Some debate has raged in online forums over the actual strength of bodybuilders relative to other resistance-trained athletes.
While there is no doubt that the average bodybuilder can surpass the average individual in practically any aspect of athleticism, are bodybuilders as strong as their powerlifter and strongman counterparts?
In truth, this is a rather nuanced question. To put it short, bodybuilders are not necessarily as strong as other weightlifting athletes on a pound for pound basis, but are nonetheless considered quite strong in comparison to non-resistance trained athletes or average people.
The entirety of bodybuilding training has one sole focus; muscular hypertrophy in a proportioned and efficient manner.
This is what sets apart bodybuilding training from other forms of weightlifting routines, as it will place greater focus on exercises that form a proportional and aesthetically pleasing body, while also featuring significant volume in the hopes of improving muscle mass development over time.
In particular, bodybuilders will often place high amounts of training volume on their arms, deltoids, latissimus dorsi and trapezius - as these are the muscle groups that contribute the greatest to symmetry and aesthetic appeal.
Furthermore, bodybuilders make up for their far higher volume of repetitions by reducing the resistance of their exercises, which is likely where the concept of bodybuilders being weak comes from. Even in heavy compound exercises, bodybuilders will intentionally lift a lower percentage of their maximal weight so as to achieve greater volume per set instead.
In comparison to powerlifting training or similar weightlifting disciplines, this may seem rather unorthodox, as many of such programs will rarely feature compound sets beyond 5-8 repetitions.
Bodybuilders often seek proportionality and do not place a particular focus on strength development. As such, the strongest muscles found in a bodybuilder's body are somewhat different from those of olympic weightlifters or powerlifters.
The latissimus dorsi, pectoral muscle group and quadriceps femoris are often the strongest muscles of a bodybuilder, as these are not only considered to be the most aesthetically appealing muscle groups, but are also featured in many classic bodybuilding exercises like the bench press or lat pulldown.
A great majority of force production (or what is otherwise known as strength) comes from the opposing resistance of a muscle group’s fibers shortening against a bone or another muscle group.
For example, the biceps shorten along the humerus, drawing the elbow and forearm towards it due to the distal tendon of the bicep being connected to the radius and ulna bones of the forearm. The more durable and numerous the muscle fibers of the biceps are, the greater force this shortening will create - translating to physical strength from an external perspective.
So, does this mean that greater muscle mass equals greater strength? Yes - but not entirely.
Muscle fiber density and their number are only a small portion of what makes an individual strong, as there are still a variety of other factors such as central nervous system potentiation driving said muscle fiber contraction, advantageous bodily positioning, tendon durability and even the physics of biomechanics.
All of these factors are trained directly by powerlifting or strongman workouts, whereas bodybuilders will usually only focus on the actual muscle mass itself - leading powerlifters and strongman athletes to be stronger due to greater conditioning towards strength, and a more innate understanding of how to utilize said strength.
An individual will grow stronger if their muscles are bigger - yes. However, they will still not be as strong as another person that has developed their lifting technique and employed other strategies to develop strength alongside increasing their muscle mass.
To expound further on factors noted previously, the sort of lifting techniques employed by bodybuilders are not always conducive to strength development, and may even be subconsciously employed when comparing the maximal weight between two athletes of different training disciplines.
Furthermore, apart from pure technique, bodybuilders will often choose equipment or structure their workouts in a way that makes strength training impossible due to fatigue or limitations of said training equipment.
Though time under tension is a vital component of most strength training routines, many bodybuilders will perform considerably slow repetitions of light weight isolation movements so as to induce a “pump” or greater blood flow to their muscles.
This is done for two purposes; the first of which is greatly improved muscle protein synthesis from greater blood deposition, as well as stretching of the fascia so as to supposedly improve the shape and appearance of the muscle itself.
It is important to differentiate this sort of pump repetition from pause repetitions or deliberately slowed negative training, with both of the latter kinds of training being focused on fixing a sticking point or conditioning the muscles to heavy weight instead of inducing a pump.
Isolation exercises are a vital component of any weightlifting routine. They allow for underutilized muscle groups to be stimulated, for weak points to be addressed and for additional volume to be achieved without training multiple muscle groups simultaneously.
However, bodybuilding will frequently take this a step further and feature multiple sets of high volume isolation exercises - with certain training programs like the infamous 8 hour arm workout or FST-7 featuring dozens of repetitions for more than 5 sets per exercise.
This sort of volume is not excessive however, as clinical evidence does indeed suggest that greater muscular hypertrophy is achievable with succeeding amounts of volume per muscle group.
