We hear it all the time – bodybuilding is useless, a vain activity resulting in weak, pumped muscles which serve only the purpose of making insecure or overly self-conscious men feel better about themselves. And to me, at least, these words are as unnerving as they get.
Not A Vanity Fair
I’ll actually give you the vain part, although in a much milder way. Sure, there is a degree of vanity in bodybuilding – heck, the purpose of it is to look better for other people. Even though trainees are reluctant to admit it, a vast majority of them comes in here due to being unsatisfied with their appearance. Now, do we label each concern with one’s superficial look as vain is another matter altogether, although I, personally, consider this to be too extreme. Surely there are some people who think that they have no other qualities besides their bodies (or bodies they strive to get) and that having big muscles will bring them all the joy in the world, but this is a radical minority, present in any subculture.
There is, per se, nothing wrong with being unsatisfied with a part of yourself (not necessarily physical, it can be a matter of character, lifestyle, education, etc.) and wanting to correct it, and there’s absolutely no vanity there. If it will make you happier (and it will, as long as you keep it in perspective with other things in life), why not go for it?
Most non-trainees don’t understand that people who’ve been lifting for some time are no longer training for these “vain” reasons – most of them, including myself, train simply because that’s their hobby or sport, something they love and which became a part of their life. If I got into it because I got sick and tired of being a 55 kg weakling (and perceived as such), with scoliosis and illnesses coming basically every month, does that make me a bad, self-obsessed person?
I think not, but, again, people who usually throw the “vanity & co.” argument at us neither understand nor make an effort to think in the line which I had just followed – I, therefore, see their objections are irrelevant.
This was more or less a rant – you may agree or disagree with me, it really means nothing since it’s a matter of personal opinion and point of view. The other part of the “annoying statement”, however, can be examined in a more objective way, and this is what we’re going to do in this article – show that the common idea of piles of useless bodybuilding muscle is, in a vast majority of cases, and almost universally when natural trainees are concerned, a myth and nothing more. So, let’s get to work.
The myth we’re trying to dispel is composed of a number of different misconceptions which are more or less related to each other. We’ll strike them each with a short elaboration on why are the assumptions they’re based upon incorrect and where does the actually truth lie. I would just like to mention that this isn’t an article on longevity and quality of life improvements which come through bodybuilding – here, we focus on why perceiving bodybuilders as poor athletes is wrong. A text on those topics could be twice as big as this one is.
Bodybuilding Results In Too Much Muscle
Lack of truth in the title of this section is rather obvious, and needs no particular elaboration. Getting so big that your normal, everyday functioning is impaired just isn’t going to happen – without steroid usage. As I have said in one of my previous articles, there is a limit a how much muscle can a natural trainee obtain, and it’s far below the amount which indeed causes problems in real life (those interested can search for forum threads in which “big” bodybuilders (weighing in excess of 250 lbs at heights at or under 6 feet) discuss mobility issues which they encounter, alongside some other health problems such as sleep apnea and those related to circulation).
Another aspect of this misconception deals with gaining lots of muscle mass fast – non-bodybuilders who hear that their friend is going to the gym commonly expect him to burst to Arnold-like proportions in a matter of weeks or months. Again, those who have been in the iron game for a while know this to be completely false. It doesn’t matter if you’re gullible or playing blind and deaf to the steroid usage in modern bodybuilding – if you’re natural, you have, most likely, already noticed that muscle gain is an extremely slow process (this is where the “for a while” part comes into play, as rapid initial gains might fool a newcomer into thinking that you really can build a hundred pounds of muscle in a few years’ time).
These are pretty much obvious facts, but it never hurts to repeat them – as a natural bodybuilder, you can’t get as big as comic book character, and you most certainly can’t do it fast. Your athletic performance is safe on that side. There is, however, another, more commonly addressed problem that deals with bodybuilding training being non-functional or, even worse, to take away from one’s athletic abilities.
Troublesome Definitions Of Functionality
First thing we have to make clear is what do we mean by the word “functional”. The purest sense of the word, functionality is activity dependent, or, in our world, functional training depends on desired effect. Functional training for soccer might be (and is) completely non-functional for golf, and vice-versa. Therefore, functional training is very specific and has narrow applications, and that leads us to a dumb and useless conclusion that bodybuilding training is functional for bodybuilding. Hooray, like I didn’t know that my routines are good for gaining muscle mass, and hadn’t designed them for that particular purpose.
