Do's and Don'ts: Building Muscle for Athletes

Tony Bonvechio
Building Muscle
Building Muscle

Most high school and college athletic departments lack organized strength and conditioning programs, leaving athletes on their own to figure out what to do in the weight room. They know they should lift weights. They just don't how.

So can you blame a young athlete who picks up an issue of Muscular Development, sees Phil Heath's 21-inch arms and wants to try his 8-week biceps program?

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Bodybuilding is OK for the average guy or gal who wants to impress onlookers at the beach, but athletes need specific training programs that hardly resemble traditional bodybuilding workouts. That said, there are some tips from bodybuilders they will find helpful.

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Do: Place Equal Emphasis on Exercise and Nutrition

Bodybuilders are notorious for being regimented eaters. You've seen the jacked guy carrying around the cooler of color-coded Tupperware, filled to the brim with grilled chicken and steamed broccoli. This may seem over the top, but exercise is only half the battle. Athletes need to dedicate themselves equally to exercise and nutrition to refuel just as hard as they train.

Just like bodybuilders, successful athletes plan ahead and make healthy, portable meals. That way there's no excuse for missing a post-workout meal or settling for fast food while traveling for games.

Don't: Go to Extremes

Bodybuilders do some crazy things to get as lean and mean as possible before stepping on the competition stage. Whether it's restricting carbs, fat, calories or fluids, many bodybuilders purposefully deprive themselves of essential nutrients in the name of getting shredded.

Single-digit body fat may look great, but it doesn't feel great. Athletes who need to perform should never omit important nutrients that provide energy, build muscle and optimize health.

For example, many bodybuilders use extreme low-carb ketogenic diets. They cut out all starches and fruits in favor of high protein and fat. They still crush weights and do cardio, which depletes their bodies' glycogen stores (i.e., carbs stored in muscles and the liver). Glycogen is the primary fuel for athletic activity, and without it, fat can't be fully digested, resulting in the production of ketones for energy. Ketones bring along some nasty byproducts, making the body highly acidic and placing stress on the kidneys. Dehydration and heart problems may result, leaving poor performance as the least of your worries.

Even though extreme diets may speed up fat loss, they'll only hurt your performance. Eat a balanced diet of protein, fat and carbs based on the demands of your sport.

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Do: Master the "Mind-Muscle Connection"

Bodybuilders master the art of the "mind-muscle connection"—which means they can "feel" a muscle working as they move the weight from point A to point B.

Applied to sports, a baseball player would learn to "feel" his rotator cuff fire during external rotations, and a soccer player would feel her quads contract during a knee stability exercise. Just going through the motions won't cut it.

Movement quality is paramount for athletes. For example, a Squat is more than just bending your knees until your butt hits your calves. For optimal athletic performance, you need to feel your abs tighten, your glutes fire as you drive your knees out, and your upper back squeeze to keep your chest up. Learning to feel muscles work ingrains good movement habits, which carry over to the field.

Don't: Use Body Part Splits

Chest day, back day, arms day and leg day are staples in bodybuilding programs where the lifter spends an entire day beating a certain body part into oblivion with tons of sets and reps. This may lead to big muscles, but it also leads to crazy soreness and too many isolation exercises.

Cable Crossovers, Concentration Curls and Triceps Kickbacks might help a bodybuilder bring up a lagging body part, but they have no place in an athlete's program. Between practices, games and skill work, athletes have too many physical demands to worry about isolating lots of small muscle groups.

To get the most bang for your buck, do full-body workouts 2-3 times per week or alternate upper- and lower-body days. Use mostly full-body compound exercises for power (Cleans, Snatches and Jumps) and strength (Squats, Deadlifts, Presses and Rows). If your sport requires special emphasis on a small muscle group—like the rotator cuff in tennis or the neck in wrestling—take some extra time to work on it, but don't dedicate an entire workout to it.

Don't: Go Crazy with Supplements

Have you ever cracked open a bodybuilding magazine? It's literally half full of supplement ads! The multi-billion-dollar supplement industry thrives on endorsements from professional bodybuilders who push powders and pills that promise to get you jacked and tan.

Unfortunately, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration has little power to regulate the supplement industry, which means lots of supplements don't live up to their radical claims.

Even worse, many supplements contain ingredients on the NCAA's List of Banned Substances. College athletes need to be especially careful not to take sketchy supplements that could result in a failed drug test.

Do: Ask a Doctor or Athletic Trainer

Consult with your doctor or athletic trainer before taking any supplements. They should know what's safe, what's unsafe, what works and what doesn't work. Most athletic training rooms have a poster listing banned substances. Ask your athletic trainer to explain it to you and crosscheck any ingredients against the banned list.

"Ain't Nothing to It But to Do It"

There's wisdom in those words from Ronnie Coleman, the eight-time Mr. Olympia champion. Bodybuilders are shining examples of dedication and intensity, but not everything they do is best for athletes. To improve your athletic performance, adopt a bodybuilding mindset when it comes to nutritional dedication, the mind-muscle connection and sensible supplementation.

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This article originally appeared on Do's and Don'ts: Building Muscle for Athletes

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