Why Athletes Need Muscles

By Nick Tumminello

The goal of exercise programming for enhanced human performance is to maximize training transfer. Put simply, some exercises provide obvious and direct transfer to improved performance in sporting actions and overall functional capacity, whereas others provide less obvious transfer—that is, indirect transfer.

Since bodybuilding workouts do not necessarily reflect the specific force-generation and neuromuscular coordination patterns of many common movements in athletics, their positive transfer into improved performance potential is less obvious. This fact has led some personal trainers and coaches to mistakenly label them as “nonfunctional” and therefore not valuable. That is a false belief.

Granted, the further an exercise gets away from replicating the specific force-generation patterns of a given movement, the less directly it carries over to improving the neuromuscular coordination of that movement. However, as this article will demonstrate, this fact doesn’t make an exercise bad, and it certainly doesn’t make it “nonfunctional.” It simply means the less specific an exercise is, the more general it is.

With that said, since it’s well established that getting stronger can help sports performance, this article provides three ways in which using bodybuilding workouts to get bigger—that is, to increase muscle size—along with strength training concepts, can transfer to improved sports performance.

1. Better Ability to Dissipate Impact Force (More Body Armor)

Physics tells us that a larger surface area dissipates impact force and vibration better than a smaller surface area of the same stiffness. In athletic terms, bigger muscle mass better dissipates the impact force and vibration caused by events such as falling, getting punched, and taking or delivering a hit (as in football or hockey.)

To go into more detail, the way to better dissipate force is to spread it out over a greater area so no single spot bears the brunt of concentrated force. One good example is an arch bridge. Accordingly, those who wish to improve functional capacity and participate in impact sports should consider bodybuilding exercises—both for the physique benefits and as a way to build the body’s physiological armor. In fact, a larger muscle not only helps dissipate external impact forces, but also sets the stage for increased force production (by upgrading your hardware), provided that your central nervous system (your software) can muster the neural charge to maximize it!

2. Stronger From Your Feet

Unless you’re a race-car driver, it is crucial for you as an athlete to be strong from a standing position. More specifically, a study that compared the Single-Arm Standing Cable Press to the traditional Bench Press not only showed that the two actions involve very different force-production and neuromuscular-coordination patterns, but it also demonstrated that in a standing position, one’s horizontal pushing force is limited to about 40 percent of body weight.

This tells us that it’s mathematically and physically impossible for anyone to match, or even come close to replicating, what they can bench press in a push from a standing position. It also tells us that the heavier you are, the more horizontal and diagonal pushing force you can produce from the standing position (regardless of your weightroom numbers), because you have more bodyweight from which to push.

RELATED: 5 Pressing Variations That Are Better Than The Bench Press

Although it’s clear the Bench Press is one of the most overemphasized and misunderstood exercises in the sports performance world, this isn’t to deny that developing a stronger Bench Press can help your standing push performance. Rather, these results indicate that also getting bigger (gaining weight) can help you better use your strength by providing a greater platform from which to push against your opponents. It can also give you a better chance to avoid getting knocked over or knocked off balance. So, putting on 20 pounds of muscle mass—it is rarely good to gain weight in the form of extra body fat—though hypertrophy training (i.e., bodybuilding workouts) can give you more push-force production ability (i.e., strength) from your feet.

3. Harder Hitting

In a similar vein, another study, this one focused on baseball pitchers, found that increased body weight is highly associated with increased pitch velocity. In other words, pitchers who weighed more tended to throw the ball faster than those who weighed less.

Since throwing and striking are similar total-body actions—both summate force from the ground up—this finding about pitching correlates with what we see in combat sports. All other things (e.g., technical ability) being equal, bigger athletes simply tend to punch (and throw) harder than their smaller counterparts, because they have more body weight behind their punches (and throws). This gives them a greater platform (more weight into the ground) from which to generate force and use their power.

RELATED: STACK Performance Nutrition: How Athletes Should Gain Weight

If you’re someone who worries about gaining too much muscle, here’s something to think about: Although a gain of 10 pounds (4.5 kg) of muscle mass constitutes a significant increase, that additional muscle is not so noticeable if it is spread throughout the body.

Training Methods Aren’t Mutually Exclusive

As I said in my book, Building Muscle and Performance, “It’s not that bodybuilding workouts (i.e., size training concepts) make you less athletic; rather, it’s that if all you do is bodybuilding, then you’ll become less athletic simply because you’re not also regularly requiring your body to do athletic actions. As the old saying goes, ‘If you don’t use it, you lose it.’ However, you won’t lose athletic ability if you regularly do athletic actions while integrating some general bodybuilding concepts.”

The arguments about specific versus general exercise (i.e., movement-focused versus muscle-focused) are ridiculous. They’re like arguing about whether you should eat vegetables or fruits. Avoiding one or the other will leave your diet deficient. That’s why nutrition experts always encourage eating a “colorful diet,” with a variety of both vegetables and fruits, because they all have a different ratio of vitamins and minerals.

Similarly, a training plan that exclusively focuses on either general or specific exercises leaves some potential benefits untapped, since each method offers unique training benefits the other lacks. In contrast, a training plan that combines both specific and general methods enables you to achieve superior results by helping you build a more athletic body that’s got both the hustle and the muscle you seek.


1. Santana, J.C., F.J. Vera-Garcia, and S.M. McGill. 2007. “A kinetic and electromyographic comparison of the standing cable press and bench press.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 21 (4): 1271–77.

2. Werner, S.L., et al. 2008. “Relationships between ball velocity and throwing mechanics in collegiate baseball pitchers.” Journal of Shoulder and Elbow Surgery 17 (6): 905–8.