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3 Reasons You Should Be Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding. The word immediately evokes distaste in many people. Bronzed, oiled up men in thongs showing off their clearly unnaturally large bodies. And women that look just like men. I understand the stigma. Yet I consider myself a bodybuilder and in this article I’ll show you why you probably should be bodybuilding too.

At its core, if you strip away the competitions and the steroid usage, the bodybuilding lifestyle simply comes down to lowering your body fat percentage and increasing muscular size. This is achieved with heavy resistance training in combination with a controlled diet. Here are 3 reasons why you should consider bodybuilding in your training even if you have no interest in competing.

1. Bodybuilding is better than yoga at lengthening your muscles

Many people think yoga gives you long muscles and bodybuilding gives you short muscles. Yet it is a complete myth that stretching increases muscle length at all, at least with any humane stretching protocol. Nor does tendon length increase, for that matter.

This myth is a clear example of simplistic thinking. You stretch a muscle, it lengthens, right? Acutely, yes, but total muscle (fascicle) length stays exactly the same.

As per my review on the science of stretching, this is what really happens to your flexibility when you stretch a muscle: neural stretch tolerance increases. Basically, you teach the nervous system that it’s okay to relax the muscle a bit more when stretched. Most of the neural adaptation is simply an increase in pain tolerance. Contrary to popular belief, most muscles don’t come close to reaching their maximum length during most activities. The biomechanical structure of the human body simply does not make this possible.

I should note that viscoelasticity of the muscle may increase after hard stretching, as in over two minutes, but this is only temporary. Depending on the amount of stretching, viscoelasticity returns to baseline within a matter of minutes.

So the only semi-permanent adaptation that takes place after stretching is neural. The length of your tissues stays exactly the same. You become more flexible becomes the nervous system is taught it can safely let you use more range of motion. And since this is a specific adaptation, you mainly just become better at the stretches you’re actually doing, with little transfer to other movements.

But you know what does make your muscles longer? Heavy weight training. From your body’s point of view, the stress induced by stretching pales in comparison to the tension put on a muscle by a heavy weight at the end of its range of motion. This stress actually causes the muscle to adapt its structure.

In conclusion, bodybuilding does not give you short muscles. It makes them longer. In contrast, yoga doesn’t do jack for the length of your muscles. So when you see a ‘muscle-bound’ bodybuilder sitting next to a ‘lean and limber’ yoga instructor in the locker rooms, realize that the bodybuilder probably has the longest muscles.

2. Bodybuilding is one of the safest sports in the world

Bodybuilding doesn’t exactly have a reputation for being a safe sport (is it even a sport?), but again this perception is entirely misguided. In the table below I’ve compiled the injury rates of various categories of exercise from the scientific literature. As you can see, bodybulding is by far the safest activity of them all.

Injury Table

This makes perfect sense if you rationally think about it. Most team sports – soccer, American football, basketball, baseball, hockey, etc. – involve a lot of uncontrolled and explosive movement. There is also a lot of impact to the body, whether it’s with a basketball, the floor or a 300 pound linebacker.

Running is far more controlled, but the impact with the ground is unforgivingly repetitive.

Olympic Weightlifting and Powerlifting don’t have much impact and are relatively controlled movements, so they have a severalfold lower injury rate. Yet when you’re lifting heavy weights close to your maximum capacity, even a minor slip can result in a serious injury. CrossFit doesn’t involve as much weight, but there is less control, more impact and more cardiovascular fatigue that makes it harder to maintain perfect technique.

In contrast, bodybuilding training is very controlled, has almost no impact, doesn’t involve much training with maximal weights and incorporates a much greater variety of movements (less repetitive strain).

So if want to look good naked and you want to play it safe (no pun intended), bodybuilding is the way to go.

Menno Henselmans

3. Bodybuilding is the most functional training there is

Surely now I’ve really lost it? Bodybuilding has a reputation for being the least functional sport there is. The sole aim of bodybuilding is improving your body composition without regard for actual performance. How can this be functional?

Let’s define our terms here. In my experience, the way most people think about the term, regardless of how you specifically define it, ‘functional training’ refers to some measure of transferability of performance across activities. An activity is functional if it improves performance, defined below, in many other activities. So a leg extension is generally regarded as less functional than a squat, because leg extension strength doesn’t transfer well to many other activities, whereas a strong squat makes you better at jumping, sprinting, etc.

Now let’s define performance.

In the broad sense, as the term is used in fitness, performance generally refers to the ability to produce force during a given movement (= F in physics). This is straightforward for Olympic Weightlifting, Powerlifting and CrossFit, where someone’s score and force production are almost perfectly correlated. You move more weight, you get a better score.

However, it also applies in most sports: more force equals a faster sprint, a stronger punch, a higher jump, etc. Even an elderly person that has trouble standing up straight without shaking is a matter of force. Where we informally talk about ‘losing balance’, physically the problem is a lack of force production and increasing force production capacity is what solves the problem.

