The Best Sports That Also Build Muscle

A lean, muscular physique is desired by many, admired by many, but only achieved by few. Building the perfect body is an involved process that takes years of dedication, consistency, and hard work. It requires a balance of mass building exercise, a strict diet, and proper conditioning. The former in particular is a challenge for many.

Weight training is without a doubt the most efficient way to build muscle mass. However, lifting weights isn’t for everyone. For some, injuries or medical conditions might limit their ability to lift. But often times, many guys simply find going to the gym a boring slog.

Is there no hope for that guy who isn’t interested in spending hours a week picking things up and putting them down? Fortunately, while lifting is the best way to build mass, it’s not the only way. Sports can be a fun way to pack on the pounds (of muscle!) while doing something social, fun and exciting. If you’re looking to pick up a sport that can double as a muscle building workout, here are the best options.


Adam Peaty Swimmer
Adam Peaty, the 100m breast-stroke world record holder also lifts, but a good amount of that bulk is from swimming alone!

In addition to being one of the best sources of cardio, swimming is a full body work out which puts extra emphasis on the lats, shoulders, and legs. While most high level swimmers like Adam Peaty pictured above also supplement their training with dry-land and weights, a good amount of their muscle mass is built in the pool. It requires significantly more force to propel your body through water than through the air; that’s the added resistance that makes swimming such an effective mass builder.

Not only that, swimming is one of the few lower impact sports that will still help you gain muscle. Pools aren’t always the easiest to find in every city or town, but masters swimming remains hugely popular in the United States, with teams across the entire country open to swimmers of all levels.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

One of a handful of combat sports on this list, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, or BJJ for short, is not only a great workout and extremely effective martial art for self defense purposes, it will also make you stronger. Unlike traditional martial arts such as Karate or Taekwondo, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu encourages live sparring, at high intensity, from the beginning. Sparring with able, skilled, resisting opponents requires muscle coordination, cardio, and many times, explosive movements. There are also many opportunities where you may apply constant tension, a significant muscle mass builder.

Two BJJ competitors in action at the Abu Dhabi World Pro Jiu-Jitsu Championship

In addition to BJJ, other grappling arts such as wrestling and judo provide similar mass building and self defense benefits. We would have included them in here as well but we find that BJJ schools are the most common grappling schools available in the US. However, in other countries, wrestling and judo clubs dominate: and those are great options as well!

Striking Martial Arts

Grappling arts like BJJ, wrestling, and Judo are not the only martial arts that can help you build muscle while engaging in a fun, exciting activity. Striking based martial arts such as boxing, kickboxing, muay thai, and traditional martial arts like Karate and Taekwondo are all excellent workouts that will also develop your physique. We prefer boxing, kickboxing, and muay thai to traditional martial arts due to a larger emphasis on conditioning, power, and sparring.

Boxing is a killer workout and also an effective mass builder.

Explosive, coordinated movements of large muscle groups are the most effective ways to build mass, and striking sports are chock full of them. For instance, throwing a proper cross involves putting your whole body into it, in a coordinated, forceful way. If you’re skeptical, check out the physiques of the boxers from the early 1900s, before weight training was really a thing.

MMA (Mixed Martial Arts)

MMA fighter
MMA is one of the best muscle building sports

If grappling is an effective mass builder, and if striking is an effective mass builder, than combining the two is most definitely effective! With the hockey-stick like growth of the UFC over the past decade and a half, MMA gyms are starting to open up all over the country. Not much more is needed to be said that hasn’t already been said in the BJJ and Striking sections above. Combining the best of all combat sports into what is truly the ultimate combat (and self defense) style, MMA training is a surefire way to build muscle without necessarily having to hit the weights.


Constant Tension is a hallmark of gymnastics

It’s virtually impossible to not put on serious muscle mass while doing gymnastics. A super intense body-weight workout, gymnastics takes the constant tension concept to the extreme with countless situations requiring you to hold your entire weight in challenging positions with only the strength of a small set of muscles.

Gymnastics is such an effective muscle mass builder that many gymnasts don’t feel the need to supplement their training in the weight-room, almost unheard of among participants of physically demanding sports. However, we don’t blame them. If we were to pick the single most effective sport for mass building that doesn’t involve lifting weights, our choice would be gymnastics. The main challenge is that it isn’t always easy to get involved in gymnastics as an adult with no previous experience.


Rowing activates the entire body in a similar way to lifting

It’s not the easiest sport to get involved in as an adult, but rowing is one of the most effective mass builders out there. A sport that requires incredible leg and back strength, in conjunction with endurance, rowing motions are very similar to those you would do with weights at the gym. In fact, some of the best back exercises are called rows!

Crew isn’t the only form of rowing that can help you build muscle, but the activation of the legs makes it more effective than other rowing sports like Canoe or Kayak.

Rock Climbing + Bouldering

rock climbing
Hanging on by a thread takes some serious muscle

Looking for a lean, cut physique but sick of the gym? Rock climbing might be your answer. An adrenaline rush isn’t the only thing you’ll get out of it. Rock climbing or it’s cousin, bouldering, requires some serious grip, lat, and shoulder strength. It also doesn’t take it easy on your legs and of course your core. Technique goes a long way in making climbs less harsh on the muscles, but you can bet you’ll get a workout and build muscle no matter how good you get.

We’ve highlighted some of the best sports for building muscle outside of weight training. Hopefully one of them is for you, but even if not, the truth is, participating in almost any sport will help bring you closer to your fitness goals.

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