Can Bodybuilders Fight?

By on December 1, 2017

This is a topic I was going to stay away from, but after seeing countless videos on this subject espousing the same point of view, I felt compelled to throw my hat into the ring. Yes, this is a post that is going to be taking the side of the bodybuilder somewhat, as I feel they get a raw deal on the internets.

Can Bodybuilders Fight

So, can a bodybuilder fight?

When I’ve seen other videos on this topic, they almost always start in the same way. They talk about how bodybuilders strut around the gym like they own it, thinking they’re better than everyone because they have so much muscle. The videos then tend to go on to slam those same bodybuilders, saying that it’s not ‘real strength’ and that it’s just insecurity that led them to get so overblown.

Except that’s not my experience of bodybuilders. The bodybuilders I know are generally supremely self confident. They love what they do, they’re good at it, and they feel little reason to prove themselves to anyone else as a result. In fact, in my experience they tend to be particularly chill guys.

So, if someone feels that a bodybuilder is looking down at them, perhaps that’s not an issue with the bodybuilder. Perhaps that’s what we call sour grapes. Maybe the person who feels the need to desperately defend their alpha status in the face of someone physically bigger than them is in fact the one with the insecurities?

Let’s remember: most bodybuilders are not particularly interested in fighting. If they were, they would be fighters.

Bodybuilders VS Fighters

But can a bodybuilder fight? If you put a bodybuilder in the ring against a trained fighter or an average Joe or Josephine, how would they perform?

What many people will point out, is that bodybuilders train with light weights and high rep ranges. This therefore means they aren’t training for true strength but rather size, which may only serve to slow them down.


Moreover, if they throw a punch at a trained fighter, then they will come out worse off every time.

This much is true. Many martial arts such as kung fu teach fighters to ‘absorb’ the energy of their opponent and effectively use it against them. They step to one side and let the punch pass through them, thus throwing the enemy combatant off-balance and setting them up for a jab, throw or lock.

So being incredibly massive isn’t going to help you.

Like I say, that’s fair.

But then again, most people aren’t trained fighters. If you were to put a bodybuilder in the ring with a regular person, or even an amateurish martial artist, then the bodybuilder would come out on top. In that situation, having more weight and size alone would likely be enough to win the fight. Muscle acts like armour for absorbing blows, and the bodybuilder does have greater strength than 99% of the population.

As someone put it in the comments on another video: it would take a heck of a fighter to take on a silverback gorilla – even an untrained one.

Geeze, imagine a trained silverback gorilla.

Yes, it is ‘Real’ Strength

And the notion that a bodybuilder doesn’t build ‘real strength’ is entirely nonsense.

No, bodybuilders do not train for their 1 rep maxes in particular. They train with slightly lighter weights for higher repetitions, meaning they aren’t training maximal contractions most of the time. They also tend to use isolation exercises a lot – although not exclusively by any means. Most bodybuilders do do plenty of pull ups, squats, deadlifts and more.

More to the point, training at 70% of your 1RM still builds strength. The simple fact of the matter is that a bodybuilder can still move more weight – significantly more – than an average person or even a trained fighter. If you practice moving weights around in the gym five days a week, then you’re going to get pretty good at it. Even if your training is not designed specifically for optimal strength gains. They’re still going to be improving their muscle fibre recruitment, they’re still going to be improving their starting strength and their fast twitch muscle fibre density. And as I pointed out, they’ll be wearing pounds of muscle like armour.

hulk vs loki

And really, there’s no such thing as training that is completely ‘non functional’ – the muscles are full of air. Otherwise, the adaptation simply wouldn’t exist. High rep ranges swell the muscles via the build-up of metabolites. The muscle cells fill up with sarcoplasm, which ultimately provides greater endurance. While the notion of sarcoplasmic hypertrophy is admittedly debated at this point, the simple fact of the matter is that training to use your strength for long periods makes you better at using strength for long periods.

Not only is muscle endurance actually more useful than max strength in most real world settings, but it’s also highly advantageous in a fight. In a fight, this would translate to the ability to throw more punches without those punches losing strength, or to grapple for longer periods without tiring out. More muscle does not mean more lactic acid as I have seen stated elsewhere and in fact, it’s not actually lactic acid that causes muscle fatigue – that would be lactate. Perhaps I’ll do a video on it in future.

Likewise, it is also untrue that muscle slows you down until you get to some huge extremes. It is possible to build big muscle while maintaining flexibility using techniques like eccentric training and a greater density of fast twitch fibre means more speed. This is mitigated somewhat by the action of antagonist muscles (e.g. your triceps will slow down your punches if they are too big and tight) but muscle control and other strategies can counteract this also.

Horses for Courses

So yes, a bodybuilder will definitely be able to pummel someone who does no training whatsoever. They’ll also stand a better chance than average against a fighter. But the well-trained fighter will still win a fight because they’ll have faster reflexes and they’ll know how to turn the bodybuilder’s weight and power against them. But of course, the fighter won’t be able to lift as much in the gym. It’s horses for courses.

You know what though? I’d actually argue that a great many martial artists would lose to genuine street fighters. That’s because the typical street fighter has something that the trained fighter does not: real fighting experience. Of course, I’m not talking about cage fighters or professional boxers/MMA practitioners at this point. Basically, I’m saying that perhaps the biggest deciding factor in real street fights in my very limited experience, is a willingness to do serious damage to the opponent, a lack of fear and a disregard for your own safety.

Of course, if you combine all these traits: combat training, real world experience and strength training, then you will be a superior fighter.

Superheroes have bodybuilder physiques. Just sayin'.

Superheroes have bodybuilder physiques. Just sayin’.

But how about bodybuilding vs powerlifting?

A powerlifter does train for maximal contraction. They train with greater explosiveness but less time under tension. They don’t get the mild cardiovascular benefit that a bodybuilder would get from their training and they won’t build up the same muscle endurance. However, the power behind each strike will be impressive. They would have the greatest chance of knocking someone out in one blow, or wrestling a better trained opponent to the ground. Technique will still win over raw power at the end of the day, but the powerlifter may perform better than the bodybuilder in the short term – but then tire out faster and their blows would start to lose their impact over the course of a long bout.

A powerlifter can lift a heavier piece of furniture when they’re helping you move home, but a bodybuilder can probably carry more large items without taking breaks. Horses for courses.

So, the aim here shouldn’t be to argue over which type of training is better. Or to shoot down bodybuilders because you secretly wish you looked more aesthetic. The objective should be to ask ‘What can I learn from this way of training and how can I incorporate the positive traits into my own regimen?’.

I see this an awful lot with CrossFit as well. CrossFitters are constantly being told how broken their training methodology is. Those aren’t real pull ups! Mat Fraser is not the fittest man alive! He’s not that fit!

Yeah, sure mate… the guy is completely out of shape… you’re right.

Does CrossFit have problems? Of course – every training methodology does. But if doing 100 kipping pull ups is easy… well go on then. And it’s ridiculous to suggest that it offers no reflection on overall strength and fitness.

Let’s not form these ridiculous tribes and feel threatened whenever someone comes along with an alternative option. The best fighter is someone who is explosive, who has high endurance, who can run for long distances, who has honed a style of martial arts that works for them, who is tactical and alert and who has real combat experience.

And leave bodybuilders alone, they have feelings too!

About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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