant or push movements like a squat with upper-body push movements like the bench or jerk, or as complex as finding movements that require muscles to produce force in a more integrated fashion–the power sled row mentioned above being a great example, or hamstrings, glutes and lats all firing in sequence to pull a sled.
While not as fancy or technical in nature as some of the other training splits mentioned, focusing on bilateral (both arms or legs) and unilateral (one arm or leg) movement patterns subjects the athlete to a variety of forces missing from the bodybuilder’s workout. Usually built around a full-body approach to each training day, the change in focus gives the athlete different loading intensities (and subsequent central nervous system demands), different forces to both generate and resist, a stability component that can have huge carryover to the field of play, and possibly most importantly, unilateral work often looks a lot more like most sporting movements than its bilateral counterpart.
For clarity, here’s a quick look at another sample training split:
- Barbell Row
- Reverse Lunge
- Single Arm Dumbbell Bench
- Single Leg RDL
- Single Arm Dumbbell Row
- Single Arm Overhead Kettlebell Press
This is anything but a comprehensive list of the training splits available to the athlete, and the workouts listed above are basic by design. Instead, they crack open the door toward a more effective training method, and are meant to help you find ways to mold your training to your sport rather than your sport to your training.