Thursday, June 17, 2010

Bodybuilding vs. Functional Training

I was reading a blog post from the always excellent Conditioning Research blog and came upon a link to this very interesting web page.  It has a couple of free videos, and I recommend you watch at least the first one, to get a nice background for what I want to talk about.

Bodybuilding, and bodybuilding workouts, get a generally bad rap in the strength community, or at least certain parts of it, and I'd like to weigh in on the subject.

First, understand that I am a semi-serious fan of the sport of bodybuilding.  I'm not a huge fan of the physiques of today, but I was really inspired by the physiques of the late 70's and 80's.  So I've put a lot of thought into the philosophical issues around bodybuilding.

Bodybuilding is the sport of building a physique that matches a certain aesthetic.  In other words, training to look a certain way.  The bodybuilders of today train to look a certain way that may appear overly muscular or overly vascular to many onlookers - including me - but that means we don't share the aesthetic, not that it's somehow invalid.  The easiest comparison to make is with powerlifters.  Powerlifters don't care how they look as long as they can lift heavy objects. 

I would argue that any training program that focuses on achieving appearance goals is bodybuilding.  Even some of those idiotic slim down - toning type workouts advertised by celebrity trainers fits that bill.  The aesthetic they are chasing is very different from that of modern professional bodybuilding, but it's still bodybuilding.

Functional training is training in order to achieve movement goals.  A track athlete squatting to improve his sprinting speed is doing functional training, while a 40 year old guy squatting because his girlfriend likes men with big legs is bodybuilding. 

Now the two are not completely separate.  There is no program on earth that will build size without any increases in strength, especially not for a beginning trainee, and no program that will drastically change movement quality without changing the appearance of your physique.  If you are looking to have an "atheltic" type of physique, a track star's program may be the best way to get there.  But for the most part any program will address these goals to different degrees.  If your primary goal is to look good you should train one way.  If your primary goal is to be a kickass martial artist or the best free safety you can be, you should probably train differently.  The two programs may share certain elements but they will also differ considerably.

Bodybuilding training gets a bad rap for many reasons, but the biggest one is that, because of the popularity of bodybuilding magazines, many athletes in search of a functional training program follow a bodybuilding program, out of ignorance, and often get poor results.  If you're a 16 year old kid looking to get in shape for football, your first source of information is quite likely to be Muscle & Fitness magazine - or at least it was when I was 16 (I'm not sure how things have changed).  Muscle & Fitness is, or was, a bodybuilding magazine, and the programs in it are designed to make you look good, not to be more athletic.

To be "against" bodybuilding based on this confusion is wrong-headed.  Bodybuilding training isn't bad, it just isn't the same as functional training.  It is training towards a different goal.  I'm not opposed to this goal at all.  A martial artist does, however, need to understand the difference.

Now remember that functional training will affect your appearance.  Getting lean, building strength, developing the core, all will make you look good, and certainly better than your sedentary peers.  Also remember that there's nothing wrong with adopting elements of a bodybuilding program for the sake of vanity.  For example, I do sets of shoulder presses because I like having wide shoulders.  Is it functional?  I'm sure it is to some extent, but there are probably more efficient ways I could maintain shoulder health and ability.  There's also nothing wrong with doing a couple of sets of curls at the end of your workout.  But I work out understanding which elements of my program are addressing functional needs and which are for vanity and I emphasize them correspondingly.  If you start your program with 12 sets of dumbell presses for chest and end with two sets of hip adduction on a machine you're training for appearance, not performance.  If that's your goal, then that's fine with me, but don't think you're going to maximize your potential as a fighter that way.

If I wanted to bodybuild I'd seriously consider a program like the one in the link I started with.  I'd probably rather be built like Brad Pitt in Fight Club than like a powerlifter.  I'd start by working my hips a lot less and my arms a lot more.  But I'm not a bodybuilder, and haven't trained like one in many years.  However you choose to train, be aware of how well your program matches your goals and you'll have a better shot at achieving them!


  1. Thank you for sharing such great information.It is informative, can you help me in finding out more detail on Functional Training Program,iam interested and would like to know more about this field and wanted to understand the basics of Fitness Experts

  2. A high percentage of bodybuilding fitness programs are successful mainly because its participants are looking to improve themselves.