5 Reasons Why All Athletes Can Benefit from Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding training principles can be a valuable asset to a strength and conditioning coach. Often, bodybuilding programming can receive a bad rap. It is generally thought to involve more isolated (non-compound) exercise and lack sport-specificity.

Despite these factors (which may not actually be true), nearly every strength coach can impact their athletes' overall muscle development, athletic performance, and injury resilience by using the below bodybuilding guidelines at some point in a training cycle. 

Therefore, in this article we briefly discuss: 

  1. What exactly is a “bodybuilding program” in strength and conditioning
  2. Why coaches should program bodybuilding blocks in training sessions
  3. Specific bodybuilding programming guidelines for a variety of athletes/goals

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What Is a Bodybuilding Program?

In short, a bodybuilding program is done to:

  1. Increase preparedness for more advanced and strenuous training programs
  2. Enhance muscle hypertrophy
  3. Address muscular weaknesses and imbalances with isolated bodybuilding training
  4. Enhance motor unit recruitment, especially in beginner and rehabilitating athletes
  5. Enhance lean body mass

When we hear the term bodybuilding, many coaches and athletes think about workout programs that involve muscle group splits geared 100% for aesthetic purposes. While this certainly is one way to attack bodybuilding workouts, coaches can also integrate more sport-specific and functional movements into bodybuilding blocks to enhance muscle development and the other benefits below. 

For the sake of this argument, bodybuilding programming refers to a programming model that is concerned with the below benefits and is willing to sacrifice maximal speed and strength (since these occur earlier in a training session).

Sets, reps, and training intensities are also discussed below, but in short, are often kept at moderate loads to attain increased training volume demands and quality of movement.

Benefits of Bodybuilding for Athletes

Below are 5 benefits of bodybuilding programs for sport athletes. Be sure to familiarize yourself with what exactly “bodybuilding training” is prior to dissecting this piece.

1. Muscle Hypertrophy

At the basis of every training program, muscle hypertrophy is seen. Without adequate muscle tissue, athletes will be limited in the ability to recover from long-term training cycles, have limited muscle unit recruitment patterns, and may lack the ability to produce high amounts of force (decreased muscle tissue, lack of muscle fiber recurrent, etc.).

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Once an athlete has gained significant amounts of muscle mass (typically achieved through a hypertrophy cycle focused on progressive overload and increased training volume), he/she can then progress into more strength, power, and explosive training. Be sure to check out the sections below that go in greater detail regarding this subject.

2. Gain Body Mass/Density

Increasing lean body mass is ideal for nearly every single sport athlete (with some exceptions in weight class athletes). Bodybuilding workouts integrate into accessory programs post sport-specific power and strength work to increase muscle hypertrophy and lean body mass gain.

When paired with a caloric surplus, bodybuilding movements (which are often done in higher volumes) have been shown to increase muscle tissue size and body mass.

This is especially important for newer, younger athletes who may lack the training experience and muscular development necessary to compete with more physically advanced athletes.

3. Address Muscular Weaknesses/Imbalances

Asymmetries are a normal thing for most athletes, regardless of training age or injury status. Often, bodybuilding exercises can be integrated into a rehab program or simply as accessory work to target muscular asymmetries/weakness.

Lower load movements done in a controlled repetition format can help athletes increase muscular control, hypertrophy, and motor unit recruitment. I prefer to build these functional fitness exercises into these blocks as well to help increase athleticism and overall injury resilience.

4. Moderate Fatigue from More Demanding Sessions

Bodybuilding workouts are often lower in intensity (meaning they require a lifter to use less weight) and are generally less explosive in nature. During certain phases of a program, a coach may want to offer an athlete an easier training session...yet still get enough volume in to progress muscle development.

Bodybuilding sessions can be done to moderate fatigue and neurological stress (from ballistic power based movements and/or during in-season) yet still allow for ample amounts of muscular work to be performed at lower intensities.

However, these training sessions should not impede an athlete’s ability to recover. (Make sure your athletes learn these 10 daily recovery habits).

5. Body Confidence

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At first glance you may see this section heading and be baffled as to why some athletes would even care what they look like. The truth of the matter is sport athletes are often placed under large amounts of mental, physical, and social stress.

