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Four Tips to Build an Athletic Body

Jump over boxes

[A variation of this article was published as a guest post on NickTumminello.com]

Building an athletic body isn’t just for competitive athletes. It’s for everyone. Or it should be.

Why not be able to  run, throw, jump, cut, and play a recreational sport at the drop of a hat? Unfortunately, this isn’t as common as it should be.

Much more common is this:
*  29-year-old Bryce pops his hamstring playing beer-league softball.
* Or 31 year-old Laurie sprains an ankle chasing her daughter.

Let’s soar up to 30,000 feet for a moment to consider the big issue:

If your training isn’t improving your quality of life, or improving your ability to play a sport you enjoy, what exactly are you accomplishing?

This article explains how to apply principles I’ve learned working with both athletes and general population clients. I’ll explain how tweaking your training can power up your performance —  and minimize your chance of injury.

We can all use a performance upgrade, whether it’s a competitive playing field, or kickin’ it with your buddies every Thursday night with beer league softball.These principles, when applied as directed, will help you build an athletic body.

Maximum Strength with the Big Three is Overrated:

What’s the top tip most coaches preach as it pertains to building an athletic body?

If you said getting stronger, you’re correct.

training to failure, athletic body

While strength is important to build a foundation for the development of speed and power, it’s overvalued if you endlessly chase strength PR’s to the determinant of improving your ability to use it, relative strength, and movement.

Before you punch your computer screen and call me an idiot, hear me out. I’m not saying Maximum Strength isn’t important to build an athletic body.

It is.

It’s vital.

But, there are more ways to build strength than the powerlifting movements. There’s no magical touch associated with a heavy loaded barbell.

Your body understands stress, and that it needs to generate force and recruit motor units to overcome an external stressor, not that there’s a loaded barbell.

What’s more important is the muscles recruited, amount of force needed to overcome the resistance, and integrating movement that matches the demands of sport. This can be through a unilateral exercise, a barbell, kettlebell, weighted sled, or your own bodyweight.

It’s not the tool that’s important. It’s that your body is working in a specific movement pattern, recruiting the correct muscles, and generating force when you need it. 

Furthermore, for non-competitive lifters, there are diminishing returns with endlessly chasing strength PR’s as it pertains to becoming more athletic.

Athletic Body, bach performance jump rope, Build an Athletic Body, eric bach jump rope, athletic body,

Example: a 200-pound man has the goal of running faster and jumping higher. Currently, he’s well trained and has a back squat max 375 lbs.

Would he be better off using a specialized program to get your squat to 405, or adding lighter, more explosive exercises to maximize his ability to rapidly generate already-present strength?

If you picked more explosive exercises, good for you!

Your body specifically adapts to the imposed demands.

Maximizing the carryover to your sport requires you train movements and patterns that are specific to the demands of your sport, such as explosive jumping and sprinting.

Instead of just lifting heavy, focus on maintaining your strength base. Improve your relative strength and power in the movements you need for performance.

Power —  the ability to generate strength rapidly —  is vector specific. Huh? That means to optimally develop power for a given activity, you must train it in the direction, with joint angles, and recruitment patterns most similar to your activity.

At the end of the day, strength is vital. Tere’s no denying that. But it’s time to move past the “ bro,  just get really strong” argument. You need to move and generate power in the directions you need. Otherwise, you’ll limit your performance.

Jump and Throw

Building an athletic body requires your muscles to work  together. That means increasing the ability of your body (muscles, joints, ligaments, and nervous system) to function as a complete unit.

Jumps and throws take major movement patterns, such as the squat or press, and change the typical demands from a pure-strength exercise to an explosive speed or speed-strength exercise.

Working with lighter loads and focusing on explosive movement more directly correlates to the demands of most sports. You’ll  improve your ability to move and generate force in the movement patterns needed for performance.

Adding jumps or throws to your training can increase neuromuscular capabilities. You’ll transfer your strength into usable athleticism and power. The result? Better performance.

Throws, Jumps, and Upper Body Plyometrics:

To maximize carryover from training to your activity of choice, include jumps and throws that most similarly match the demands of your sport or workout. These exercises are best performed after a dynamic warm-up and before lifting.

Try 3-4 sets of 3-6 reps with 90-120 seconds of rest between sets. Below, I’ve listed my top three favorite variations, with a few other suggestions listed underneath.

Overhead slam: Explosive shoulder extension while preventing spinal flexion.

