The next several articles I’m going to run are actually related although, going contrary to my normally obsessive approach to naming, they won’t just be Part 1,2,3 with the same name. Mainly because that would give away the punchline to the article series, a topic that I’ve actually addressed before but want to take another run at since I see people making the same stupid comments and arguments.
In any case, I’m going to start today by addressing one of those trite phrases that gets thrown around from time to time in the fitness arena. I’ve looked at one of these before, in an admittedly tongue in cheek way (get it?) but this article is actually serious. Specifically the phrase I want to look at is the one that makes up the title of this piece:
Train Like an Athlete to Look Like an Athlete
This particular trite suggestion shows up once or twice a year, usually on bodybuilding oriented sites by someone looking to challenge the status quo. If you simply Google “Train like an athlete to look like an athlete” you’ll find all kinds of silliness about what exercises or training you should do to “look athletic”. There are entire training philosophies and apparently one brain surgeon argues that “sport training will give you the build of that sport” or something equally asinine.
These types of articles usually end up being sort of anti-bodybuilding in nature suggesting that the methods used by bodybuilders to get jacked and lean are inferior to producing a good physique than just “Training like an athlete.” Which presumably will make you “Look like an athlete”. Which is apparently good for some reason.
Now, I’m not really going to address the specific issue of what “Training like an athlete” might actually mean here since, for reasons that derive directly from what I will say is a meaningless phase. Who in the hell thinks that all athletes even train remotely in the same fashion. Train like an athlete is meaningless at a fundamental level.
Rather, I want to look at the second half of the suggestion/triteness which is to “Look like an athlete”. Because once again the implication of all of these articles is that somehow training in a specific “athletic” way will give one an “athletic look”. Of course that even assumes that it’s the training that generates the body type but I’ll come back to that.
But what does that even mean? That is, what does it mean to look like an athlete? This isn’t me just being my normal pedantic pain in the ass self. I ask it because it should be clear to anyone with eyes that work that there is no singular “athletic” look or physique. Quite in fact, and I’ll come back to this below, as sports have become more specialized, the tendency is for athletes in the same sport to look very similar but they may look totally different from athletes in any other sport. This is due to a huge self-selection process. But more on that later.
Perhaps is this no better shown than in a photo set (that everyone else seems to be using and I will too) that was put together by a photographer named Howard Schatz called Athlete. In short, he took photos of top athletes in a variety of sports, both men and women and put them side to side.
Even a cursory look shows that not only is there huge variation in body type among different sports, some of the “athletes” don’t have a physique that I think most would aspire to.
Quick note: this isn’t meant to be a negative comment on the physiques of those athletes although it sounds like it. The goal of an athlete is PERFORMANCE and their physique/aesthetics is usually of only secondary relevance to that (there are some sports where aesthetics are relevant such as figure skating and, of course, in the physique sports, it’s the physique itself being judged). So the fact that, for example, a superheavy weight Olympic lifter looks like just another big fat guy is irrelevant to the fact that he’s lifting all the weight. His goal isn’t aesthetics, his goal is performance.
Now, I’m not going to put up every picture in the series (there are 20 of them); you can see all of them here. Rather, I’m going to pick and choose a few that I think are the most striking in terms of the differences in athletic body-type and leave it at that in an attempt to make my point.
Here’s one good example, showing natural vs. pro bodybuilding as well as super heavy weight (Shane Hamman, one of the top US lifters a few years back) vs. lighter Olympic lifting (Oscar Chaplin). If you have eyes you can see a pretty major difference in muscularity, leanness (or fatness as the case may be) between them. But these are all athletes. And all athletes who lift weights I might add.
Here’s the female equivalent of that, showing female weightlifters (Tara Nott and Cheryl Hayworth), a pro female bodybuilder (Kim Chivesky) along with two different rhythmic gymnastics athletes. Again, pretty monstrous differences in physique between the females here. But all are elite athletes.
A final one, showing a mix of male and female athletes; I can’t identify any of them (the picture isn’t annotated) but one is clearly a sumo wrestler. All athletes, all with vastly different body types.
There is No Singular Athlete Physique
So what’s my point? Clearly there is no singular athletic bodytype. Looking at even this brief cross section shows vastly differing physiques ranging from jacked and lean (the bodybuilders pretty much trump it all) to, well, the opposite of that. Some of these folks, if you saw them on the street you wouldn’t even guess were an athlete much less a top-level one. I think I’ve mentioned this before but I had the opportunity to train around a number of top Olympic speed skaters, many of whom didn’t look like athletes at all. Just gangly white guys who could skate like demons.
That alone should throw some rather serious doubt on the whole idea of “Train like an athlete to look like an athlete”. Simply because there is no singular athletic look. But even assuming that there were, this would all still hinge on the assumption that it was the training alone that was responsible for the ending body type (an issue I’ll be coming back to clearly).
Selecting for Athletic Success
Because there is also an enormous selection pressure in high-level sport. The competitors look more like each other than not because of the training itself but because every sport tends to have an ideal body shape and size. A 6′ tall person doesn’t generally do well in gymnastics or Olympic lifting so you see shorter people (people will always point to a singular exception and they exist but let’s focus on the generalities here guys); a 5′ person doesn’t do well in basketball or pole vault so you see taller people.
But the sport didn’t make them tall or short or muscular or lean; being tall and short or prone to muscularity or leanness made them built properly for the sport which they got into, succeeded at (because they were genetically suited to it) and continued performing. In bodybuilding, it’s usually felt that you need small joints and long muscle bellies to succeed. That’s genetic. Powerlifters need to have certain levers (although it is the sport where technique modification such as widening squat stance or bench grip can make up for some of this) and robust joints.
Olympic lifting allows for far less variety of technique modification so the body builds tend to be very different. Even there, some guys are relatively unmuscular, some guys are jacked (and the Chinese who are jacked as shit get there by doing bodybuilding training after their OL’ing work because that is the MOST efficient way to build muscles). Grip guys have to have big hands and if you don’t, you won’t get very far (you can also make women feel VERY SAFE). But training your grip won’t somehow give you big hands; if it did Pornhub would be the ideal training ground. Well maybe arm wrestling. Anyhow.
Put differently, it’s not so much that the training gives them the body type so much as the body type gives them the ability to succeed at the sport in the first place. At most the training emphasizes or solidifies their genetic tendencies in terms of body type and only sometimes then. Someone prone to strength and muscularity succeeds and is selected for sports which require strength and muscularity and the training tends to emphasize strength and muscularity which maximizes their genetic gifts.
But take someone without those genetic gifts and put them into the same training and the same may or may not happen. Certainly the training won’t magically turn you into the right body type for the sport. It might move you towards that in some form or fashion but you won’t wake up and look like an elite athlete just by doing their training.
And to pretty much give away what this article “series” will be about, let’s face facts, lately when someone says “Train like an athlete to look like an athlete” what they really mean is train to look like this.
That is, to look like a sprinter.