Like any individual, there are times when we feel out of shape and/or not happy with our appearance. Other times, we are ecstatic about how our arms/legs look and how this makes us feel.

Body image issues are not something athletes are immune to. Coaches can use bodybuilding workouts or section-in sessions to allow athletes to perform some extra “body shop” work on whatever aspects they would like to target (with some supervision of course).

With our sports athletes, we have various “20-30 Minute Muscle Pumps” they can come in and do on their own (assuming they are cleared for such exercises).

Bodybuilding Concepts for Various Training Phases and Athletes

Below are various phases of an athlete's annual programming in which bodybuilding workouts/sections are often done. In the sections below, we will discuss the specific reason(s) why a coach may want to include various bodybuilding exercises/training blocks into an athlete's regimen.

General Physical Preparedness (GPP)

Whether it’s an incoming freshman, post-injury athlete, and/or sports team entering back into off-season programming, muscle hypertrophy and general fitness is an important factor in base building.

While movements like plyometrics, Olympic lifts, and speed/agility are still trained or introduced, it is important to train athletes with both compound and more isolated exercises.

In doing so, you can improve basic muscle and connective tissue development. You set a stronger foundation for more advanced and demanding training phases.

Off-Season Programming

As briefly discussed above, off-season athletes are in need of either:

  • Increasing amounts of training stress to bring about increases in strength, power, and muscle development
  • A more basic program to ease back into after the rigors of the competitive season

Bodybuilding sessions or blocks can offer athletes the necessary training volume to bring about muscle protein synthesis, increase hormonal output, and/or build a better base for more advanced training phases.

In-Season Programming

In-season athletes often train slightly less frequently than the off-season athletes due to the rigors of the competitive season and/or schedule conflicts. While maximal power and strength maintenance is key during these phases, athletes still should try to hold onto body mass and size.

Moderating total training volume is tricky with on-season athletes. Increased training volume (typical of bodybuilding training) can result in elevated fatigue levels. However, all is not lost.

A coach can implement higher rep based sessions with lower loads to help athletes increase blood flow, keep muscle mass and size, and address some of the above issues. That is as long as the athletes can tolerate and recover properly (nutrition, sleep, and moderate training intensity, especially with more compound movements like deadlifts and squats). 

Strength and Power-Based Sport Athletes

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As discussed above for both off- and in-season athletes, bodybuilding splits can be used to increase muscle mass, build the ability to perform and recover from more work, and ultimately allow athletes to stimulate more muscle fibers.

For strength and power athletes, bodybuilding programs can also emphasize moderate rep ranges (6-12), rather than higher ranges to help a lifter still train with moderate to heavy loads (which has been shown to build strength and muscle mass… myofibril hypertrophy).

Endurance-Based Sport Athletes

Muscle atrophy is a serious issue with endurance-based athletes. Bodybuilding programming can be used to increase muscle hypertrophy and stop the catabolic side effects of not training with moderate to heavy resistance.

The key here is to be sure athletes are able to recover from the additional training demands. This will most likely come down to increasing caloric intake.

Sets, Reps, and Intensity Guidelines

When programming bodybuilding sessions, coaches can use the below guide as suggested starting points for most athletes. 

Note that most of the recommendations apply to secondary/accessory lifts in which maximal strength and power are not the goal, but rather muscle hypertrophy, increased blood flow, and/or setting a stronger foundation for development are.

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Final Words

I want to take this time to once again point out that the above guidelines are in no way the only way to attack hypertrophy-based programming within sports performance systems. My goal for this article was to help strength coaches and athletes see the importance of bodybuilding and accessory movements within most training programs and offer some personal recommendations to implement.

If you enjoyed this article, be sure to also subscribe to my email list to receive monthly coaching tips, training articles, and strength and conditioning talk.

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About The Author

Mike holds a Masters in Applied Physiology from Columbia University and a Bachelors in Exercise Science from Bowling Green State University. He is an accredited Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NSCAS CSCS) from the National Strength and Conditioning Association and an Advanced Sports Performance Coach from USA Weightlifting (USAWL2).

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