Are bodybuilders really weak?

You can’t log onto a strength training site without seeing someone criticize how weak bodybuilders are and offer up complicated molecular explanations for their lack of strength (sarcoplasmic vs myofibrillar hypertrophy). I’m not sure where these guys are training, but I’ve seen my fair share bodybuilders in the gym, not to mention various examples all over youtube of bodybuilders moving some serious weight, and the first adjective that comes to mind usually isn’t weak.

Given my stance on strength levels and muscle mass, I read a recent article by Bret Contreras with great interest. Combine some of Bret’s ideas with my recent post on changes in co-activation of antagonist muscles as an early adaptation to training, and I think we have some interesting connections between how bodybuilders and powerlifters approach an exercise and how this contributes to some of the strength discrepancies that seem to dominate discussion on internet forums.

Bodybuilders: Making light weights look heavy

In Bret’s article, he highlights a clip from youtube of Brandon Curry training (embedded below, ignore the supplement ad at the start), and makes a good point that bodybuilders take an approach to exercise that allows them to focus intensely on the targeted muscle. The sets are interesting to watch, and the reps are definitely far from what is considered conventional form on the exercises. Instead of moving through reps in a fluid motion, certain positions of the movement are stressed, movement speed is often slow, and despite the light weights on the bar, the sets still manage to look pretty intense (at least for them). It’s safe to say that for the most part, these guys are making what looks like light weights seem pretty damn heavy.

How to make a light weight look heavy

There are basically two ways we can make a sub-maximal load like this look heavy. We can recruit less of the primer mover muscle and contract slowly in an attempt to move the weight slowly, but this is far from an optimal stragety. If we want to target and connect with a certain muscle, wouldn’t we want to attempt to maximize activation as much as possible, trying to achieve near or total maximal voluntary activation? But if we attempted to contract as hard and as fast as possible, with a sub-maximal weight, movement speed would likely be pretty quick, but the clip above is anything but quick. This is where co-activation of antagonistic muscles comes in.

In my previous post, I highlighted that when people are new to an exercise, co-contraction is high and this acts to inhibit strength in the exercise, as force from the antagonist muscles counteracts force of the primer mover muscles. As skill in that particular exercise increases, co-contraction of antagonistic muscles decreases, and strength in the exercise increases. Taking a simple example, performing a leg extension, activation of the hamstrings is high when the person is new to the exercise, which cancels out a certain amount of force produced by the quadriceps (primer mover). As the trainee gains experience, hamstring coactivation decreases and the quadriceps become ‘magically’ stronger.

In novices, co-contraction of antagonistic muscles is an unconscious response that acts to preserve joint integrity and prevent injury; experienced trainees with good motor control can voluntary manipulate this neural strategy to provide additional resistance in the exercise.

I think that many bodybuilders exploit this strategy in an effort to help them target specific muscles. Think of it this way: while weight on the bar is light, movement speed is slow, yet activation of the primer mover (agonist) muscles is probably high (near or at maximal voluntary activation). By contracting antagonistic muscles, they can increase the amount of resistance that the primer mover muscle has to overcome. Taking a practical example, while the biceps are the primer mover in the bicep curl, by increasing contraction of the triceps, which will resist elbow flexion, our curler will have to produce enough force to overcome not only the weight in their hand but also counteract the elbow extension force produced by the triceps.

Powerlifters: Making heavy weights look light

To bring this full circle and back to the debate of bodybuilder’s disproportionate strength to muscle mass, would a powerlifter ever try to slow down movement speed by contracting antagonistic muscles? Would they ever try to intentionally grind out a deadlift our squat? Likely not, and while I’m not a competitive powerlifter, I’ve never thought a five second concentric on a deadlift would be that fun. If you take a second to look at any of the publicly available powerlifting logs over at EliteFTS, or based on your own experience in the gym, you’ve probably noticed that most are trying to make the weight fly up, probably not an expression associated with slow moving weights. Better yet, Tony Gentilcore summed up this approach to the bar perfectly in his appropriately title post ‘Intimidate the weight’.

So with no complicated molecular mumbo jumbo we’ve managed to see another contributor to the bodybuilder to muscle mass strength differential. While I don’t have any citations to back this idea up, it would be nice to see whether the respective athletes are using these neural strategies in their approach to different exercises. I think you’ll find that bodybuilders making heavy weights light and powerlifters making light weights heavy may explain, at least partially, the differential in strength between these two groups.

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Dan Ogborn