Sports Action: Think volleyball spike, a swimming stroke, or swinging an ax for the lumbar jacks in the audience.

This works the explosive shoulder extension, forcing the lats, triceps, posterior delts, and pecs to rapidly generate force. It also forces your core to work double time, transferring force from overhead towards the ground while preventing your spine from flexing forward.

How to do it: Use a non-bouncy medicine ball (8-12 lbs.) and hold it overhead.

Brace the abs like you would before someone pokes you in the stomach. Now, with the weight overhead and abs braced, throw the ball to the ground while keeping eyes straightforward and minimal trunk flexion.

Your goal is to throw as hard as possible without bending through the waist or rounding in your shoulders.

Inline Plyo-Push-Up:  Emphasize horizontal pressing power

Sports Action: Pushing an opponent away from you.

Compared to a clap push-up, elevating the hands on a bench allows larger individuals to generate maximum force with less compressive stress on the joints while maintaining a neutral spine position (non-saggy push-up position).

How to do it: On a bench, assume a push-up position with the hands aligned with the shoulders, legs fully extended, abs braced, and back straight. Don’t allow the hips to dip.

Lower yourself rapidly to the bench and then explosively push your body away. The energy should make you rock back to mid-foot or heel if your relative strength is high.

As gravity carries you back to the starting position, slightly bend the elbows at impact to reduce stress and “stick” the landing with minimal movement through your torso. Re-set and repeat.

Dumbbell Squat jump: Explosive triple extension, a speed-strength variation of a vertical jump.

Sport action: Explosive triple extension, jumping in basketball, vertical propulsion.

Squat jumps mimic the squat and a vertical jump, bridging the gap between jumping in sport and squatting in the gym.

How to do it: There are three phases: loading, exploding, and landing.

Loading: Set up with feet about shoulder-width apart in an athletic stance with arms up at chest height. The loading phase utilizes a simultaneous downward arm swing with flexing at the hips and knees, thus loading up the legs.

Exploding: Rapidly swing the arms up while driving your feet into the ground and extending the hips and knees, and then taking off on the balls of the feet. Fully extend the arms overhead and aim to fully extend the body with the ankle, knee, hip, trunk, shoulder, and ear all being aligned.

Landing: Bend your knees and drop the hips into a squat position, absorbing force evenly though the foot. Keep your chest and head up, looking straight ahead. Hold a vertical shin position to minimize excessive shear stress and valgus/varus positions of the knee.

Analyze: What’s the Risk/Reward Trade-Off?

Everyone come from various backgrounds that create bias towards different training disciplines. It could be powerlifting, strongman, bodybuilding, Olympic lifting (my bias), or something else.

With so many different opinions and experts on training, how can you select the exercises that are best for you?

Instead of thinking of any exercise as the next best thing, step back and consider each exercise a tool to get the job done.

The tool that is best both matches the movement patterns needed for your sport, and minimizes the risk of injury.

For example, we can all agree that the squat is a phenomenal exercise for developing strength and power.

But how important is sub-parallel squat depth?

In the case of a competitive weight lifting, going to extreme depths, even with butt wink and (loss of lumber stability) is a demand of the sport. In this case, an ass to grass squatting is warranted, as it’s directly required in competition.

But, what about Bryce, who popped his hamstring playing softball? He’s an average dude at the gym, just wanting to look better for summer and crush a few homers.

In this case, Bryce loses lumbar stability below parallel in his squat. The risk of low-back injury (either acute or chronic) with an ass-to-grass squat outweighs the potential benefits of building athletic muscle.

This isn’t to say that squats are a bad exercise for him, but in the context of depth, he’s better off working within a stable range of motion.

Each exercise is a tool, rather than an end-all be all to performance. Pick the tools and techniques with that complete the job while minimizing risk, and maximizing rewards. 

Exercise Order Based on Neural Demands

When it comes to performance, the nervous system is the Captain.

To maximize performance and reduce injury risk, the most neurologically demanding exercises must be performed early in the workout, when the body is fresh. 

Most sports require explosive sprints, jumps, cuts, swings and throws to drive performance. If you’re performing exercises to improve, like cleans for a vertical jump, yet already ran 3×400 meter sprints and did heavy squats, your nervous system is probably too torched for super high power outputs, meaning the nervous system won’t send signals fast enough to allow sound technique and performance.

As a result, you’re setting yourself up for sub-par training and performance at best, and injury at worst.

