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How To Look Like An Olympic Athlete

34577979 - muscular man skipping rope. portrait of muscular young man exercising with jumping rope on black background

With the Olympics underway, millions around the world stare in awe at the amazing athletic feats in everything from boxing to sprinting to  kayaking — and yes, even rhythmic gymnastics.

Jokes aside, every athlete at the Olympics is among the best in the world at their respective. sport. None ended up at the Olympics by accident.

But one group of athletes stands out from all the rest: the power athletes. And the events themselves aren’t even the most captivating part. It’s their blend of incredible athleticism, power, and lean, muscular body. It all add up to you looking at your training and asking:

“How can I look like an Olympic Athlete?”

A body that’s is show and go.

A body made of substance, with a little sizzle.

In this post, I’ll show you four exercises that bring you closer to the total package. And while they’ll make you stronger, leaner, and more athletic, I can’t guarantee you’ll be swift like Bolt or yoked like Klokov, or shredded like a gymnast.

But I can promise that if you take action and focus on developing these skills with the program I have below, you’ll build your ultimate athletic body.

The Components of Looking Like an Olympic Athlete

 

How Can You Build Olympic Strength?

There are multiple types of strength, but for simplicity, let’s address relative strength and absolute strength. Relative strength is the amount of strength relative to body size. All else being equal, smaller individuals have higher relative strength. Think of your middle-school fitness tests when the 90-pound wrestlers would destroy the pull-up test while big kids struggled. This reflects your ability to control or move your body through space (relative strength), as in most movement-based sports like sprinting.

Absolute strength refers to the maximum amount of force exerted regardless of muscle or body size. Greater amounts of absolute strength favor those with higher body weight and, in general, larger individuals like Olympic throwers or heavy weight wrestlers.

Throwing it back again to your middle-school days, faster-maturing kids with greater absolute strength absolutely destroyed their counterparts in tackling or blocking drills.

Relative Strength & Absolute Strength

Strength training improves your performance primarily due to increased nervous system activation. Increased nervous system activation via strength training does two huge things for your training:

  1. Increases muscle fiber recruitment
  2. Increases speed at which the body sends electrical signals to the muscles

Take a look at the following chart:

Bodyweight Deadlift Max Absolute Strength Relative Strength
185 pounds 405 pounds 405 pounds 2.2x bodyweight
205 pounds 405 pounds 405 pounds 1.97x bodyweight

Notice that while the larger lifter has the same absolute strength as the lighter lifter, his relative strength is less than the lighter lifter. If you’re a dedicated gym rat, your objective is to get stronger, leaner, and more athletic. Both absolute strength and relative strength are needed to maximize your high-performance beastliness.

Developing greater absolute strength builds greater relative strength. You develop greater absolute strength by improving technique on big lifts, improving neuromuscular function, and in many cases, increasing bodyweight. When body weight is kept the same, an improvement in absolute strength improves relative strength, thus improving your ability to generate force on exercises like jumps, bodyweight exercises, and moving your body through space like an Olympic bad-ass. 

To improve both maximum and relative strength, you need to emphasize multi-joint exercises to stimulate larger increases of anabolic hormones (Hansen et al., 2001). For well-rounded strength development, combine heavy strength work like presses, rows, cleans, and squats with relative strength exercises like chin-ups, jumps, and sprints with maximum explosive intent.

So what’s the best?

When in doubt, the basics are best. If I had to pick one lift, I’d pick the squat. More specifically, the front squat.

The Front Squat

FrontSquat

Read More: How to Front Squat

Olympic Abs

Most high-level sprinters have athletic bodies that make the gods envious.

So, what’s the key?

Genetics aside, sprinting!
Similiar to high intensity weight lifting, sprints can trigger the release of anabolic hormones that help you build muscle and burn body fat.
Your glutes, hamstrings, quads, calves and hips generate insane amounts of force during a sprint. Your spine works on stabilizing you and transferring power through your body. Altogether, this builds stronger legs and activates a youthful-like athleticism while triggering a massive hormonal shift in your body.

