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.
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Partial range of motion strength training makes you stronger specifically in the part of motion you’re training with only ~15% transfer to the rest of the movement.
That’s why you see many guys in the gym that can quarter squat a ton, yet when they have to go ass-to-grass, they have to strip off the majority of the weight.
- The optimal training methods for 0-10 m sprints are significantly different from 30 m sprints, though both are already extremely short distances.
- There is barely little relation between different measures of core strength, even though it’s the same muscle groups (abs, back, etc.) performing a similar task (stabilizing the torso).
Unpublished research from Osaka University of Health and Sport Sciences found that there is no significant relation between trunk stability (i.e. planks) and trunk flexion (i.e. crunches).
Other unpublished research from Saeterbakken et al. in Norway found that the relations between core strength, core stability and core endurance were “non-existing to medium” (data below).
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.” 
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
- 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.
- Track and field throwing
- 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 .
In powerlifters, the relation is even stronger with a 0.86 to 0.95 correlation between fat-free mass and performance in the powerlifts … 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. ”
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.
4. Bodybuilding is just as effective as most injury rehabilitation techniques
At its core, rehabilitative exercise just comes down to increasing functional muscle strength without aggravating the injury. In part 1 you saw that bodybuilding is one of the safest sports in the world and that the most functional strength is in fact that from increased muscle mass. Voila, the ultimate rehab exercise recipe is very similar to bodybuilding.
Not convinced? Saner et al. (2015) compared a fancy rehab physiotherapy program to a general strength training program in patients with low back pain. They followed the patients for a year. At every measurement point, the general strength training program was just as effective as the special physiotherapy protocol at relieving pain and disability.
You may then conclude that just about every form of physical activity may be sufficient as treatment of back pain, but that’s not true.
- A systematic review and meta-analysis found that Pilates exercise does not improve back pain or functionality.
- The evidence for spinal manipulation and mobilization, e.g. chiropractic, is also mixed, especially as a long term treatment. It could well be argued that it mainly just provides acute pain relief.
- The evidence for massage is even more questionable.
Anderson et al. (2008) compared the effectiveness of strength training to health counseling with ergonomics to improve posture and stress management as treatments of neck and shoulder pain in office workers. You might expect that posture was the problem, so targeting this directly with improved workplace ergonomics should be most effective. Wrong. Strength training was more effective at relieving pain in the shoulders and neck. It was also easier to stick to for the participants.
Another study similarly concluded that “stretching and aerobic exercising alone proved to be a much less effective form of training than strength training.” Of particular note here is that strength training was more effective than stretching to improve range of motion,supporting what you read in part 1 of this series.
Several studies have also found that strength training is more effective than staying generally active or performing endurance training in the treatment of painful muscles.
When you look at the kind of strength training that’s best, most research actually supports the use of compound exercises over specific rehab exercises. For example, rotator cuff exercises have become very popular in the fitness industry to improve muscle balance in the shoulder, but compound exercises are just as effective at improving muscular balance in the shoulder and compound exercises are more effective at improving overall strength.
Being lean helps a lot too, since being overweight by definition imposes a lot of unnecessary mechanical stress on your joints, tendons and other connective tissue.Overweight people experience more injuries than lean people, even if you adjust for many confounders.
Of course there are certain specific disorders that require special treatment and I’m not saying you shouldn’t bother with physiotherapy or any other treatment when you’re injured, but in general, injury rehab just comes down to improving muscle strength, not aggravating the injury, and staying active. Bodybuilding achieves all of that.
5. Bodybuilding helps you live longer
Bodybuilding isn’t widely regarded as a healthy activity, but it is actually. Very much so. Being lean and muscular is associated with good health in several different ways.
Muscle mass is inherently protective against diabetes, because muscle mass improves insulin sensitivity.
Moreover, being lean also protects against diabetes and furthermore reduces chronic inflammation levels and corrects hormonal imbalances since fat tissue itself, especially visceral fat, negatively influences all of these systems in the body. If you thought fat tissue was just an inert storage depot of energy, read this article about the relation between fat and hormones.
Strength training also confers many of the same health benefits as endurance training, such as reducing chronic inflammation and improving cardiovascular health [2, 3]. Since systemic inflammation can damage pretty much everything in the body, maintaining low inflammation levels is strongly associated with quality of life.
The result of all the above is that muscle mass is significantly associated with longevityand the positive effects of muscle mass remain even when you adjust for comorbidities and many control variables.
So if you want to live longer, get lean and jacked.
6. Bodybuilding is the most effective way to get “toned”
Toning is a word used by people without any knowledge of human physiology to describe the process of positive body recomposition. This simply comes down to an increase in muscle size (hypertrophy) and a decrease in body fat percentage with little change in total weight.
Ironically, that is exactly what bodybuilders want when they’re on a diet. Lose fat while maintaining or even increasing muscle mass.
By the way, if you think it’s impossible to gain muscle while losing fat at the same time, you are wrong.
So if you want to get ‘toned’, you should be bodybuilding.
You may protest that you don’t want to get too big. In my experience of coaching hundreds of clients, the people that think they’re getting ‘too bulky’ are just confusing their fat for muscle, especially the women. Sorry, but it’s the truth. You’re not “bulky.” You’re fat. And if you lose the fat and keep the muscle, you’ll look great.