If your exercise selection doesn’t jive with your goals and allow you to generate force, while also increasing injury risk, then you have a big problem.

Keep intense movements like sprints, jumps, and heavy lifts early in your workout. Then move onto higher rep, less neurally demanding exercises later on.

Four Ways to Build an Athletic Body

  • Put the most explosive exercises first in your training
  • Stop obsessing over max weight
  • Jump, throw, push, and run
  • Look at your training from a risk/reward perspective

Once you have a foundation of strength and basic movement, it’s time to focus specifically on your goals.

Looking To Build an Athletic Body?

I have Your Solution:

Get Stronger, Leaner, and More Athletic

Athletic Body

Explode Your Deadlift

Six packs, big biceps, and big benches don’t impress me. I can walk into any gym and find plenty of guys pushing some serious weight with a big upper body. Not that I go into gyms looking for swole dudes benching, but you get my point.

What really impresses me is a thick, muscular posterior chain. I’m talking traps, rhomboids, lats, glutes, hamstrings and the like. This tells me they’ve put some serious time in the weight room and probably trained to have a big deadlift.

And you know how I feel about deadlifts.

explosive deadlifts
PhotoCredit: http://www.psdeluxe.com/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/animals_smile/little_creature_puts_a_smile.jpg

Anyways, this leads me to my latest article published on T-Nation, Explode Your Deadlift. I’ve built a solid deadlift of over 500lbs and this routine helped me get there. More than that, this is the exact plan I used with State Champion Power Lifter Raven Cepeda to pull 683lbs in his last meet.

A few things to keep in mind when reading the article

-A few things to consider with assistance work and exercise selection: Biomechanically lever arms and torso to limb lengths must be taken into account when selecting assistance exercises. Conventional deadlifts require a greater range of motion and begin the pull with greater hip flexion, creating a higher demand for lower back strength. In this case good mornings and reverse hypers would be a phenomenal exercise choice. Conversely, sumo deadlifters pull from a more upright posture and avoid higher lumbar loads that are associated with horizontally included postures. Front squats and squats from the pins are a great option to match the biomechanical needs of sumo deadlifts.

– Don’t try to match the box jump numbers in the program. The height isn’t important; rather, fully extending the hips and landing flush on the box.

This serves as a great template for intermediate and advanced lifters. Unless you’re fairly experienced in the lift it’s best to avoid a program this strenuous.

But enough of that, check it out and drop me some feedback!

<< Explode Your Deadlift >>

Strong. Shredded. Athletic.


Bust through Plateaus with an Explosive Warm Up

Performing 2-3 sets of 1 exercise at the end of your warm up could dramatically increase your power and strength in your training session.

Crazy right?

I’ve already dove head-first into warm ups, you can find those here: Part 1 and Part 2, but there is one portion of the warm-up that will have a lasting impact on your workout.

I’m talking nervous system activation.

The central nervous system is your body’s computer, the central processing unit. It controls all the activities of the body.
The nervous system is the key to unlocking gains in the gym. Muscles leave much to be desired, as it’s is theorized that voluntary muscles contract at about 30% of their total ability.


We’ve all heard stories of superhuman strength where someone lifts a 3,500 lb car off a loved one. This is due to adrenaline up-regulating the nervous system to maximize muscular strength. These extraordinary feats show the power a fully engaged of the nervous system.

Note: Before going further, it’s important to note I’m not talking about creating a life/death experience in a warm up to jack up your strength.

So if we are only using say, 30% of our potential muscular strength, what would an extra 4-5% percent do for sports performance or workouts in the gym?

And what if our muscles contracted faster, getting to maximal activation faster?

Neuromuscular Readiness

Performing an explosive warm-up before your main exercise of the day will ignite your central nervous system (CNS) and maximize your strength.


Using explosive movements prior to your heavy training will prepare and teach your body to move with maximal velocity and force due to the increased rate of firing from the previous exercise.

Power= Force X Distance

The faster you can contract the muscles the more muscle fibers recruited, and the stronger are. It’s vital that these exercises are not performed to fatigue, rather short duration (5-8 reps), maximum intensity, and plenty of rest.

Practical Application

A good warm up should  wake up your muscles and central nervous system to  maximize performance during your workout. The activities in your explosive warm up should mimic the body positions and movements in your training, and explosive movements that mimic those patterns are best.