Sprinting has an impact on three hormones that help you look better naked:

Testosterone

Testosterone is the major masculinizing hormone in your body. Greater testosterone levels will improve your energy, help you build lean muscle and cut body fat. I’d wager you’d be happy with all three of those things.

Growth Hormone (GH)

GH is released in response to large muscle contractions and is further stimulated by training without long periods of rest. Triggered by metabolic stress (the stressful environment in which you’re gasping for air and your muscles are on fire), GH is often described as the fountain of youth. It slows the aging process, aids in the metabolism of fatty acids and boosts protein synthesis.

Insulin

Huge muscular contractions promote greater insulin sensitivity. This results in improved nutrient partitioning. In other words, your body gets better at breaking down nutrients for energy and muscular recovery instead of storing them as fat. With better insulin sensitivity, you’ll improve your cardiovascular health, build lean muscle and reduce body fat.

Adding Sprints:Hill or incline sprints are best because they greatly reduce the risk of injury. It’s mechanically impossible to over stride while running up a slight inclination, which decreases the risk of the dreaded hamstring pull.

Running up a hill also shrinks the distance your foot covers on the ground, decreasing joint stress on your hips, knees, and ankles. Fewer injuries, better conditioning, and burning fat?

Yes, please.

Sprint twice a week as an individual workout or after a lift.

Here’s a sample six-week progression. Make sure you warm up before starting and repeat each interval 8 to 12 times.

Week One: Sprint 10 seconds, rest 50

Week Two: Sprint 11 seconds, rest 49

Week Three: Sprint 12 seconds, rest 48

Week Four: Sprint 13 seconds, rest 47

Week Five: Sprint 14 seconds, rest 46

Week Six: Sprint 15 seconds, rest 45

Sprinting is a mainstay in all of my Power Primer Programs for a good reason: They work well for developing an athletic, shredded body.

Olympic Power and Explosiveness

Explosive exercises improve your workouts by teaching your nervous system to fire faster, helping you jump higher, run faster, and throw further.

Even more, explosive exercises recruit high-threshold motor units (HTMU’s)—units within each muscle to fire simultaneously for improved strength. And as the icing on the cake, the more HTMU’s  you can recruit, the more muscle you’ll stimulate to grow during workouts.

Altogether this means explosive Power Primer exercises help you move faster, lift heavier, and build more muscle—three key traits to looking like an Olympian.

Read More: Four Training Splits to Build an Athletic Body

Exercises:

The Olympic lifts would fit well here (and rightly so), but a lot of gyms frown on “aggressive lifts” and dropping big weights.

Shame on them.

And while you could flip them the bird and find a better gym, that’s not always practical.

Therefore, if you allowed to the Olympic lifts like power cleans, please continue doing so.

PowerCleans

Otherwise, here’s my favorite alternative: The Squat jump.

You’re probably wondering what happens when you combine squatting and jumping, right?

Magic, of course.

The truth isn’t really that far out: Using the same movement pattern (squatting and jumping) with both heavy and light resistance improves intermuscular and intramuscular coordination: two factors in your central nervous system’s ability to perform movements faster and with more power.

When your goal is looking athletic and building explosive power, then explosive training like this is exactly what you need to bridge the gap between strength and speed to build an athletic body.

There are three phases to completing a jump squat: loading, exploding, and landing.

Loading: Set up with feet about shoulder-width apart in an athletic stance with arms up at chest height; simultaneously swing the arms down, while bending the hips and knees to load your legs.

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

Landing: Bend your knees into a squat position and absorb force evenly through the foot, not just through the toes. Keep your chest and head up, looking directly ahead. Your shins should be vertical and knees straight to avoid joint stress.

How many: Three sets of five reps with 60-90 seconds between sets. Perform on a lower-body training day, before or in place of a squat.

How you can Look like an Olympic Athlete

Most people plateau in the gym and stay mediocre because they continue doing what they’ve always done in the past. They lift only heavy and focus only on the weight or muscle. They neglect rep quality and explosiveness. 


