Whose muscles are better: Athlete or Bodybuilder ?

Health conscious people often compare the body/muscles of an athlete with bodybuilders. The truth is that even professional bodybuilders can't beat the strength of muscles of a professional athlete. The looks of a bodybuilder's muscles might be more fascinating compared to an athlete, but not the strength. Even the best bodybuilder in the world with best leg muscles can't beat Usain Bolt on a racing track.

What makes muscles of an athlete work better than a bodybuilder ?
Muscles of an athlete are trained for strength, while muscles of a bodybuilder are made to look bigger in size. There is a major difference between their body types. More strength in the body of an athlete is a result of better nervous system. Bigger muscles are not a proof of better nervous system functioning behind. More power generated by athlete's muscles is done by both muscles and nerves connected to brain. It would not be wrong to say that real strength lies in your brain. Practice is necessary in both cases, but exercises of a bodybuilder are totally different from athletes. Training programs of an athlete train their nervous system equally with their muscles.

Science behind improving nervous system for more strength

Intense physical activity causes motor unit recruitment to increase the strength. Motor Units (motor neurons connected to muscle fibers) make our muscles contract by bringing the electrical signal sent by brain from spinal cord to muscle fiber. Motor Unit Recruitment is activation of more motor units. Intense physical activity activates more motor units and thus increases the strength of contraction of muscles.

Our brain fires electrical impulses to motor units to contract a muscle. The strength of contraction depends on two factors.
  • How many muscle fibers are connected to each motor unit.
  • How fast is the firing rate of electrical impulse sent fro brain to motor unit.

Regular intense physical activity increases both of these factors. It increases the strength of contraction by 2 to 4 times. 
When we exercise regularly our brain get used to increased blood supply and adapts the ability to turning some genes ON and OFF as per need of body at that time. When we exercise our body take that moment as a moment of stress, due to increase of blood pressure and breathing (as if we are fighting or fleeing from some enemy). To protect our brain from this stress a protein called BDNF (Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor) is released, which empowers our memory neurons.
So in more easy terms you can say that exercise or intense physical activity not only increases your muscle size but also improves your memory and ability of your nervous system to contract your existing muscles with more power.

Athlete versus Bodybuilder

After reading all of the above content you will believe it if we say that size has nothing to do with actual strength.
  • Body of a professional sportsperson is trained to use its muscles with speed and strength. While the body of a bodybuilder is trained to show how much it can pump .
  • No matter how big are muscles of bodybuilder, they can't push the body to attain the speed of an athlete. It is due to lesser motor unit recruitment, which empowers the nerves behind the muscles to show more strength at a certain time.
  • The coordination between different body muscles is better in athletes/sportsperson. Even eye's coordination with other body parts is better in them.
  • Muscles of a bodybuilder may be bigger but their flexibility is lesser that a sportsman. 
  • Muscles of an athlete can bear more burden for a longer duration. Again it is due to better nervous system functioning behind.
If you understand the difference between exercises of Athlete and Bodybuilder, then you will be better able to know why athlete's muscles work better in certain sports while the bodybuilder's bigger muscles can't do that.
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