Does bodybuilding aid in athletic preparation? To answer this question, we must also consider another; could a bodybuilder survive in the primal environment in which we evolved? Skills and abilities necessary to be competitive in sport today are very similar to those essential for survival in a Neolithic environment. If we evaluate which biomotor abilities were necessary for survival as a primal being and which biomotor abilities are necessary for sport we find numerous similarities, placing these creatures far above the genus “Bodybuilder” on the evolutionary scale!

There are five physical factors that athletes must possess, the exact order of importance varying from sport to sport.

  • Strength
  • Power
  • Balance and Agility
  • Flexibility
  • Endurance

How many of these were necessary for Primal Man? Is Bodybuilding really the best way to train for each modality today?

Primal Man certainly needed strength for the purpose of building shelter, protecting himself/herself and family from neighbors who did not agree about property lines, or who wanted your food! But what kind of strength was it? Not the kind that is developed on knee extension, leg press and hamstring curl machines! These machine-based exercises don’t help improve functional squat strength and I doubt such exercises would do squat in an environment that was as athletic as a good footy game!

Power, the ability to apply force quickly, would definitely have been more of an asset to Primal Man than possessing bulky muscle. Just consider that you would have had to feed all those cells during periods when food was scare; certainly there were no muscle-building shakes to keep you going. To put it bluntly, if you couldn’t throw a spear or a rock with serious intent, or run like hell when necessary, you would have got to smell cat breath, and I not talking pet cat here!

Balance and agility were no doubt high on the prerequisite list for Primal Man. Running through the brush, hopping rocks across streams and down mountainsides was risky business when you consider that a broken leg could have very well been fatal; sounds like rugby, not bodybuilding!

Flexibility would have been developed proportional to the working environment; if you lived in the mountains your flexibility would certainly have been greater by necessity than those who lived in the plains. Although I doubt Pebbles and Bam Bam held regular stretching sessions, today we have evolved to the point of realizing the prophylactic value of stretching. However there is a definite science behind correct stretching and the nonscientific way most athletes and teams go about it makes you wonder if perhaps they would be better off back in the Stone Age.

Endurance was also very likely related to Primal Man’s dominant activities. If you were an Aboriginal who had to trek for miles to obtain a specific plant or water, you would no doubt have developed a strong endurance base. Alternatively if food was plentiful but moved quickly (think rabbit), you were probably very cunning with a high anaerobic capacity. Pure speed was not just the issue as I have never met a human being that could outrun any animal that you eat in the wild; well, I take that back – Ben Johnson recently outran a race horse but I don’t think he ate it!

An interesting fact with regard to energy systems is that, by necessity of survival, Primal Man developed the energy system most dominant in his daily activities. This is important when applied to athletes today. I consult with and see numerous athletes, coaches and sports teams that compete in a purely anaerobic environment, yet are still regularly going on 5-10 Km runs as part of their training program. Would someone please pass on this very insightful quote I picked up from Al Vermeil (Strength Coach, Chicago Bulls); “Train Slow – Be Slow!”

Let’s get down to brass tacks here. If you are in a sport that requires any form of first step quickness or explosiveness and you are lifting with the traditional bodybuilding protocols (8-12 rep sets on a slow (303) tempo using 1:00 rest periods), you are training strength endurance, not maximal strength or explosiveness! Just look at the time under tension for each set:

8 reps x 6 seconds = 48 seconds
9 reps x 6 seconds = 54 seconds
10 reps x 6 seconds = 60 seconds
11 reps x 6 seconds = 66 seconds
12 reps x 6 seconds = 72 seconds

This equates to an average time under tension of 60 seconds, which is clearly well into the fast glycolytic energy system, or what is often referred to as the lactic acid energy system. This is clearly strength/endurance training. This type of training is fine in a base-conditioning phase for a rugby player that needs to put on 8-10 Kg of muscle or as part of a carefully periodized plan for a tennis player that must perform for hours at a time. The point here is that the only athletic component bodybuilders encounter is having to walk across a stage and selectively spasm muscles to their favorite tune! That is not how you win a tennis match, test match, wrestling match or volley ball game.

WHAT IS FUNCTIONAL EXERCISE?

Today, many athletic programs and professional sports teams use bodybuilding machines and protocol to condition athletes. When we consider that most bodybuilding exercises require neuromuscular isolation (working a single muscle), not integration (working multiple muscles and muscle groups) and virtually every sport or functional activity known to man requires high levels of neuromuscular integration, we are off to a bad start. Additionally, consider that most bodybuilding exercises are performed on machines (Figure 1), requiring no activation of postural muscles, minimal activation of stabilizer and neutralizer muscle functions, and certainly don’t require that you maintain your center of gravity over your own base of support at all times; there’s not much need to activate stabilizers and postural muscles when sitting on a machine with a huge base of support that is bolted to the floor!

