Physique training for athletes? WTF? Is that a joke?
Training for physique and improving athletic performance are often seen as opposite goals. Which brings us to a common cliché: “opposites attract.” And like most clichés, this one contains a large measure of truth. But does it apply to training for physique (lookin’ better naked) and improving performance?
More importantly, can you harness the power of opposites to your benefit and have it all? That would include an athletic body and that looks like it’s a few weeks of dieting away from being on a magazine cover.
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The Physique-Performance Dilemma
At one end of the spectrum lies physique. That would be physique-driven training aimed at maximizing lean muscle gains while staying more shredded than a julienne salad. (Yes, that was a Tropic Thunder reference.)
At the other end of the spectrum lies performance. That’s training focused on optimizing movement efficiency, strength, and speed to improve sports performance.
Can You Improve Performance AND Look Better Naked?
In a word, yes.
But it requires specific planning.
To be the best in anything, you need to eventually specialize in it.
This is why:
- Tom Brady doesn’t strut onto the Olympia stage in a pair of nut-huggin’ briefs.
- Rich Froning isn’t huckin’ touchdown passes all over the field.
- Phil Health doesn’t crush cleans and kipping pull-ups at The Crossfit games.
World class performance requires a narrow focus and specialization.
But for you, me…and 99.9% of the people meandering around the gym? We’re pretty damn good, but we’re not world class. If you’re willing to make reasonable compromises in both physique and performance you can lose fat, build muscle, and improve your athleticism at once.
Sound too good to be true?
It’s not. You can drive performance gains while simultaneously building muscle and losing fat.
But it takes time. You’ll need an expert plan, patience, and consistency. Which brings us to…
What Happened At the Coffee Shop
The other day I grabbed a coffee (well, a red-eye with an extra shot of espresso) with a prospective client, Ryan, at a basic coffee shop near the gym. Ryan is a 29-year-old former college athlete sick of watching his gut grow bigger and clothes grow tighter (in a bad way.) His athleticism is vanishing and he isn’t happy with how he looks.
As we chatted, he made it crystal clear what he wanted: everything.
He didn’t want to train like an athlete anymore. His shoulder aches and his back twinges. Still, he wants to stay athletic, but he’s really more concerned how he looks and regaining the “I can accomplish anything confidence” he had in his early 20’s.
Translation: He wants to be confident and get laid more without looking like a scrub when he’s playing pick-up basketball. No harm in that!
Here’s my step-by-step process to creating the ultimate plan for Ryan. If you’re looking to boost athleticism and look a bit better naked, this sample template can serve as a guideline for your next training plan.
The Warm-Up (8-12 minutes total)
The typical gym-goer spends their day crunched up in a desk, car, or keeled over their phone. They’re left with chronically agitated body positions like locked-up hips, internally rotated shoulders, stiff backs, and dormant glutes that leave them with pain and quasi-modo-esque posture. Sexy. The best remedy is a specialized warm-up to attack stubborn tight spots, activate weak and dormant muscle groups, and wake your body up for intense training.
This is a three to five-minute spurt of general activity followed by five to seven minutes of dynamic activation drills. I’m not too specific here–get up, move, and warm your body up with a rower, jump-rope, or bike. Alternatively, bodyweight circuits work well.
Sample Bodyweight Circuit
2×8 for all movements and minimal rest.
Activation and Mobilization
Emphasize improving movement through the hips, trunk, and shoulders. Moving from simple to complex drills. Hold each position for one or two seconds at the end range of motion.
Do these drills daily, as mentioned in my Warm Up Every Day article. You’ll find thorough explanations of each exercise there.
Groiner with t-rotation 1×3/side
I tend to keep all prehab/rehab based movements during the warm-up. If we need to dig into the nitty-gritty of improving T-spine or hip mobility, we’ll do it here then move on.
Workout Specific Warm-Up+ Power Development:
Moving past the general warm-up, we look directly at the training goal for the day. Is it strength or power? Hypertrophy or fat loss?
I used to jump directly into a heavy lift after the warm-up, but I’ve found people have fewer injuries and better performance with a little more work.
Spending additional time grooving movement patterns is a great way to add pain-free volume for muscle growth. It also fires up your nervous system for better strength, power, and athleticism.
Lower Body Focus, Squat Example
1a. 45 degree back extension 3×10 Rest 0-30 seconds
1b. Pick one of the following: squat jump, box jump, medicine ball back toss. 3×5, rest 60-90 seconds
Why: This fires up your glutes, lower back, and prepares your posterior chain for all the gains. Explosive exercise to improve muscle fiber recruitment and athleticism.
Lower Body Hinge Pattern
1a. ½ kneeling Pallof press 3×8 rest 30 seconds
1b. Broad jump, box jump, or medicine ball back toss 3×3, rest 60-90 seconds
Why: Provide additional activation for deep stabilizers before heavy or explosive loading. Then, groove explosive movement pattern similar to the lift.
1a. Band dislocations 3×8 rest 0 seconds
1b. Band pull-apart 3×8 rest 0 seconds
1c. Clap push-up or medicine ball overhead slam 3×8 rest 60-90 seconds
Why: Here, we improve shoulder mobility activate the muscles responsible for stabilizing the shoulder joint, then add an explosive exercise to improve muscle fiber recruitment.
