Looks Versus Lifts: Thoughts On Strength Versus Aesthetic

Back in the day, it seemed like everyone who trained did bodybuilding-like training. I know when I was in high school, college, and the Navy, all of my training was bodybuilding training because, well, I didn’t know any better.

Those were the days before the internet.

That meant if you wanted to train, you tended to grab books like Arnold’s Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding or magazines like Flex or Muscular Development.

Not only that but the public’s perception of “strong” generally meant looking like Arnold or Stallone. It was the way we thought of people who were strong and tough.

Why else do you think Dolph Lundgren or Jean Claude Van Damme came to prominence?

But today, we know a whole lot more. We have access to information we couldn’t imagine back then. Hell, I didn’t even know “powerlifting” was a thing in those days.

Which leads me to ponder: Should new athletes focus on looking good or just being strong?

Before we start, let’s understand the key differences in training, and that’s namely the goal.

For a bodybuilder, the primary focus is on hypertrophy. They want to build big old muscles.

For strength training, it’s about moving a lot of weight.

Understand that while it’s difficult to see the difference in the gym, it really boils down to the focus. As I’ve said before if you could find a way that a bodybuilder could build huge muscles with nothing but a pair of 5 lbs dumbbells, a large number would do it.

On the flip side, if it was possible to bench 500 lbs without gaining a single ounce, a number of strength athletes would probably go along with it.

Zach Even-Esh refers to bodybuilding muscles as “all show, no go” muscles. In other words, they’re created with the intention of looking good, but not much else.

And, honestly, he’s not wrong.

Anyone working with an experienced and knowledgeable coach to train for a sport, for example, will find that unless they’re undersized for that sport, there won’t be much in common with a top-flight bodybuilder’s routine.

Now, with that said, it’s not really an either/or kind of proposition.

If you want to get stronger, you’re probably going to need to build more muscle. On the flip side, if you want to build more muscle, you’re going to have to do things that will make you stronger.

The difference is in the focus, not the results.

However, with that said, there are differences in how you train for each.

So what should you train for?

Well, what follows here is just my advice mind you, but I think you should forget training for aesthetics.

For one, as Even-Esh noted before, having bodybuilding muscles doesn’t necessarily translate into having useable strength. For example, Even-Esh was a bodybuilder while training for wrestling in high school, yet that training didn’t exactly translate to success on the mat.

But he did win the Mr. Israel contest when he competed there one summer while visiting relatives.

In other words, he had the build to win at bodybuilding, but that did nothing to help him win throughout his high school career. The thing is, there’s no real reason to assume it’s different for much of anyone else.

Remember, combat sports athletes are probably the closest analog for those who train to protect themselves from a violent attack. Yet when you look at the training of these athletes, the only time you’ll find anything remotely like a bodybuilding program is likely when an athlete wants to move up into a heavier weight division and wants to do it lean.

“So you’re saying bodybuilders aren’t strong?”

No, I’m not. My father-in-law was a long-time bodybuilder…who happens to have a whole butt-ton of powerlifting trophies. Bodybuilders can get strong.

But it’s a question of what kind of strength.

Being able to do a bicep curl with 200 lbs is pretty cool, but where does that benefit you? How does it help you in the grand scheme of things?

When it comes to the argument between strength versus aesthetics, I come firmly down on the side of strength.

However, I also have to be honest here. I don’t actually see them remotely as mutually exclusive goals. If you want to get strong, you need to get bigger. If you want to get bigger, you’re going to get stronger.

Here’s an Instagram image of Halfthor Bjornsson, The Mountain from Game of Thrones. He’s the current World’s Strongest Man champion as well, so he’s legitimately strong.

Now, look at this picture.

From as aesthetics point of view, are you going to tell me he looks bad? If so, you need to adjust your glasses.

Yes, there are fat strongman competitors and powerlifters. Eddie Hall was a prime example, though he’s lost a ton of weight recently. My point, though, is that yes, there are a lot of fat guys in strength sports, but it’s not universal. It’s not a requirement.

You can be fairly lean, be strong, and look pretty damn good.

No, you won’t look like Arnold in his prime, but I’m going to let you in on a secret: You probably wouldn’t look like Arnold in his prime if you bodybuild either. Arnold was Arnold. No one else is.

For you, though, remember that it’s not an either/or proposition. But if you train to be strong and fit, the “looks good naked” component will take care of itself.

Author: Tom

Tom is a husband, father, novelist, opinion writer, and former Navy Corpsman currently living in Georgia. He's also someone who has lost almost 60 pounds in a safe, sustainable way, so he knows what he's talking about.

2 thoughts on “Looks Versus Lifts: Thoughts On Strength Versus Aesthetic”

  1. True, true. Some depends upon the person and their current level. If a skinny 17 year old gets on a strength building program, he’s probably going to gain a good amount of muscle and look a lot better than if he gets on a body building program, assuming he eats enough. I agree–it’s better to err on the side of strength. I’ve never had much success with the 5-6 day body building splits.

    1. I agree.

      As for the “bro” splits, I’m seeing more and more bodybuilders start training more of a movement-based split, so maybe that’s the new thing and will catch on. Who knows?

      Either way, I figure I’ll keep doing what I’m doing until the weight is gone, then work on building more muscle through higher reps and more food, then cut back when the body fat gets to be too much. Lather, rinse, repeat.

      But if you’re scrawny, you definitely need muscle. I just think a bodybuilding routine does it the wrong way, overall.

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