There is some controversy around having too much muscle when it comes to athletes. Some say it can hinder flexibility and agility.

Strength & Conditioning Coach Brad Gillingham is here to disprove this muscle-bound myth.

Athletes engage in strength training to improve performance by gaining muscle mass, speed, power, strength, and endurance. In other words, to make themselves better in their sport. Despite the benefits of strength training, historically athletes have had to fight a misconception from some coaches that feel strength training is a detriment to performance, i.e. lifting weights will make you muscle-bound.

According to Merriam-Webster the first known use of term muscle-bound was in 1879. The definition of muscle-bound is: (a) having some of the muscles tense and enlarged and of impaired elasticity sometimes as a result of excessive exercise; and (b) lacking in flexibility (rigid).1

Debunking the Muscle-Bound Myth

Athletes and strength coaches have been fighting the weight trained muscle-bound myth for over a century. In 1915, Alan Calvert, the man responsible for bringing progressive resistance training to the U.S., (Milo Bar-Bell Company) tried to dispatch the myth of muscle-bound in an article he wrote in Strength Magazine. In this article he debunked a rumor that historic strongman and bodybuilder Eugen Sandow had died in agony from becoming muscle bound. Rumor had it that Sandow, whom the Mr. Olympia Sandow Award is named after, had overbuilt his large muscles. This caused his muscles to become so stiff that they violently contracted and “squeezed the life out of him”. Sandow actually passed away 10 years later in 1925. Calvert attributed the myth of becoming muscle-bound to a misunderstanding of the principals of progressive resistance, and from coaches fearing that their athletes may surpass them in strength.2


Forty-five years after Calvert’s article my father Gale Gillingham experienced this same misconception in high school, at the University of Minnesota, and even during his career with the Green Bay Packers. He was a dominant 6-time All-Pro, Green Bay Packer Hall of Famer, and was known for his brute strength, explosive power, and speed. During his time at the U of M players were forbidden to lift weights for fear that they may become muscle-bound. Those that were knowledgeable about the benefits of strength training were forced to sneak into the weight room. These same restrictions existed when he first arrived in Green Bay. He refused to be limited and continued to train year around. His role as an early pioneer in NFL strength training was recently documented in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research.2 He did not become muscle-bound.

The Origin of Strength and Conditioning

Legendary Nebraska Strength Coach Boyd Epley organized the National Strength and Conditioning Association in 1978 to dispel these kinds of myths, and to advance strength and conditioning training. The NSCA is responsible for creating the Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) certification. When Epley became the Big Eight’s first strength coach in 1970 many coaches still thought that weight training made athletes slow and muscle-bound. In 1982, he was quoted as saying “If I made Nebraska’s football players slower, I would have been fired 11 years ago”. 3 They did not become muscle-bound.

Current Views on Muscle

Unfortunately, I have run into this myth of muscle-bound several times over the years. Yes, it still exists. One example happened a few years ago. Several coaches, and uninformed parents felt that I was making our small-town quarterback too big and too strong. In fact, they feared that he would no longer be able to throw the ball. As it turned out this 165 lb. athlete went on to lead his team in winning the State Football Championship, and later in the year was a top finisher in the State Wrestling Tournament. He eventually represented USA Powerlifting in two IPF Junior World Championships. He did not become muscle-bound.
If you only lift heavy and do not include joint mobility and sport specific training into your workout you can become less mobile, but that does not happen overnight. Admittedly, I am not the same athletic shooting guard and track athlete that I was in high school, but my purpose for training the past 35 years was to get as strong as I could for contests of maximum strength. My training was sport specific. It was directed towards becoming better in strength athletics.

Training for Sport

Training should be programmed to be sport specific and periodized. You don’t want your shooting guard maxing out in the squat and bench on game day. In this case, it is more appropriate to maintain strength and power during the season, and to work on strength and hypertrophy gains in the off- season. Mobility work is important to counter some of the mobility restrictions that can come from putting on additional muscle. Even the most muscular strength athletes can maintain mobility as evidenced by eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman. He frequently would perform full splits as part of his bodybuilding posing routine. Additionally, massive 2021 NCAA National Heavyweight Wrestling Champion and current Olympian, Gable Stevenson, frequently performs an explosive backflip immediately after winning his matches. He has not become muscle-bound.

When I was working with my local high school girls’ program, we lifted heavy in the off-season and utilized more speed work during the season. Every workout was proceeded by a dynamic warm-up that included mobility work. We tried to keep the athletes as strong and explosive as possible throughout the year. My last year with the program the girls I trained won both the State Volleyball and Basketball Championships. They did not become muscle-bound. I have brought this same philosophy over to the college volleyball and wrestling teams I currently work with. These athletes also have not become muscle-bound.

References:

  1. Merriam-Webster. Muscle-bound. Merriam-Webster. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/muscle-bound#h1. Accessed April 2, 2021.
  2. Calvert A. What Does “Muscle-Bound” Mean? Strength. March 1915:2-5. https://archives.starkcenter.org/omeka/files/original/aa36c331dff8078a600176a6b89c9aa4.pdf. Accessed March 30, 2021.
  3. Shurley JP. Stronger is better. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2020;34(5):1201-1212.
  4. Staniak, S. Pumping iron pays off at Nebraska. UPI. https://www.upi.com/Archives/1982/08/09/Pumping-iron-pays-off-at-Nebraska/9704397713600/. Published August 9, 1982.
Hall of Fame Powerlifter Brad Gillingham

Brad Gillingham

Brad Gillingham is a Hall of Fame Powerlifter who is a 6-time IPF World Powerlifting Champion and has more than 30 IPF World Championship medals under his belt.  Brad is the co-owner of Jackals Gym where he coaches a variety of athletes.  Brad is also strength and conditioning coach for wrestling and volleyball at Southwest Minnesota State University.

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