Picture this: you’re walking through the store wearing your new workout tank from Lululemon and someone comes up beside you and asks the question: “Are you a bodybuilder?” You try to stifle a laugh so as not to offend them, but inwardly you can’t help but giggle with amusement. Secretly, it’s flattering to hear that your arms must look that jacked, but you quickly set the record straight and let them know that you actually do CrossFit (there’s a big difference between staring at yourself in the mirror while doing dumbbell curls and laying on the floor in a pool of your own sweat after you’ve finished your one-hundredth burpee). The misconception that having muscles means you are a bodybuilder may seem a little ridiculous, but the reality is that the sport of CrossFit and the sport of bodybuilding are often seen as the same. This may not necessarily be a bad thing considering that there are several different aspects of bodybuilding that can actually benefit your CrossFit performance.
When you hear the term ‘bodybuilding’, the image that most likely comes to mind is that of a guy in a cut-off t-shirt doing bicep curls in front of a mirror. This imaginary picture actually brings up an important point: bodybuilding uses movements that train smaller muscle groups in isolation. This type of training can actually benefit CrossFit athletes because oftentimes when they perform compound lifts (squat, deadlift, clean, snatch, etc.), their body will find the most effective way to move the weight, favoring the stronger muscles and protecting the weaker ones.
Let’s use the back squat as an example. Many athletes, especially females, are quad-dominant, which means they rely on their quad muscles to squat, rather than also engaging their hamstrings and glutes to optimize their strength. One way to reverse this deficiency is to perform movements that isolate the hamstrings (such as glute-ham raises) and/or the glutes (such as barbell glute bridges). These muscle-specific movements teach you how to engage these individual muscles properly and help you strengthen them on their own.
A bodybuilding-style of training can improve your overall strength because of its tendency to incorporate unilateral (single-sided) movements. Oftentimes, individuals have a weaker side, which can be hidden when they only train with a barbell (the stronger side usually picks up the slack for the weaker side). Therefore, in order to smooth out any imbalances that you might have, it is important to train one side at a time. Movements like single-arm dumbbell press, single-arm dumbbell bench press, or single leg RDLs are an excellent way to build strength and correct imbalances at the same time.
Finally, most bodybuilding programs are known for the volume of sets and reps (example: 8 sets of 8 reps) used for each movement. Some programs also include tempo work (or negatives) where the athlete quickly pushes or pulls the weight from its starting position and then slowly returns the weight back, increasing the time under tension. Not only is this format a sure way to build muscle, but it also works to increase the athlete’s muscle endurance. Lots of sets, lots of reps and increased time under tension will all work together to improve an athlete’s ability to work through muscle fatigue.