Should Athletes Train Like Bodybuilders?


When I was a kid I was extremely active.  I played outside every day.  I jumped off the roof of my house, I rode my bicycle everywhere, jumped it over obstacles, raced it up and down the hill we lived on, went swimming and also ran everywhere.  I was still a chubby kid by the time I got to 6th grade and my parents were very critical of my body weight.  At the age of 12 I received my first set of sand filled weights and my fitness journey began.  I started running EVERY day for MILES and I began to lift.  I purchased one of Joe Weider’s bodybuilding books and I was off to the races. 

        I got HUGE!  My genetics allowed me to get big, rounded muscle bellies, not a whole lot of definition at first, but I figured if I kept running harder and longer, that would fix it.  Now I was maybe 5 feet 5 inches tall and weighed about 180 pounds when I started at age 12, and by age 13 I was ripped with massive 13 inch arms and almost 24 inch thighs.  I was about 5 feet 6 inches tall and weighed about 175 with a 26 inch waist.  I was phenomenal looking.

        So, there I was with all this muscle but nothing to use it on…in the early 80’s club sports were not a thing, except for baseball and since my parents were never going to spend the money for that, it was not an option.  I continued to play sports in the neighborhood, basketball, baseball, swimming, running and of course weight lifting.  When I got to my freshman year in high school, I was asked if I wanted to try out for football. Because of my muscular development, I was strong and well built, and because I had always been a runner and sprinter, I was very fast at the 40 yard dash for a guy my size. 

       It was not long after we began the “weightlifting” portion, that I realized that there were technical movements that I could NOT perform no matter how hard I tried to muscle the weights up.  Clean and Jerk, Heavy squats, dead lifts, snatch and heavy bench press.  My max weights were VERY low.  I was not able to lift as much as my less “in shape” friends and that was embarrassing to me.  The coaches were NOT too knowledgeable in the movements themselves so it was more of a “last man standing” mind set when it came to weight training. 

        How could that be?  I had a lot of visible muscle yet was not as strong as some of the other players.  I was not happy with my “gains,” I could not see my abs and my definition was suffering because I was lifting near max weights for 3-5 reps. I couldn’t get my “pump on.”  I really felt that unless I could get my pump, I would never be as strong as everyone else.

        This story is very typical of how most athletes first experience weightlifting for sports.  MOST coaches do not always have an understanding of how to build up an athlete…with some going as far as recommending cross country running for soccer players and swimmers.  Never having lifted weights before, let alone mastered basic movements, most athletes struggle with the amounts they are told they need to lift to be as strong as their peers.  Athletes end up getting injured due to poor form, poor body mechanics, awareness and a general lack of programming. 

        Is a bodybuilder as strong as a professional athlete?  They carry so much muscle and look like a side of beef that it makes sense they should be strong.  Bodybuilders will claim they are just as strong as athletes, and PHYSICALLY they can lift almost everything an athlete can; HOWEVER, it is what happens to their bodies that matters.  You don’t get a pump from strength training, and your body doesn’t look like that super fit guy in the magazine at the store.

  Another difference is the adaptations that take place in the body.  When lifting for strength and power, we avoid the “pump” and focus on the most efficient and explosive way to get the weight moving.  This causes the body to strengthen the joints, tendons and ligaments and make the muscles much more efficient at transferring energy between body parts.  A bodybuilder has to isolate the exercise movements to try and tear down that particular muscle group so that it rebuilds itself stronger and hopefully, bigger.  To this effect they will select exercises that are single joint…to focus on a particular muscle or group and aim for a rep scheme of 8-15 for 5-10 sets.  Yeah…I used to work out like this too.  Athletes experience a tear down of muscles from constantly practicing and playing their chosen sport, so why continue to do so in the weight room?  Most athletes will practice their sport once or twice a day and STILL have to make it into the weight room, so how much time do they really want to spend in there?

Being athletic is not a look.  It is the ability to perform in your chosen sport with speed, agility, grace, balance and power.  Some athletes DO have certain muscles that are bigger and look almost like models, and yes, there is a LITTLE room to grow certain groups…usually it’s the abs and arms for boys and legs and abs for girls.  One of my old team mates on my high school football team worked out his arms RELIGIOUSLY but they did NOT seem to help him when he was trying to cut or change direction quickly.  The majority of a Strength and Conditioning program should be focused on the Speed, Agility, Strength, Conditioning and POWER components of sports. Train for the demands of your sport and this will serve you better than trying to become the next Arnold Schwarzenegger. 

        As coaches, we need to continuously research training methods and we need to focus on the athletes mastering the basic mechanics of movement BEFORE we start loading them with resistance.  If we don’t educate our athletes correctly from the BEGINNING, they will eventually try to figure it out by themselves and we’ll end up with a team of mini-bodybuilders that can’t run, twist turn or jump thereby frustrating coaches and parents alike and leaving everyone to wonder, “…how can he/she not perform better when they look like that..?!?”   -Coach Art