Compare traditional bodybuilding exercises to good old free weight training exercises such as the lunge (Figure 2) or medicine ball exercises like the back toss (Figure 3). When you perform a free weight exercise that requires maintenance of your own center of gravity over your own base of support and are unsupported by an outside means, you must co-condition all stabilizer, neutralizer and postural muscles directly involved with that given exercise or movement pattern. If you want to see what happens when you do too much bodybuilding, take any bodybuilder to rugby practice and watch what happens when the team starts practicing agility drills; sort of like watching a white truck driver dance funk!

If I were a Bengal tiger in the wild, I would certainly be hoping to see a bodybuilder or two about now; I wonder if a tiger could taste the lack of neuromuscular intelligence in a muscle should he have eaten a bodybuilder? A good athlete will never know!

Now that it’s obvious that primal beings were athletes and most bodybuilders are praying that we don’t wind the clock back 2000 years, let’s look at what athletes (and bodybuilders if they are still here) can do to improve function and prevent injury:

ADD SOME BALANCE AND PROPRIOCEPTION TRAINING TO YOUR PROGRAM

SWISS BALLS, also called Physio-balls, Stability Balls, Fit Balls, Medi-Balls, Gymnic Balls, and most recently the new super strong Aussie-made Dura-Ball Pro (designed to be used with free weights) are incredible tools for both rehabilitation and performance enhancement. They allow unrestricted 3-D movement at any speed and also require that you constantly maintain your base of support. Exercising on a Swiss Ball enhances the development of both righting and tilting reflexes (Table 1). This is important because righting and tilting reflexes or a combination of both are required for optimal performance in virtually every sport, even posing in a bodybuilding competition! For example, walking on a balance beam (fixed object) requires righting reflex activation while tilting reflexes are activated when you step on an object that moves under you, such as a moving sidewalk in the airport, riding a horse, or riding a surf board (Figure 5.).

THE FITTER is an excellent piece of equipment, originally designed to improve ski performance. This unique piece meets all the requirements for decreasing your chance of being eaten by a tiger and increases your chances of scoring goals! As you can see in Figure 4, you will develop balance, coordination, learn to maintain your center of gravity over a constantly changing base of support, and by the way, you will have to learn to do it fast! That doesn’t sound anything like sport, does it??



OLYMPIC LIFTING AND ALL UNASSISTED FREE WEIGHT TRAINING will improve performance to primal standard and beyond if guided by an experienced conditioning coach. To clarify what I mean by “primal standard”, consider that as developmental beings we had to squat, lunge, bend, push, pull, twist, walk, jog, and run efficiently and effectively to survive. If you couldn’t perform these essential primal patterns, you were a drain on your family or dead, one of the two! An important point to make here is that all seven primal patterns (gait includes walking, jogging, and running) required that you maintain your center of gravity over your base of support at all times. Additionally, they require high levels of neuromuscular integration and significant levels of coordination, and depending on what you were doing required, one or a combination of both righting and tilting reflex activation. Can we say the same for today’s modern machine-based training environment?

The length / force relationships developed with free weights are exactly what the sports doctor ordered in every way. With free weight training, our joint mechanics and gravity create an environment that produces the greatest load on the muscle-tendon complex at a point approximating the strongest point of the length / force relationship of any given muscle-tendon-joint complex. For example, if you were to do a biceps curl with a dumbbell, the load is at its maximum when your forearm is parallel to the earth; that is about mid-range with relation to the sliding filaments in the muscle. In contrast, a biceps curl done against stretch cord resistance produces continually increasing load as the stretch cord lengthens. The obvious point of maximum loading then becomes the point at which the muscle is maximally shortened, which is not where we tend to use our muscles to perform functional activities; with that in mind, you may wonder just how valuable stretch cord training is over the long term.

IN CONCLUSION

To improve performance and prevent injury, consider where we are all still cave men and women wearing nice clothes and driving cars. When embarking on an exercise program for general health and fitness or for sport, you must ask yourself what biomotor abilities your leisure, work or sport environment requires and select exercises that will enhance performance, not detract from it. In short, the best thing you can do is train predominantly with free weights, a Swiss Ball and some balance and proprioception training toys. You will not only improve performance and prevent injury but you will have fun!

TABLE 1.

 

SPORT

 

RIGHTING REFLEX USE

 

TILTING REFLEX USE

Gymnastics

XXX

 

Soccer

XXX

 

Surfing

XX

XX

Equestrian

XX

XX

Rugby/ Aussie Rules Football

XX

X

Netball

XXX

 

Ocean swimming

X

X

Mountain biking

XX

XX

Moto-x

XX

XX