In all cases, we’re focused on movement quality and the mind-muscle connection first. Then if it fits your goals an explosive movement to boost athleticism, prime the CNS, and increase muscle fiber recruitment.
Strength (15-30+ Minutes Depending on the Day)
At this point, you’ve attacked faulty movement patterns, addressed weak-points, and fired up your CNS to move some weight. It’s time for world domination (aka lifting heavy ass weight!)
Focus on one or two strength movement per session and use primarily total body, upper-lower, or push-pull-legs style training splits.
Here are my favorite strength movements:
Lower Body: Conventional deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts, sumo deadlifts, back squats, front squats (here’s a wicked progression), or cleans
Upper Body: Chin-up (rings or rotating handles), dips (rings or rotating handles), floor press, close grip bench press, low incline press, single arm press, single arm clean and press, seated military press.
Reps and Maxes: Confession time. I rarely have clients shoot for a true one rep max. The risk isn’t worth the reward most times and we’re better off building strength with near maximal strength work between three and six reps. Older, seasoned, and more beat up lifters stay in the five to eight rep range.
The trade-off for a new 1-2 rep max P.R. is rarely worth the injury risk and systemic fatigue. Translation: it’s not worth feeling like dog shit for 2-3 days after all your lifts unless you’re training purely for performance.
Micro Progressions and Variations: Within each lift, we hit a ton of variety and cycle lifts frequently. Besides keeping lifts *fun* for clients, the slight tweaks prevent overuse and redundant movement patterns that can cause injuries. Make slight changes to:
Tempo (add a pause or longer eccentrics, like this neutral grip pull up)
Mid-rep pauses (like this isodynamic biceps curl)
Accommodating resistance, like these band-resisted trap bar deadlifts
Every change, no matter how small, results in a different exercise with different muscle recruitment and adaptation for your body. If a movement pattern feels stale, even a slight change can bust you out of a rut without completely changing a program.
Your body doesn’t know an exact lift. It purely understands time, tension, coordination, and calling muscle fibers to generate force. Don’t fall in love with a particular lift. Once you’re strong, add in slight changes to avoid clawing your eyes out from boredom and continue riding the gains train to a better body.
Hypertrophy Portion (15-30 minutes)
Think back to when you looked your best. You weren’t just leaner; you were also younger, more active, and probably had more muscle mass.
With that is mind, training to build muscle mass is the most important factor in radically changing body composition…ergo looking better naked. Hell, more literature comes out daily that maximizing muscle retention is vital to your long-term health.
Why Muscle Mass Matters
Having more muscle mass can…
1. Improve insulin sensitivity, helping you lose weight and control blood sugar more easily. Basically, you’ll use food for what you want (exercise recovery, muscle growth), rather than adding fat.
2. Increase metabolism: Burn more fat at rest. Game blouses.
3. Lead to more activity: Given your strength also improves, everything in life gets easier from climbing stairs to chasing your nephew. More muscle begets you to be more active.
4. Make you look hotter. In clothes. Or naked.
5. Build a “dietary” buffer. Ever scowl at those jacked Fit Pro’s posting pictures of doughnuts? Me, too. But having greater muscle mass allows more flexibility in your diet. Your “cheat days” will be less harmful.
In the hypertrophy portion of your workout, we’ll bump the reps up to 8-15+ reps per set, keeping rest periods from 15 seconds to 90 seconds. You’ll need to push the tempo, sweat, and bust your ass. But hey, nobody said it would be easy, right?
We’ll be attacking three main factors to help you build more muscle:
Mechanical tension is achieved by using a substantial load and performing exercises through a full range of motion for a certain amount of time. The time you spend under load creates mechanical tension in the muscles to drive the anabolic process.
Gettin’ a wicked pump isn’t just for stretching shirt-sleeves and feeling awesome, it plays an important role in hypertrophy. When you work out hard to achieve a pump, you build up lactate, hydrogen ions, creatinine, and other metabolites, but you also prevent blood from escaping. This metabolic stress plays a key role in signaling muscular growth.
Soreness is part of the training game. The inflammatory process from muscular damage actually aids in muscle growth. But too much muscle damage can keep you out of the gym, restricting your #gains. Pick two or three exercises based on your training for the day. Aim for anywhere between 25 and 50 reps with a slower tempo and 8-15 reps per set. Then add one or two more exercises focused on ultra-high reps, 15-25 reps for one or two sets. Keep the rest short, stress high, and make gains.
The occasional 5-10 minute finisher or high-intensity conditioning bout can make you one tough cookie. You’ll build muscle, supercharge fat loss, and get the mental edge to dominate in and out of the gym. You can read more about finishers here.
Don’t crush yourself every time you hit the gym. Random challenges for the sake of being a training sadist and muscle “confusion” is a sure fire way to stay injured. But use periodic throwdowns and epic finishers as challenges to t0 see how tough you really are. They can help you conquer plateaus.
What you can do Going Forward
Ask what is missing from your current workout. Focus on giving your body the training it needs so you can look and perform the way you want.
This means hypertrophy routine would focus a little less on strength, power, and performance and more on volume and bodybuilding methods.
A performance focus would have a greater focus on strength and power, with less volume and fewer bodybuilding methods.
You can blend multiple levels of performance at any given time, but the attention you pay to each component should be specific to your goals at the point in time.
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McGill S. Low Back Disorders – Evidence-Based Prevention and Rehabilitation. 2nd ed. Human Kinetics; 2002