Are there any benefits of bodybuilding? Many readers may think the suggestion absurd or comical. If the word "bodybuilding" conjures up an image of a stage show involving nearly naked, fake-tanned men or women posing their grotesquely massive drug-induced bodies, I understand why you might doubt there are any benefits of bodybuilding.
Some people claim that there are no unique benefits to bodybuilding training – aiming to increase muscle mass and decrease fat mass. They aver that bodybuilding is a waste of time because it (supposedly) only improves your appearance, not your performance.
Some of these people claim that one should do so-called "functional" training instead. Allegedly, calisthenics, Cross Fit, powerlifting, Olympic lifting, and gymnastics produce a more "functional" fitness than bodybuilding-style training. They maintain that if there are any benefits of bodybuilding, they can be more easily acquired, along with a more functional fitness, through these "functional" training methods.
In my opinion, these people don't understand bodybuilding. A bodybuilder is just what the word says: either an individual who aims to build his (or her) body, or a substance that builds up the body. The application of the term “body-building” is not limited to discussions of exercise methods.
For example, in Nutrition and Physical Degeneration, Weston A. Price DDS frequently distinguishes body-building foods and nutrients from foods that cause physical degeneration:
“In planning an adequate diet, a proper ratio between body building and energy units must be maintained. It is important to keep in mind that while the amount of body-building and repairing material required is similar for different individuals of the same age and weight, it is markedly different for two individuals, one of whom is leading a sedentary, and the other, an active life. Similarly, there is a great difference between the amount of body-building and repairing material required by a growing child or an expectant mother and an average adult.” (p. 261-262; bold added)
It matters not whether one writes “body building,” “body-building,” or “bodybuilding,” the concept is the same: promoting the growth, health, and/or strength of body tissues. The bulk (30-40%) of the body is composed of muscles, so anyone who aims to build muscle is a bodybuilder; however, many people choose very inefficient methods to achieve the benefits of bodybuilding.
In essence, bodybuilding as a physical discipline consists of physical training to increase the size (and strength!) of your muscles, and consequently all the tissues and organs that support the muscles (tendons, bones, cardiovascular system, etc.), while reducing your body fat percentage, so that you look Glorious and, if you so desire, God- (or Goddess-) like.
Since ancient times, a native European man (or woman) guided and inspired by the ancestral polytheism has aimed to emulate the Gods and Demigods. He (or she) has aimed to develop a divine body and to align his mind with nature. A man who wants to look like and have the strength of Hercules, Zeus, Odin, Baldur, Mercury or Kratos is simply a man devoted to the Gods – which are the divine potentials that lie within every one of us.
Some people seem to think that one can achieve all the benefits of bodybuilding without actually doing any bodybuilding. You reap the benefits of bodybuilding and accomplish these goals by engaging in precision resistance training coupled with a body-building natural foods diet.
It is very important to realize that one can obtain the benefits of bodybuilding only if one utilizes the precision resistance training methods developed by bodybuilders. You can engage in strength training, weight lifting, and powerlifting without using efficient bodybuilding methods.
The difference in method is based on a difference in aim. Weight lifters focus on using their muscles to move heavy objects. Strength trainers focus on increasing strength, not increasing muscle mass. Gymnasts focus on using their muscles and levers to achieve specific skill such as handstands, planche, front lever, and so on.
A bodybuilder uses the resistance to do something to his/her muscles, whereas all of those other practices focus on using your muscles to do something to the resistance or load. In bodybuilding, the amount of resistance you use is less important than how you use the resistance. What happens to the load is less important than what happens to the muscles used to move the load.
This is the most important point. All the benefits of bodybuilding come from shifting your focus from aiming to move something with your muscles, to aiming to do something very hard in a precise way so that it has a profound effect on your muscles.
So-called ‘functional training,' calisthenics, strength training, weight lifting, and powerlifting will not necessarily produce the two main benefits of bodybuilding, increased muscle mass or reduced fat mass. These other activities have a goal of increasing the load on the bar, increasing repetitions with a given load (bodyweight), or moving on to skills of greater difficulty, regardless of what happens to your muscle or fat mass.