Based on your major exercise of the day, select a matching explosive movement pattern:

Main Exercise:                     Explosive Movement:

Bench Press                             Clap Push Up, medicine ball chest pass

Shoulder Press                        Overhead medicine ball slam/ throw

Squat                                         Vertical jump, box jump

Deadlift                                     Broad jump, kettlebell swing

Photography by Ryan Dial
Photography by Ryan Dial

Perform 2-3 sets of 5-8 reps after your warm-up — directly before the start of your training session. Rest 1-2 minutes between sets, focusing on maximum intensity on each rep.


Wrap Up:

What good is all that strength if you can’t generate it quickly? An explosive warm-up will help shatter strength plateaus, sprint away from your competition, and build more muscle. Implement the simple movements warm-up movements for explosive growth!

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/hotmeteor/210180257/”>Hot Meteor</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/”>cc</a>

Train like an Athlete

It’s 9 pm on Tuesday night. Over the last 2 hours you’ve been sipping your glass on water, scanning curiously over the latest workouts on various exercise websites. Each workout is markedly different. Athlete, bodybuilder, powerlifter…huh?

One site caters to bodybuilders, one site markets to powerlifters, one site markets to those people just looking to “Lose 10 pounds Fast!”, and one site aiming to help athletes reach their next level of competition.
Which should you listen too? When in doubt, train like an athlete.


When an athlete trains, the focus is not on aesthetics, rather, on improving performance through increasing strength, speed, (or any other movement quality) and setting personal records (positive goal-setting).

So while maintaining a certain aesthetic look isn’t an athletes top priority, it’s often a nice by-product of training with a purpose.

(For Proof, just Check out “The Body” edition of ESPN the Magazine.)

Here are 5 fantastic reasons why you should begin training like an athlete when you are due for an exercise program change.

1.) Improved athletic Performance.

I know that everyone reading this likes seeing weights go up. Building ansolute strength is awesome and improves nearly all other trainable qualities.

But why not add some power into the mix?

Olympic lifts, sprints, medicine ball throws, and jumps are all great ways to incorporate power training directly into your program. Everyone can benefit from having some more POP.

If playing your sport or activity entails any of the following actions, incorporating explosive based exercises will improve your performance.

Explosive Movements: sprinting, swinging,  jumping, cutting, juking, bounding,  spinning, diving,  hopping, kicking, pushing, punching, throwing, hitting, slapping.

This includes most sports under the sun, and most of these movements are a blast to perform. Baseball, basketball, football, soccer, lacrosse, diving, hockey, martial arts, wrestling, track & field, weight lifting, hockey and even polo all uses these explosive movements.

In addition, research continues to build that fast twitch muscle fibers will transition to more slow twitch (less explosive) with aging if they are not trained in an explosive manor  (Sayers 62-67.) This is a contributing factor in sarcopenia (muscle loss), and a higher incidence of falls…Yikes!

It’s perfectly normal to focus on spending the majority of your time more jacked, but take 3-4 months every year and dedicate some time to athletic development, its fun and vital for longevity.

Don’t wait until you have grey pubes, you’ll thank me later!

2.) You become versatile

Sure, it’s a blast being able to rip 500 lb deadlifts, but not to the detriment of being able to sprint, jump, or having decent mobility.

What do you think of when you think of the best athletes? I think of athletes that can sprint, turn on a dime, be explosive, and maneuver their bodies in unfathomable ways.

As a Packers fan it pains me to say this, but I think of Adrian Peterson. Whether AP is cutting, juking, sprinting, or running over you his varied skill set makes him impossible to stop.

Now, without saying that you will have the same skill set as Adrian Peterson, you should notice a drastic performance increase  in your flag football league  play  while also reducing your risk of injury. Bring on the braggin’ rights!


3.) Improved Conditioning

I must admit, I have a strong distaste for conditioning work.

But, Knowing that it’s a necessary evil, I’ve found ways to make it both fun and achievable.


Like training for strength, fat loss, or muscle gain you must plan it out. Having a game plan and well planned routine leads to better results every time.

“The best workout routine is the one you will follow.”

Plain and simple, if you don’t write things down you won’t do them. Start planning out conditioning work as you would any other workout program. Mix in high intensity, low volume programs and low intensity, higher volume programs. Be creative with sprints, back pedals, shuffles, and other dynamic drills to provide a well rounded training stimulus.

It’s almost too easy. Program your conditioning work just like your strength training routines and see your results skyrocket.

4.) Super-Compensation

Most of us get stuck in a rut, constantly training for the same variable. Whether you’re training to carry atlas stones, pick up barbells, look good naked, or run triathlons, super-compensation will apply to you.