Here’s an example of the 7 week progression of one my clients with non-competitive goals. In this period she took her 6 rep. max on the squat from 159 lb (72 kg) to 201 lb (91 kg). The lighting isn’t the same unfortunately, but ask yourself, does she look more bulky on the left (before) or on the right (after)? She has more muscle on the right.
Even if you don’t want to add a lot of muscle, bodybuilding is simply the quickest route to success. You can spend 3 years doing cardio, yoga, Zumba, Bodypump or any other low strength activity. Or you can achieve the same physique in a matter of weeks or months on an optimized bodybuilding program.
Yes, even if you primarily just want to lose fat. As I explained in my article on why diets fail and ‘eat less, move more’ is bad advice, bodybuilding is the most effective exercise form to get lean. A recent systematic review and meta-analysis supports that pure strength training is more effective than endurance training or even a combination of strength and endurance training for fat loss. On a side note, pure strength training was also best for your health.
Even beside the increased muscle mass and the increase in your metabolism, with strength training you can often simply burn more calories per session than with many popular ways to get ‘toned’. For example, a Bodypump session burns 5 kcal/min for men with a BMI of 23.5 that are experienced with Bodypump. If we compare this with strength training, men with a similar BMI burn 2.9 times as many calories per minute. So you can burn the same amount of energy in only about a third of the time. And this doesn’t even take into account the energy used to build muscle mass, the higher baseline metabolism of the strength trainees or the fact that the difference in energy expenditure will only keep getting greater as both groups get more advanced.
I know, it doesn’t feel this way. During a Bodypump class you’re constantly moving, you sweat more and you’re out of breath more. But it doesn’t compensate for the difference in intensity. In fact, in the above study the Bodypumpers overestimated their energy expenditure by 66.7%.
Zumba classes get much closer to heavy strength training in terms of energy expenditure, but they still don’t fully bridge the gap. And if you only care about energy expenditure, you can reach much more extreme levels with exercises like breathing squats and myo-reps.
As a bonus, high intensity exercise tends to suppress your appetite compared to lower intensity exercise.
So if you want to get ‘toned’ or even just lean without people asking you if you’re ill, bodybuilding is the quickest route to success.
7. Bodybuilding increases wellbeing
If you are familiar with the research on subjective wellbeing AKA happiness, you know that not many things actually improve your happiness. The human psyche has a remarkable capacity to adapt to any environment.
- Winning the lottery doesn’t make you much happier in the long run.
- In fact, money per se just doesn’t make you that happy. After your annual income approaches $75k, there is no more effect on your subjective wellbeing and before that the effect is already limited.
- Severe injuries that put you in a wheelchair for life don’t decrease your happiness much in the long run.
In contrast to the above, a large body of research shows that bodybuilding does in fact benefit your psychological health in several different ways, regardless of your age or gender [1, 2, 3, 4, 5].
- Bodybuilding increases subjective wellbeing and positive moodstate and decreases depression.
- Bodybuilding decreases your stress levels, anxiety and neuroticism.
- Bodybuilding improves your self-esteem, self-satisfaction, body image and self-concept.
- Specifically relevant for the ladies: bodybuilding makes premenstrual syndrome more tolerable.
Guess what: exercise really is good for you. And “you” means your body as well as your mind.
Bonus: Does bodybuilding make you clumsy and “muscle bound”?
It’s easy to imagine a bodybuilder tearing off a doorknob or accidentally crushing a glass in his hand because he “doesn’t know his own strength.” Yet it’s a complete myth that bodybuilding makes you clumsy. Research from Smits-Engelsman et al. (2008) and unpublished research from Panjan et al. in Slovenia show that the ability to control your force has no relation with how strong you are.
In fact, if anything you’d theoretically expect improved motor control in bodybuilders due to the positive neural adaptations that take place as you gain strength. Bodybuilders are also renowed for their mind-muscle connection. While we don’t have much research on this, bodybuilders have been shown to be able to control the contraction of opposing muscle groups at the same time better than untrained individuals.
Perhaps the most convincing research is that in dancers. Kudrna et al. from DeSales University have looked at the effect of strength training in female artistic dancers. The strength training did not impair their flexibility, posture or dance specific abilities, such as the height of the active and passive developé poses, but it did improve self-rated strength, posture and confidence during dancing.
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. Bodybuilding has gotten a bad reputation, but this reputation is undeserved. Bodybuilding is just as effective or even more effective than many other forms of fitness.
- Bodybuilding is better at lengthening your muscles than yoga or stretching in general. And no, bodybuilding doesn’t make you clumsy or ‘muscle-bound’.
- Bodybuilding is one of the safest forms of exercise in the world, much safer than pretty much every team sport, running, Powerlifting, Olympic Weightlifting or CrossFit.
- Bodybuilding is very functional. A low body fat percentage and increased muscle mass improve performance in almost every activity.
- Bodybuilding is generally just as effective as physical therapy and more effective than chiropractic, massage, endurance training, stretching, ergonomics and general physical activity in the treatment of most injuries and neuromuscular disorders.
- Bodybuilding makes you live longer.
- Bodybuilding is the most effective way to get toned and burns more calories than Bodypump or Zumba classes.
- Bodybuilding makes you happier.