So functional training requires an activity to have a high degree of transferability of force production across various movements. What defines force production capacity? The body’s ability to produce force during a given movement is controlled by 2 things.

  1. Morphological components. This in practice largely comes down to muscle size, since this correlates with many of the other components, like internal leverage arm and pennation angle. Other morphological components, like myofilament density, aren’t very important.
  2. Neurological components. This basically refers to the ability of your central nervous system, specifically your brain’s motor cortex, to control your muscles.

Put simply, muscle size is the body’s engine of strength and your nervous system is the driver. Together, they determine your performance.

Now here’s the kicker: the second component, neural adaptation, is highly specific. Your nervous system becomes better at performing the specific movement you’re doing with little transfer to other activities. Here are some examples.

Unsurprisingly then, the typical ‘functional training’ activities like core training and the Functional Movement Screen are “not strong predictors of performance… Despite the emphasis fitness professionals have placed on functional movement and core training for increased performance, our results suggest otherwise.” [2]

Similarly, stretching a muscle does not improve its range of motion during many actual functional tasks. As per the first point of this article, stretching just makes you better at stretching: you teach the nervous system to relax only during that specific stretch with little transfer to other movements.

This may be hard to grasp for some people. Part of the reason for this is that our language is fundamentally flawed to understand biomechanics. We talk about strength and power as traits, when they are in fact skills. Strictly speaking, a person cannot be strong or be powerful. A Powerlifter isn’t strong: a Powerlifter has a strong bench press, deadlift and squat. Nor is an Olympic Weightlifter powerful: a weightliftes has a powerful Clean & Jerk and Snatch.

Since the nervous system is highly movement specific in its function, that leaves muscle size as the main component of functional capacity. Muscle size is the only true trait that increases force production capacity without any limitation of movement specificity. If you make a muscle bigger, it will increase your ability to generate force during every movement that that muscle is involved in.

Secondly, the other thing bodybuilders excel at, which is achieving a low body fat percentage, is also strongly linked to performance during many movements. Given the same muscle mass, the lower your fat mass and thereby your total bodyweight, the higher your relative strength. This is particularly important during weightbearing activities, which basically includes all ground sports.

And this isn’t just theory and logic. There is actually a ton of data showing that muscle size and a low body fat percentage (= bodybuilding) determine performance in a wide range of activities (= functionality). These include:

  • Elite volleyball
  • Swimming
  • Competitive sprinting (obviously: just look at top level sprinters!)
  • Elite surfing
  • Major League Baseball. Along with American Football, these are one of the few sports that caught on to the performance benefits of being highly muscular early on. Between 1970 and 2010, the average BMI of baseball players grew by about 3 points. Linemen have increased in weight by over 50% between 1950 and 2010. Moreover, there is a clear upward hierarchy in size from the lower to the higher divisions of the sports.
  • Basketball
  • Judo
  • Soccer
  • Track and field throwing
  • Rugby
  • Best of all, we have Powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting, the sports that supposedly stand in stark contrast to bodybuilding because they train for performance instead of body composition. To quote my previous article on this from a few years ago: “In Olympic weightlifters, there is an extremely tight relation between body mass and performance [2].
    In powerlifters, the relation is even stronger with a 0.86 to 0.95 correlation between fat-free mass and performance in the powerlifts [3]… By far the greatest difference between stronger and weaker lifters is simply that the stronger ones are more muscular.”
    This led a group of researchers to conclude that “Powerlifters may therefore need to devote some of their training to the development of greater levels of muscular hypertrophy if they wish to continue to improve their performance. [4]”
    Shout-outs to Greg Nuckols here, because he’s one of the few powerlifters I know that implements bodybuilding training to improve his Powerlifting (with great success: the guy’s a tank).

In general, as competitive pressure, the celebrity status of athletes and the financial rewards increase, athletes in many sports are becoming ever more muscular.

Interestingly, because many studies don’t measure the correlation in a position of contraction, which is the relevant measure in practice, the current research actually underestimates how strong the relation is between muscular size and performance, .

As a final example the non-specific benefits of bodybuilding for performance, consider training for jumping performance. Many ‘functional trainers’ have argued that you should train quarter squats to improve your jump, because this is a movement that resembles actual jumping. However, full squats build more muscle and lead to greater increases in jumping performance than quarter squats.

So where most athletes are specialized in specific movements and have certain skills, bodybuilders are the most functional because their size makes them good jacks-of-all-trades.

Conclusion

Don’t be deterred by the stigma. If you want to look good naked, you want longer muscles, you want to have a highly functional body and you want to achieve all of this safely, start bodybuilding.

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Menno Henselmans

Menno Henselmans is a physique coach, fitness model and scientific author. A former business consultant specialized in advanced statistical data analysis, he traded his company car to do what he’s truly passionate about: help serious trainees attain their ideal physique. His background in science and statistics led to his Bayesian Bodybuilding method.

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