Bodybuilding for the Athlete


Bodybuilding for the Athlete

Physique-based athletes train for purposes of aesthetics, and this is known as bodybuilding, which is a science unto itself.  What about non-physique oriented athletes though?  Should they incorporate bodybuilding into their training protocols?  Today’s article explores this topic.

As a strength and conditioning coach, I always have to consider how the exercise programming that I write for athletes transfers to their sport.  My first goal, besides safety, is to maximize transfer of training to sport specific goals in order to enhance performance.  So, is there any benefit to doing workouts where there is less obvious transfer, or perhaps an indirect transfer?  The farther an athlete’s training deviates from replicating the specific force-generation patterns of sports-specific movements, the less directly it carries over to improving the neuromuscular coordination of that movement. Yet, in this article, we’ll look at how less specific bodybuilding training is important for the athlete.

First, let me define the goal of bodybuilding training, which is hypertrophy.  This is a fancy way of describing a training protocol to make muscles larger, which is much easier said than done.  Science has conclusively proven that getting stronger always improves sports performance, but getting stronger and hypertrophy are not the same thing, and this is a common misconception.  Training for pure strength is a very different protocol than training for hypertrophy.  So, with respect to training for the purpose of increasing muscle size, here are 3 ways that bodybuilding can transfer to improved sports performance.

Larger Muscles are Protective against Force 

The laws of physics say that a larger surface area dissipates impact force and vibration better than smaller surface areas.  From the perspective of athletics, this means that more muscle mass will better dissipate impact force and vibration caused by things that happen regularly in sports – falling, getting punched, getting checked, and/or tackling/getting tackled.

More specifically, the way this works is by spreading out the force over a greater area so that no single area of the  body bears the brunt of concentrated force.  Bodybuilding training gives the athlete larger muscles to help dissipate external impact forces, but it actually does more than just this.  

Stronger On Your Feet

Do you know what the athletic position is in sports?  It’s a standing position, with legs slightly wider than shoulder width apart, and knees slightly bent.  For all athletes, it is crucial to be strong in this position, from a balance, coordination and leverage perspective.  Think about fighting for a loose ball, puck, etc…against an opponent.  You need to be strong.  Studies show that one’s horizontal pushing force (from a standing position) is limited to about 40 percent of body weight.

Contrast that with a vertical pushing force (think bench press).  Many athletes, even at the high school level, can bench press more than 1x their body weight.  One of the implications of this is that the heavier you are, the more horizontal and diagonal pushing force you can produce from the standing position, because you have more body weight from which to push.  Remember, we are talking about athletes here, not overweight, sedentary people.  Unless you are a jockey, gymnast or marathoner, heavier is almost always better in the world of sports, so long as the heavier is in the form of muscle, and NOT body fat.

Bodybuilding style training increases muscle size and muscles weigh more and are more metabolically active than body fat.  So, by working on hypertrophy, you actually receive a number of benefits:  improved metabolic health, a healthy increase in body weight, and lower body fat.  From an athletic perspective, this will allow you to better use your strength by providing a greater platform from which to push against your opponents. It can also give you a better chance to avoid getting knocked over or off balance. So, gaining muscle mass can give you more push-force production ability (i.e., strength) from a standing position.

Hit Harder/Throw Harder

There is an interesting study that focused on baseball pitchers that found that increased body weight is highly correlated to increased pitch velocity.  Throwing is a very similar athletic movement as striking in combat sports, which is to say that it is a total-body action that generates force from the ground up.  If you take out the variables in technical/skills ability, this says that bigger athletes will almost always throw and punch harder than smaller athletes, because they have more body weight behind the movement.  Hypertrophy training is great for helping to increase body weight through increases that are predominantly lean muscle mass.


If you are an athlete, don’t think of training methods as being exclusive.  The top priority should always be to work on your sports specific skills and train in a fashion that has direct transfer to your sport.  The best example that I can think of is hockey.  The most fundamental skill is skating.  If you can’t skate, then you can’t participate, except maybe as water boy/girl.

There is a time and a place for bodybuilding style training and it is very effective for the majority of athletes. Incorporating this type of training in the off-season is ideal. A training plan that exclusively focuses on only one thing leaves potential benefits untapped, since each method offers unique training benefits that other methods lack.  In contrast, a training plan that combines both specific and general methods enables you to achieve superior results by helping you build a more athletic body.

Highly respected coach Nick Tumminello says “The arguments about specific versus general exercise (i.e., movement-focused versus muscle-focused) are ridiculous. They’re like arguing about whether you should eat vegetables or fruits. Avoiding one or the other will leave your diet deficient. That’s why nutrition experts always encourage eating a “colorful diet,” with a variety of both vegetables and fruits, because they all have a different ratio of vitamins and minerals.”

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