One can increase apparent (as opposed to actual) muscular strength through several mechanisms, including
1. altering limb position to improve leverage
2. increasing skill at recruiting multiple muscle groups to achieve the task
3. reducing range of motion through fat accumulation or body positioning (such as inflating the lungs under a bench press)
4. reducing the mass of the body (e.g. if you can squat with 325 at a body weight of 165, and are able to reduce your torso weight by 5 pounds while maintaining hip and thigh strength, you may be able to increase your squat weight to 330, because you have reduced the amount of resistance provided to your legs by your torso), or
5. improving neurological adaptation to the particular lift or skill (e.g. through frequent practice).
None of these methods of enhancing strength will necessarily produce the two most obvious benefits of bodybuilding, i.e. increased muscle mass or reduced body fat. Moreover, using these means to increase apparent strength will not result in an actual increase in muscular strength. These methods do not produce the benefits of bodybuilding even though they enable you to add resistance (load) to your exercises.
The fact is, not every increase in load on the bar represents an actual improvement in muscle strength. To guarantee that an increase in load represents an increase in muscular strength, you need to do what bodybuilders do: isolate the muscles you are training.
It is a fact that the strength of a muscle is, like the strength of a rope, proportional to its cross-sectional area. It is thus a fact that you must increase the size of a muscle in order to increase its strength. That means that in the long run, bodybuilding is the foundation of strength training. In other words, if in the long run you want to get better at Olympic lifting, powerlifting, gymnastics skills, or any of a number of sports in which additional strength provides a competitive edge, you will benefit from training specifically designed to increase muscle mass and reduce body fat, i.e. bodybuilding (below I will refer to accumulated scientific research that empirically supports this logical assertion).
There exist at least five evidence-based benefits of bodybuilding if you pursue it as your primary method of physical training, and in preference to running, team sports, Crossfit, gymnastics, generic strength training, weight lifting, and powerlifting:
The first benefit of bodybuilding is its safety. The table below shows the injury rates for elite competitive bodybuilders versus Crossfit, Olympic lifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, team sports, and running.
Elite bodybuilders have an injury rate less than one-tenth that of Crossfit, Olympic lifting, powerlifting, or gymnastics. Running is touted as a “natural” activity, and bodybuilding is sometimes slandered as “unnatural,” yet runners have an injury rate 50 times that of elite bodybuilders!
Most injuries incurred during physical activities result from impact forces, acceleration forces (from rapid changes of velocity or direction), excessive ranges or motion, or excessive repetition during the activity.
Team sports – soccer, American football, basketball, baseball, hockey, and so on – require explosive and uncontrolled movements that strain tendons and muscles. Most also involve trauma from uncontrolled impact forces from collisions.
Running involves excessive repetition of high impact reaction forces from pounding the ground mile after mile. Bicycling involves pumping your legs while sitting on a seat that damages the sensitive perineal area.
Crossfit, Olympic lifting, power lifting, and gymnastics have relatively low rates in injury compared to contact sports, but because the practice of these activities involves explosive movements or impact against resistance (e.g. the ground or the bar in gymnastics), they subject the joints of the limbs and lower back to impact forces that can cause damage to either soft or hard tissue.
Proper bodybuilding – precision resistance training – involves little or no exposure to impact forces, as it is based on slow, controlled movement against resistance in natural ranges of motion. Proper bodybuilding also utilizes a variety of movements to guard against repetitive stress injuries resulting from overuse of some muscles and underuse of others.
Hence, you can obtain all the other benefits of bodybuilding without incurring injuries that could wreck your physical fitness for a lifetime.
You may think it is crazy to suggest that one of the primary benefits of bodybuilding is functional fitness. There exists a myth that bodybuilding – building muscle and losing fat – doesn't benefit physical performance in other activities because it uses "isolation" exercises. Many people claim that bodybuilding training that isolates muscles only improves appearance and suggest that if you want to be athletic you should engage in so-called “functional” training, supposedly provided by Olympic lifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, calisthenics, and CrossFit. According to proponents of “functional” training, the muscular development produced by bodybuilding is not functional.