The only problem with this is the fact that doing so fatigues the body, reducing the total strength a lifter is capable of outputting and therefore making strength training more difficult due to the high amounts of weight needed to train in such a manner.
At the higher levels of strength-based athletic training, issues in form, mechanics or even simple execution are addressed with precision. Sticking points, poor form or even unsteady movements are all corrected through a mixture of specialized exercises and pure lifting practice.
This is not quite present in the training of many bodybuilders, as it is not a focus of their sport. Though bodybuilders do indeed utilize correct form, they are unlikely to fix minute issues with their lift execution as there is simply no benefit to doing so - especially if they are not injurious or affecting their muscular hypertrophy.
This is not to say that bodybuilders do not address issues like potentially dangerous deadlift form or failing to retract their scapula during a bench press, simply that small problems that affect their strength but not their safety are unlikely to be corrected with standard bodybuilding training methods.
The usage of a barbell allows for greater total weight to be lifted than with most other forms of resistance equipment - both because of its centered distribution of mass and the fact that the barbell allows both sides of the body to aid the other during weightlifting.
In training, bodybuilders will only rarely make use of barbells outside of certain compound movements, as greater proportionality and volume may be achieved with other types of equipment instead.
Resistance machines allow for unique angles of resistance and a higher amount of volume per exercise, while unilateral free weight equipment like dumbbells allow for muscular proportionality to be achieved far more easily.
It is no surprise that high volume sets take a long time to complete, and an entire workout with such sets can stretch on for up to two hours in certain cases. Many bodybuilders can spend hours in the gym during certain portions of their training.
To combat this, bodybuilders will shorten the time between their sets of a given exercise - allowing more volume to be squeezed into a shorter length of time, but also potentially reducing how much weight they are capable of lifting as their musculature has been given less time to recover.
In comparison, many powerlifters can take up to five minutes between sets of particularly heavy compound movements so as to ensure that they are fully primed for maximum strength output.
Yes - many bodybuilders or individuals who utilize bodybuilding training can also perform strength training simultaneously. This is referred to as “power-building”, and generally takes aspects of both types of training disciplines so as to gain their benefits in a single program.
Powerbuilding training is seen as a more generalist approach that features aspects of strength training while also placing an emphasis on inducing proper muscular hypertrophy - resulting in a physique that is both large in mass and capable of impressive force production.
However, the reason why many bodybuilders or powerlifters do not employ this approach is that their respective sport requires a high specificity of training stimulus, with powerbuilding being unable to reach the same level of ability that focusing on only one training discipline can achieve.
As such, powerbuilding is more suitable for individuals who are not competitive powerlifters or bodybuilders, but instead ordinary gym goers wishing to develop both their appearance and their physical abilities in a non-competitive manner.
No - bodybuilders, while considerably strong, are not as physically powerful as athletes that have specifically trained to maximize the amount of weight that they are capable of lifting.
This is referred to as specificity of training, and is the defining line between bodybuilding and other kinds of weightlifting athletes.
In particular, athletes such as strongman competitors, powerlifters and olympic weightlifters all employ methods that are meant to maximize their performance in their specific sport, whereas bodybuilding does not feature such characteristics in its own respective training.
Bodybuilders specifically focus on inducing hypertrophy in their skeletal musculature, and less so on recruiting the fibers of said musculature in a manner that maximizes force output.
This eventually results in a significant amount of muscle mass that is less conditioned to lifting extremely heavy amounts of weight - alongside several other non-muscle related factors that contribute to a bodybuilder being comparatively weaker to other weightlifting athletes.
No - bodybuilders are unlikely to be as strong as their strongman competitor counterparts, especially when accounting for training time and functional strength performance.
This is (as previously mentioned) simply because strongman athletes specifically train for strength, whereas the strength development encountered during bodybuilding training is more of a secondary goal and not the main focus of their training methodologies.
So - are bodybuilders strong? Absolutely.
But if maximizing your physical strength as much as possible is your goal, it is properly a better choice to find a different training discipline, as bodybuilding’s focus on proportionality and muscle mass development can place strength development at the sideline.
Otherwise, if aesthetic appearance and developing significant muscle mass is your goal, then bodybuilding is likely the best training discipline for you.
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2. Gary Slater & Stuart M. Phillips (2011) Nutrition guidelines for strength sports: Sprinting, weightlifting, throwing events, and bodybuilding, Journal of Sports Sciences, 29:sup1, S67-S77, DOI: 10.1080/02640414.2011.574722