Why Bodybuilding Training Falls Short of Athletic Performance Needs

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Typical body building style weightlifting falls short of sport performance for three key reasons:

It’s too Isolated:  The goal of bodybuilding is simply and succinctly to make muscles bigger. Bodybuilders implore specific days to train chest and triceps back and biceps and every now and then, legs.  In performance, muscle specific exercises are usually done for rehab and performance care means. Remember, those simply having big muscles won’t make a better athlete, and if done incorrectly, could decrease your athleticism.

It’s not heavy enough.  To get stronger (not including beginners) you need to stimulate the brain to use large amounts of muscle fibers, quickly.  This happens from lifting heavy weights, especially in sagittal plane movements (forward/back/up and down) as they can usually be loaded heavier due to how the body is built.  Typical body builder style lifting actually causes endurance adaptations in muscles because they typically are 10-20 repetitions and are purposely slow to break muscle down.  Much of the “bulk” in the guys at the gym is largely water due to increased aerobic nutrients. Along with bigger muscles the only time an athlete needs to lift in such high volume for isolated exercises is during rehabilitation, or certain injury prone areas.

It’s not functional.  When in the world is a rugby player doing anything remotely like a mere cable triceps extension, or anything that doing that contributes to?  Conversely, when would a quidditch athlete (you tube it-no time to explain) need to be explosive off of one leg?  Often, if you watched the video, just like every other field sport.  Most body building programs (and arguably a number of strength and fitness programs) don’t include ANY rotational training, meanwhile nearly all sports put athletes in position to rotate and move in combinations of left, up, and around all at the same time.  In football (soccer) points are scored on max intensity efforts, parts of training needs to reflect that.   Athletes simply have different needs for sport, which means the training must be different. Doing curls in the squat rack doesn’t equate to this. Nor does the leg extension machine.

Having said all that, I will highlight a few points about what is best for gaining strength.  I will refer to athletes no younger than their late teens who have some prior weightlifting experience and have more of a developed body.

Compound movements.  Compound movements (uses more than one joint) give more bang for your buck.   Competing in sports consists of movements, not flexing muscles.  Therefore an athlete should train movements forward, sideways, and rotationally.  Squats, rotational cable or medicine ball lifts, lunges, pull ups, step ups, cable presses, etc. are examples of compound movements that target large muscle groups in particular, and require varying amounts of total body stability, very important for sport.

Make the exercises heavy.  Flat out, with movements like squats, presses, deadlifts, etc. where an athlete is using both legs/arms, the load should be a weight that can’t be lifted more than 6 times.  Studies show that strength gains are increased best with heavy weights and less repetitions, due to the strength of the neuromuscular signals coming from the brain.  Sets like 5×5, 6×4, 6×2, 8×1 are often used with heavy exercises throughout training cycles, although the timing and decision about when to do those must be very intentional and understood.  Rotational movements typically do not fall under this rule as it is hard to get too heavy under such conditions.  These and supplemental exercises that are usually smaller movements (such as shoulder press, lateral lunge) will be effective to do in the 7-10 repetition range.  There are appropriate times for lifting beyond 6 reps with “main lifts” but rarely is it ever beyond 12.

Rest and recover.  With neuromuscular challenging sessions, there is a central nervous fatigue that’s induced due to repeatedly using large amounts of muscle in short efforts (think a 100m sprinter racing four times in a competition).  There generally isn’t too much soreness that happens with this in training, just a likely decrease in performance the next day or two if an athlete were to try to lift it again.  Such training sessions takes 2-3 days to recover from and if an athlete is elite, this can be four days and beyond (they expend more effort).  It must be stressed that appropriate rest is a part of training.  One only actually gets better when you are resting.  “The grind” is only as effective as its recovery techniques.  Mobility stretches, foam rolling, and sleep are imperative to recovery with proper nutrition.  An intentionally planned training program gets the most gains with the least effort possible, of course while still going hard.

In sports, it’s imperative that athletes are trained to be athletes, not body builders.  There are many other factors at play in regards to weight training for athletes, especially rotationally, but that’s outside the scope of this article.  Also understand, that this information can be privy to YOU who may not be an athlete but wants to achieve high levels of strength.