The Encarta World English Dictionary defines “functional” as
1) Having a practical application or serving a useful purpose
2) In good working order or working at the moment
3) Without apparent organic or structural cause
4) Relating to the function of language as a communicating tool, rather than to its form
Strength has practical application and useful purpose, like enabling you to carry your own groceries. If a muscle has good strength and remains free of injury, then it works well. Therefore, regardless of what means you use to develop or maintain it, muscular strength in and of itself qualifies as functional. And muscular strength is proportional to muscular size.
Further, the term “functional fitness” has no more meaning than “fitness.” Strength, as I noted, provides the basis for fitness, and it consists of the ability to exert muscular force. Since strength is by definition an ability it is by definition functional. Lack of muscle and strength is dysfunctional; presence of muscle and strength is functional. In other words, the ideas of “non-functional fitness” and “non-functional strength” contradict themselves, just like the concept of a square circle. You can’t produce non-functional fitness, or non-functional strength, any more than you can draw a square circle.
The “functional fitness” movement rests on a fallacious idea that practicing things like burpees and Olympic weight lifting produces a more “functional” type of muscle or strength than practicing safer, controlled bodybuilding exercises.
It is often claimed that doing Olympic lifts or powerlifting produces skill, speed, power, or strength that transfers to other sports but the extra muscle developed by bodybuilding does not. In fact, the specific movements used in Olympic lifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, and CrossFit develop specific skills that do not transfer to other activities, whereas one of the primary benefits of bodybuilding – increased muscle mass – does improve performance in any sport.
All activity is produced by the neuromuscular system generating forces to move the limbs against some sort of resistance. The nervous system governs the skills involved in any specific activity, while the muscles produce forces that act on the limbs to move the body (swimming, running, gymnastics, combat sports, etc.), and sometimes objects (balls, bats, weights, other people, etc.). To produce an improvement in functional ability or performance, you have to either improve skill or improve muscular force production.
Motor learning of skills is very specific. Practicing the Olympic lifts will never improve your functional ability in any other sport, it will only make you better at performing the Olympic lifts. Practicing the three power lifts – squat, bench press, and deadlift – will not improve your functional ability in any other sport, it will only make you better at squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting with barbells. Similarly, practicing swimming will not make you a better runner or lifter, it will only make you a better swimmer. To get better at any skill or sport, you have to practice that sport. That’s just the way the nervous system works.
That leaves only one path by which resistance training can improve your sports performance: by increasing the force production capacity of your muscles. Because it focuses on isolating and efficiently loading muscles, bodybuilding increases the normalized fiber length, pennation angle, and cross-sectional area of muscles far more efficiently than so-called “functional” training methods such as Olympic lifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, and whatever, simply because bodybuilding is focussed on improving the architecture of muscles, not on improving skill in specific movements. It bears repeating that just as a larger rope is a stronger rope, a larger muscle is a stronger muscle, and the best way to develop larger muscles is through properly isolated training, i.e. bodybuilding.
The functional benefits of bodybuilding are due entirely to the focus of isolating muscles. When you use exercises that isolate and efficiently load muscles in accord with their biomechanical functions, without involving development of specific skills, you know that when your strength increases in those exercises, this represents a change in the muscle, not any of the adaptations I listed above that can enable you to add a load to the exercise even without a change in the strength of the muscles. Contrary to the claims of the functional fitness crowd, isolating muscles with so-called isolation exercises is the key to producing true generalizable muscular strength gains that can enhance functional ability in specific sport skills.
Hence, developing more muscle mass and reducing your body fat – the main benefits of bodybuilding – will improve your performance at any sport in which strength is an advantage. There exist very few sports in which increased strength would not confer an advantage. Numerous studies have shown that in a wide variety of sports, including volleyball,5 swimming,6 sprinting, surfing,7 baseball,8 basketball,9 judo,10 soccer,11 field throwing events,12 rugby,13 sumo wrestling,14, 15, 16 Olympic lifting and powerlifting,17, 18 the more successful athletes have more muscle mass and less body fat than less successful athletes.
In summary, if you want to improve your sports performance, you should increase your muscle mass and, if strength-to-weight ratio is important in your sport (it is in most sports), reduce your body fat. That means you should do some bodybuilding training, not Olympic lifting, powerlifting, gymnastics, or any other activity wherein you focus on developing sport-specific skills rather than muscle mass.
