Episode 217 – Why do Bodybuilders Look so Different from Athletes?

Written by Jonathan

I was browsing Quora the other day when I saw this question posted, why do some people that train look like bodybuilders and others look like athletes? I thought this was an interesting question to tackle because although a lot of people say all they care about is being healthier and more functional I think deep down a lot of people care about how they look as well and how you structure your program can change how you look or determine how you look as long as you consistently do it, that’s what we’re talking about today so don’t go anywhere.

So why do some people who strength train or exercise look like bodybuilders and why do others look like athletes? I want to take this question a step further and say that different sports create different athletic body types and often positions or training for certain positions in the same sport creates different body types as well. Of course there are some genetic factors that play into this, if you’re going to be a centre in the NBA you probably have to be at least 6’8”, if you’re going to be an offensive linemen in the NFL you’re going to have to be at least 6’3” and predisposed to weighing about 300 pounds, but once you go beyond height and overall skeletal size, you’re in much more control of what your body can look like than most people realize and the fact that when you look at elite level athletes in the same individual sport they almost always have the same body type and that’s because they all train close to the same way all the time.

I think what the person that was asking this question was really getting at is why are so many bodybuilders so muscular and shaped the way that they are when there are athletes in performance sports that require a lot of strength, but don’t necessarily look the same way even though they may do roughly the same volume of training.

I’m actually going to separate this to be more specific because it helps me illustrate the differences even better. Let’s compare bodybuilders to Olympic weightlifters. Almost everyone knows what a bodybuilder is, it’s where Arnold Schwarzenegger gained his fame, these are the big incredibly massive muscular men and women that compete on stage and get judged based on their size, symmetry and definition.  Then there are Olympic weightlifters who I cannot name a single one, but I think most people have seen them at least once on TV during the Olympics and they get judged on how much weight they can lift, using the proper form period, how they look has no direct bearing on what they place in a competition as long as they make their weight class. Many of these Olympic weightlifters are stronger than many bodybuilders even though they aren’t necessarily as muscular or at least as muscular looking depending on the weight class.

I’m picking these two groups of people because they spend roughly the same amount of time lifting weights, with no cross training involved, runners spend a lot of time running, swimmers swimming, boxers on boxing etc.

One of the biggest reasons that bodybuilders get so big is because they get judged on muscle size and go through bulking phases where they lift lots of medium to heavy loads for 8 to 15 repetitions and often 10 to 20 sets or more per muscle group and they go to failure a lot when they’re training like this for several hours a day and they’ll eat several thousand and sometimes even 10,000 cal a day when they lift that much weight. Eating that much food and lifting all that volume means they end up building a lot of muscle and fat as well, then in the weeks and months leading into their competitions they go through a cut phase where they keep the amount of weight and volume that they lift as high as they can, but they significantly cut the amount of calories they’re eating, because they’re lifting a lot of weight their body holds onto that muscle because that signals to your body that it needs it, which means it pulls a lot of energy it needs from fat instead.

That’s one part, the other part is that most bodybuilders do more isolation style exercises and they spend time developing the muscles they’re going to be judged on.  Every bodybuilding competition has mandatory muscles where competitors get judged on the symmetry, size and definition of them. The most common being the ‘lat spread’ so having broad shoulders and a large back are really important for this so they’ll spend a lot of time training this part of their body. It’s important that they look triangular at the top so they train to complement that to meet the competition requirements.

Now Olympic Weightlifters on the other hand are training for their specific lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk, which means they need to develop a body that supports those lifts.  That means they’re training not only the muscles that are involved in the lifts, but also the movement patterns associated with that lift and the ability to lift explosively. Having the proper form not only allows them to lift more weight, but they are also required to lift a certain way for the lifts to count otherwise they get disqualified. Weightlifters structure their exercise program very differently, where they will do a lot of volume, but often focus on doing less reps, lifting explosively and lifting very technically well because they understand it’s the movement patterns and technique that are going to be the most important.  They may go through similar bulking phases as a bodybuilder, but because of weight class restrictions they can only be so big. Being strong is much more important than just building as much muscle as possible. This is especially true for the lower weight classes where weightlifters are very limited on how big they can be and once they are at the top of their weight class strength increases have to come from better movement, not the cross sectional size of the muscle.

There are several factors that go into determining the body shape of someone, the amount of food they’re eating, the amount of load they’re lifting, the muscles involved in the lifts and the amount of overall volume they’re doing with that weight.

My recommendation is that if you’d like to have a certain body type find someone with that similar body type and find out what type of exercise program they do and then develop your own program based on that. A routine that is similar and follows the same principles, but works for you and your situation. Also never underestimate the power of the food you eat if you follow the exercise program of a 100 meter sprinter but eat like a bodybuilder going through a bulk phase you are going to look more like the bodybuilder than the 100m sprinter.

If you’re looking for a little bit of guidance visit our website fitnessforfreedom.com because we have lots of free resources and coaches that can help you progress much more quickly than trying to figure everything out on your own.

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