The above reasoning is used by some coaches and authors to justify the usage of exercises such as leg extensions, since they do well for quad hypertrophy, but I consider it wrong because it’s not what is usually meant when functionality of gained muscle mass is examined. What we really want to know is whether or not bodybuilding training reflects positively on a larger scale of various activities. Do note that anything sports-related isn’t necessarily even near to being functional in real life – e.g., I can shoot an Olympic bow quite well, yet it serves me absolutely no purpose outside the archery range.
The problem, again, lies in the wrong picture “regular” people have on bodybuilders. By believing the misconception which we debunked in our previous section to be true, they picture all bodybuilders on any kind of sports event (soccer game, basketball game, etc.) like they’re basically obese – slow, inert, with their turn-times as long as those of Earth itself, tumbling around only to trip over their own humongous calf.
As I said, natural bodybuilders don’t get “too big”, in the sense that muscle mass impairs their movement. They might get less agile, but only if they completely forsake mobility drills during the course of their training, or that bodybuilding is the only physical activity they participate in over the course of many years, and this is highly unlikely. Becoming more inert and less agile through weight training is a reversible process. So, unless you’re a steroid user, or are muscular but with a very high bodyfat, at no point will your muscle mass impair your movement. This, however, isn’t the main point of the article.
Bodybuilders – Better Athletes?
What I’m actually trying to say all along is – a stronger athlete is almost always a better athlete. Now, it’s important to take the “almost always” part in its fullest meaning. The thing is, dozens of millions of people participate in various sports, but only a very small fraction of them play them at top levels, or participate in sports in which skill work outweighs the physical preparedness part by so much that obese people are on the same leg as fit ones (an example being archery). In all the other cases, however, being stronger (or, even better, getting stronger through weight training) will give you an edge over other participants. Now we’ll take a look at what exactly does “being stronger” mean, and how does it come with bodybuilding training.
An obvious parameter in measuring one’s strength is his absolute strength on various exercises (related to the sport the athlete participates in). Most sports, however, aren’t about absolute strength, they’re about power – power to kick, hit or throw a ball, power to accelerate your own body while sprinting or jumping, etc. While strength and power are two different terms in both training and application, they are correlated in such a way that absolute strength limits one’s power output (this isn’t a rule, but, again, we’re discussing a fairly general case of common sports played by common people (which, paradoxically, makes our discussion rather special)).
An example of this principle are the Olympic weightlifters. Their two main lifts, the snatch and the clean & jerk are pure power movements, requiring (a substantial amount of) force to be applied onto the barbell in an explosive fashion, yet they place lots of emphasis on getting (very) strong on absolute strength exercises like the front or the back squat. The logic is simple – you can’t expect to snatch 300 lbs with a 200 lbs squat.
There is, indeed, a closer and more obvious correlation between common bodybuilding exercises (and all squats go in that group) and Oly lifts – e.g., front squat is an integral part of the full clean, which is again a part of the clean & jerk – but this does not mean that weight training exercises are less applicable onto other sports. While kicking a ball in soccer, a strong hip flexor is a strong hip flexor, no matter where you got it from. Therefore, a component to achieving a better throw/kick/jump/sprint is getting stronger. Again, this isn’t all there is to it, but it’s a clear example of the importance of absolute strength in sports.
The sad fact of our sport is that people don’t automatically associate bodybuilding with strength, while, in fact, nothing could be farther from the truth – natural bodybuilding is all about getting stronger, and stronger bodybuilder is almost universally a bigger bodybuilder. And it’s not only about moving heavier and heavier weights, it’s about building that tonnage on big, compound movements. As I said in my previous articles, compound exercises aren’t only the natural bodybuilder’s bang-for-buck weapon of choice – they also result in a healthy, balanced physique deprived of weakpoints (structurally speaking) and imbalances. This, again, is a great thing to have when playing sports, as it keeps you safe from injuries coming both from field of play (someone ramming into you while playing basketball, resulting in a torn ankle ligament) and from muscle imbalances which sports themselves promote (an example being knee injuries with volleyball players since their quarter-squat jumping position doesn’t develop the Vastus Medialis).
Another component of training with big compounds is becoming stabile, which is especially important in contact sports – tell me, if a 100 kg barbell which I put on top of my shoulders can’t move or trip me over during a full front squat, do you think someone who tries to push me while playing soccer will be any more successful?