What is Supercompensation? Essentially, supercompensation is an improved work capacity following a training period.

So, if you’ve been lifting heavy, heavy, heavy for months maybe it’s time to take  a few weeks off.

De-load the body from your current training stimulus and incorporate more explosive movements, single leg movements, and conditioning for a short period. When you return to your primary training style you’ll have a well rounded movement foundation, better movement patterns, and be fresher.

You may have a temporary decrease in strength, but that is short-lived. With improved mobility, stability, and conditioning you will be crankin’ big weights in no time.

5.) fewer Imbalance Injuries

Most trainees get stuck in the rut of training the same way…. over, and over again. This often leads to overuse injuries. Incorporating more three dimensional movement, such as lateral lunges and rotational throws, will activate poorly activated muscle groups and improve movement quality.

Less aches and pains, feeling refreshed, and more enjoyment with training?

Hell yeah, I’m in!

Wrap Up

Training like an athlete provides the necessary variety to improve your overall physique, health, and athletic performance. Incorporate a variety of explosive, single leg, and multi-directional movements to spark your training up a notch.

This is my encouragement to you. If you’re searching for a fresh, positive view on your approach to training, remember to train like an athlete.


Sayers, SP. “High velocity power training in older adults..”Current Aging Science Journal. 1.1 62-67. Print. <http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20021374>.

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/mharrsch/8330173857/”>mharrsch</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

photo credit: <a href=”http://www.flickr.com/photos/xoque/4247473538/”>xoque</a> via <a href=”http://photopin.com”>photopin</a> <a href=”http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/”>cc</a>

Specific Forms of Muscular Strength in Athletes- Explosive Strength

Different physical activities require different physiological capabilities. When looking from a sports performance aspect, the body will react positively to any new stimulus in the initial stages.

However, for future advances in strength and performance, adaption becomes much more specialized to the unique physiological demands of the sport. Depending upon the sport and level of mastery the need for specific forms of muscular strength becomes more apparent as the level of competition increases.

For example, as a high school football player a defensive tackle (A) has a full back squat max of 450 lbs, very respectable regardless of size.

This back squat represents maximum strength, or the athletes’ ability to exert maximal isometric muscular force without a time limit. This same athlete does a phenomenal job and is invited to an All Star game with other skilled High School athletes. When lining up and going head to head with another player, the same athlete faces an opponent (B) with a 400 maximum squat, but is much quicker at the snap of the ball. Although athlete A may display a greater maximum strength, as the level of competition increases so does the need for explosive strength, the ability to produce maximal force in a minimal time as displayed by player B.

Explosive strength is the ability to produce maximal force in minimal time. It is very important for the development of power.

Power (P) =Force (F) x Velocity (V)

Well, okay, I don’t play Football, so why do I care about explosive strength and power?

Explosive strength and power are very important to athletes who need to develop force in a short amount of time. This includes activities such as sprinting, cutting, juking, hitting, throwing, swinging, kicking, evading, hoping, and diving. Even at the end of a race a marathon runner sprints to the finish line and can greatly benefit from power training.

Explosive/power training allows for better recruitment of type II fast-twitch muscle fibers, which are built for high force activities, muscular hypertrophy, and allow better recruitment and control of muscles. Explosive training that activates type II muscle fibers is very beneficial for aging populations and the battle against sarcopenia (muscle loss).

How Can I incorporate explosive strength training/power training into my workouts?

Ideally, power training should be performed either before a strength session or as its own session completely. The biggest thing I preach to my athletes and clients is to lift everything explosively because if you are not generating the most muscular force and speed on a movement, you are not training that quality to its full extent. Warming up with the 45lb bar on your bench press? Cool, still perform each rep as if it were a max-out attempt.

Great tools to incorporate into your training after a warm up would be medicine ball throws, body weight plyometrics (jump variations, plyo push ups), Olympic lifts (find a qualified coach such as yours truly), and/or dynamic effort training days (power/strength movements w/20-60% 1RM) with maximal speed.

Training explosive strength is vitally important for athletes, but all populations can benefit. Whether you are trying to dunk a basketball, play a professional sport, or prevent muscle loss with aging, explosive strength training/power training should play a vital role in your fitness regimen.


Verkhoshansky, Yuri, and Mel Siff. SuperTraining. 6. Rome: Verkhoshansky, 2009. 19,107. Print.

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