Many of today’s coaches probably got their own start in the weight room after reading one of those classic muscle magazines. You know the ones—the mags that featured the “real” routines of the highest-level bodybuilders in the world. The mags that recommended a standard five-day body part split, and enough volume to keep you sore for an entire week. We loved feeling the pump, downing our post-workout protein shake, and not being able to sit down in a chair because our legs were in so much pain.
OK, maybe not that last one. But that was all we knew. And guess what? It worked—for a while.
Today, athletes have unlimited resources to teach them how to properly prepare for their sport. High-level coaches provide information for free all over the internet to help less-experienced individuals navigate the proper way to think, train and recover.
Most coaches steer clear of methods recommended by both old fitness magazines and modern bodybuilders in favor of a more “athletic” style of training. By athletic, I mean a style of training that helps athletes meet the demands of their sport rather than just look good shirtless. For the most part, this is justified.
But, is there a place for bodybuilding techniques in the sports performance realm? Should athletes ever train like bodybuilders?
To me, the answer is yes. I believe there is a place for bodybuilding-style training in athletics. The key is knowing how and when to use these methods.
What Does “Train Like a Bodybuilder” Mean?
When I say “train like a bodybuilder,” I’m referring to a style of training that is typically higher volume (more sets and reps), lower frequency (training each body part once per week), and more controlled (slower tempos, fixed planes of motion, isolation of specific body parts). A typical “bodybuilding chest workout” might include 5-6 exercises for 3-4 sets of 8-12 reps each, and would be performed with moderate weights at a controlled tempo with moderate rest periods.
This style of training has long been proven to build muscle.
A professional bodybuilder’s main objective is to look good on stage. Or, in the case of the average gym-goer (who would technically be considered a bodybuilder), to just look good, period. An aesthetic physique is the goal. Muscle size, shape and symmetry are the keys for success. Running faster, jumping higher and performing better in a given sport are not on the list of goals.
The Downside of Training Like a Bodybuilder
The main issue with athletes training like bodybuilders is that the workouts don’t prepare them for the physical demands of their sport. As previously mentioned, most bodybuilding routines are calculated, controlled and muscle-specific. Sports are none of these things.
A standard bodybuilding plan doesn’t typically focus on key athletic qualities such as speed, power, quickness and agility. Five sets of Concentration Curls may be able to help get you some nice biceps, but they aren’t really going to help you perform better on the field. Many of the isolation exercises necessary for bodybuilding aren’t going to give you the best bang for your buck in terms of sports performance.
Lastly, there does come a point in athletics where too much muscle can become an issue. While there’s no doubt that a larger muscle has the potential to be a stronger muscle, there’s certainly a point of diminishing returns. If muscle mass limits your ability to meet the demands of your sport due to issues such as a lack of mobility or faulty movement patterns, that’s a problem. More muscle also require more oxygen, so too much muscle mass could potentially limit endurance. And if you’re in a weight class sport, such as wrestling, you might not want to have to switch classes just because you’ve packed on too much muscle mass.
When Can an Athlete Train Like a Bodybuilder?
There are a few key areas where I believe bodybuilding-style training has a major benefit for sports.
Muscular imbalances are extremely common for athletes. The natural demands for most sports place an emphasis on one arm or leg over the other, or on upper vs. lower body. This typically creates significant weaknesses and leaves athletes susceptible to injury. To alleviate these imbalances and prevent further damage, it’s often necessary to add additional sets/reps to specific body parts.
Similarly, if an athlete has already experienced an injury, bodybuilding-style workouts may be the best place for them to begin training again. They clearly can’t jump right back on the playing field, nor can they participate in high intensity drills, but they can begin moving weights in a systematic and controlled environment. Building the muscles around the place of the injury will be key in getting them back to full strength and preventing further injuries.
If there’s one body part that I believe should be trained like a bodybuilder, it’s the upper back. Due to the everyday activities of most athletes (sitting, driving, texting, etc.), posture is almost always an issue. Compound that with the fact that many training programs still over-emphasize upper body pushing (Bench Press and Overhead Press), and you’ve got a recipe for disaster.
To correct this, do a ton of high-rep upper-back work. For every pressing exercise, perform two pulling exercises. Add a row variation to every one of your workouts. Warm up daily with Face Pulls and/or Band Pull Aparts in the 15- to 20-rep range.
As a bonus, a big, strong upper back will dramatically help performance in the major compound movements—Deadlift, Squat and Bench Press. A big back creates a platform to support heavier loads, and better stabilizes the body for these max effort lifts.
Pump It Up
Let’s face it: Chasing a muscle pump is fun (shoutout to Arnold). We all love to feel the blood rushing through our veins and our muscles bulging out so hard it feels like our skin might explode. It’s a feeling that Medicine Ball Throws and Cone Drills just can not deliver.
A few sets of Curls, Tricep Extensions and Lateral Raises every week aren’t going to hurt sports performance. They’re not going to take up a lot of time, either, nor are they going to require a lot of thought. So every now and then, it makes sense to program some bodybuilding-style training into a workout to let athletes look and feel their best.