Bodybuilders focus on adding muscle mass to their physiques. We have evidence that invididuals with greater muscle mass live longer than those with less muscle mass.19 Elderly individuals who have the lowest muscle mass have a 2-fold increase in total mortality and cardiovascular mortality in comparison to those with normal or high muscle mass.20
Muscle is a "use it or lose it" tissue. If you don't use it, you will gradually lose it as you age. If you lose enough muscle mass, you will become increasingly dysfunctional or non-functional, unable to carry out even simple tasks like getting up and down stairs, washing dishes, carrying groceries or putting your own clothes on.
Even if bodybuilding does not increase your total lifespan, it will increase your functional lifespan, giving you the ability to be active and productive for the entirety of your life.
Thus, bodybuilding – increasing your muscle mass – is essential to health-maintenance as you age, and one of the benefits of bodybuilding is an increased functional lifespan.
Some people claim that bodybuilding training has only cosmetic effects on your body composition, but no benefit to internal health. In fact, the benefits of bodybuilding include improved lipid and insulin levels.
A systematic review and meta-analysis of 66-population based studies found that bodybuilding-type resistance training – consisting of doing for each major muscle group 2-to-3 sets of 6-to-10 reps with a load at least 75% of maximum, using whole body and free-weight movements – was more effective than either endurance training alone or a combination of endurance training and resistance training for improving body composition (reducing fat and retaining muscle), reducing total cholesterol, LDL cholesterol, fasting insulin levels, and triglycerides.21
The benefits of bodybuilding are not limited to physical improvements either. A number of studies have shown that the benefits of bodybuilding-style training include reduced stress, anxiety and depression, and improvements in general well-being, body image and self-esteem, while women of menstruating age report reduced premenstrual symptoms.22-28
Another benefit of bodybuilding may be improved cognitive function. Adults with mild cognitive impairment who engaged in 6 months of bodybuilding-style resistance training significantly improved global cognitive function for at least 18 months (i.e. at least 12 months after the intervention).29
The benefits of bodybuilding are numerous. It appears to be the safest, most effective way to train your body to maintain the strength and mass of all the muscles in the body, improve your body composition and sports performance, extend your functional life span, and enhance your mental ability and emotional state.
You can reap the benefits of bodybuilding yourself by using the Get Strong! method to build muscle, lose fat, and get stronger.
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7. Secomb, JL, Lundgren, LE, Farley, ORL, Tran, TT, Nimphius, S, and Sheppard, JM. Relationships between lower-body muscle structure and lower-body strength, power, and muscle-tendon complex stiffness. J Strength Cond Res 29(8): 2221–2228, 2015 http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2015/08000/Relationships_Between_Lower_Body_Muscle_Structure.18.aspx
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12. Zaras, ND, Stasinaki, A-NE, Methenitis, SK, Krase, AA, Karampatsos, GP, Georgiadis, GV, Spengos, KM, and Terzis, GD. Rate of force development, muscle architecture, and performance in young competitive track and field throwers. J Strength Cond Res 30(1): 81–92, 2016 http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Citation/2016/01000/Rate_of_Force_Development,_Muscle_Architecture,.10.aspx
13. Bilsborough, JC, Greenway, KG, Opar, DA, Livingstone, SG, Cordy, JT, Bird, SR, and Coutts, AJ. Comparison of anthropometry, upper-body strength and lower-body power characteristics in different levels of Australian Football players. J Strength Cond Res 29(3): 826–834, 2015 http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Abstract/2015/03000/Comparison_of_Anthropometry,_Upper_Body_Strength,.35.aspx
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18. “Our results indicate that powerlifting performance is a function of fat free mass (FFM) and, therefore may be limited by the ability to accumulate FFM. Additionally, muscle architecture appears to play an important role in powerlifting performance in that greater fascicle lengths are associated with greater FFM accumulation and powerlifting performance.” Brechue WF, Abe T. The role of FFM accumulation and skeletal muscle architecture in powerlifting performance. Eur J Appl Physiol 86(4): 327-36, Feb 2002.
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