This, of course, isn’t limited to sports – if you, god forbid, experience a car accident, strong Trapezius muscle will help protect your cervical spine and prevent (or milden) neck injuries. Another example is having a strong lower back (through deadlifting), which is almost a must-have, especially in today’s sedentary society where people experience spinal disc herniations while picking up newspaper from the ground.
“Unnatural” Things In Natural Bodybuilding
Another great thing about being a bodybuilder is that is generally comes with improved body composition – not only are you (much) more muscular than the average person, your bodyfat is 5-20% lower than that of the average population (this, naturally, varies with age of the given population, as adults in developed countries tend to have a higher average bodyfat). Benefits of having a bodybuilder-esque body compositions are multiple and covering a wide range of issues in both athletic performance and everyday life, but we’ll just focus on two.
First one is favorable ratio of muscle mass to bodyweight, which, again, benefits one’s performance in sport since most of them place emphasis on moving your own body through space rather than moving other objects. The second one comes from the fact that most amateur natural bodybuilders don’t rely on nutrition alone to keep their bodyfat levels low, since such diet plans can get impractical on everyday basis, thus they focus on adding cardiovascular exercise on top of their usual weight training, which results in increased stamina, endurance and VO2 max (again, compared to average population).
Now, there are bodyfat levels which are dangerous and unhealthy (thus we can label them as “unnatural”), at which bodybuilders come down to when doing a show or maybe a photo shoot. Again, these are very special cases, and people who pursue the sport as amateurs or hobbyists will never get even close to that bodyfat – not because they can’t, but because it serves them no purpose, except for maybe demonstrating their nutritional skills and determination needed to push through with a contest prep diet. Again, this is very, very rare, since getting to and staying at extremely low bodyfat levels is detrimental to everyday activities and life quality as well – a good number of people, especially those who aren’t naturally lean, start to feel weak, dizzy and nauseous all day long when they go below 8% BF.
Another thing worth discussing is the fact that bodybuilding exercises are usually labeled as “unnatural”. Classifying movements is a complex matter which can be approached from many different directions, but I decided to take on a fairly simple model created by Dan John, which says that there are five basic human movements: push, pull, hinge, squat and loaded carry. (Truth be told, he adds that this classification is made from “strength coach’s perspective”, but it’s worth noting that strength coaches are usually called in the off season to work with professional athletes and help them with their preparation for the competitive season). If you know anything on bodybuilding training, a single glance at Dan John’s list gives you an idea which movements would truly be “unnatural”.
An obvious group not meeting the criterion of being “natural” are isolation exercises, especially when done on machines, with their joint ruining fixed and often restricted pathways, and useless varying of resistance through the ROM (present in some leg curl machines). (Note that cable exercises aren’t machines – they’re more like redirected free weights.) Indeed do isolation movements have a much lesser, if not negligible carryover to the real world. You’re never going to curl something in real life – you’ll do an upright row or a drag curl. You won’t do a front raise with a box you’re putting on a high shelf, you’ll press it overhead. And deadlifting or goblet squatting while moving furniture is so obvious that it isn’t even worth mentioning.
Now, this doesn’t mean that isolation exercises can’t help you with real-world performance – e.g., if doing cable crunches helped you to strengthen your abs so that you could start squatting and hence become much stronger, then you indeed have benefited from doing an isolation exercise, but, again, this carryover isn’t as direct nor regular as it is with big, compounds movements.
So, there are, indeed, methods and exercises employed by bodybuilders in their strive for more muscle mass which are indeed unnatural, in the sense that they force the body to operate in a way it’s not designed to, but these exercises leave a mark by giving you various joint problems – e.g., bench pressing in a Smith machine eventually wears the shoulders out, and squatting in that same machine wrecks knees and lower back. We can therefore conclude that lifelong bodybuilders who have gotten through their training career without injuries or problems weren’t indeed doing anything “unnatural”, and examples of such men can be found in biographies of many pre-steroid era bodybuilders.
Writing conclusions of articles such as this one is an ungrateful business, since neither can I draw a conclusive thought other than the obvious one (that bodybuilding training doesn’t take away from one’s athletic performance, but rather improves it), nor can I make a summary of the article without simply listing the first sentences of all the paragraphs, which, again, would be somewhat barren an action.
Probably the best take-home message of this article would be – train to be strong and healthy, as this “alone” will give you the results you seek as a bodybuilder, as well as giving you an obvious tool (in the form of your own body) of the falsity of the myth of the unathletic bodybuilder(s). Train well!