This mistaken approach is not performance training.

A solid strength foundation remains essential. 

But to build your best looking AND best performing body focus on:

*Getting more explosive

*Generating strength fast, with exercises like cleans and jumps

* Conditioning to build wicked endurance and shred fat

 

How To Look Like An Olympic Athlete

 

There’s no better tool to bridge the gap between the body you want and the athleticism you deserve than my latest program The Power Primer, 2.0.

I’ve created eight months worth of programming to get you Strong, Shredded, and Athletic. This isn’t a program for athletes.

It’s for those of us that refuse to accept pathetic athleticism at the cost of building your best-looking body.

Here’s what Power Primer users are saying:

“The Power Primer program uniquely blends the best methods to improve the way your body performs, looks, and feels. For both athlete’s and nonathletes, the workouts are comprehensive, effective, and really fun. Anyone looking to develop an athletic body that looks as good as it performs will really enjoy this program.”
– Brian Y.

“If you’re looking for a program, this is it. Athlete strong, burning fat, hypertrophy with an in depth video guide of all the exercises. Coming from a minor league baseball player I follow the program as is and has been nothing short of awesome.
– Brad J.

It’s time to bridge the gap between athleticism and aesthetics.

It’s time to unleash the Power Primer and build your leanest, strongest, and most athletic body to date.

There are three workouts: fat loss, performance, and muscle gain. When combined,  they help you build your best body.

Coupled with a comprehensive video guide and optional full nutrition guide, you’re getting over eight months of workouts for less than your favorite bourbon protein powder.

Get the Power Primer Today.

Athlete Strong in 12 Weeks

 

Front Squat Progression: Simple and Effective

front squat

Let’s talk front squats.

I think we’d all agree squats are the king of all exercises. But when you hear the word “squat”  you’re probably thinking back squat. Fair enough. The back squat is the most popular squat around.

It’s a staple in nearly every program from the Power Primer for athletic performance to many fat loss plans.  It’s a competitive lift in powerlifting and lets you lift gargantuan weights.

So why on earth would I not roll out the red carpet on a back squat progression?

Because the front squat is superior for building an athletic, injury resilient, and jacked body.

And no, I’m not some anti-powerlifting recluse. The front squat is just that epic. When the goal is to improve performance, build legs the size of tree trunks, and improve your cubicle dwelling posture … the front squat is at the pinnacle of exercise selection. We put together a full guide and front squat specialization program to coincide with this article. Download them both here.

In fact, my much smarter (and better looking) colleague Dr. John Rusin had this to say about the front squat:

For a majority of athletes and lifters the front squat is my preferred squat pattern variation due to its total body requisite. From packing the shoulders to owning a more upright spinal position, the front squat maximizes sports performance transfer and reinforces optimal movement patterns.

john rusin, Front Squat Progression, front squat
Confused?

The upright position reduces stress on your back and the movement more closely mimics the movements needed in to be an exceptional athlete.

Now comes the Real Battle: Progressing to a Front Squat

The biggest reason people avoid big challenges is because they’re hard. It’s a cliche, but everything worth having takes sacrifice and hard work. Refining front squat technique is no different.

The Biggest Problems Most Lifters Face in the Front Squat Progression

  1. Poor Thoracic Mobility

Poor thoracic mobility is per for the course these days. Almost all of us are excessively interiorly rotated from sitting at a desk 8-12 hours per day. The shoulder blades tend to get “stuck” on the back of the rib cage. The shoulders roll forward, and the head drops protrudes forward like a turtle peekin’ out of his shell.

The front squat can improve posture, but you must first be able to get into position. Joel Seedman, PhD and owner of Advanced Human Performance has this to say about the importance of thoracic mobility in the front squat.

The front squat teaches the lifter how to find the ideal balance between spinal extension and anterior core activation. Because of the unique loading parameters, front squats force the lifter to achieve significant thoracic extension while simultaneously engaging the anterior core at a high intensity.

In turn this grooves the proper recruitment patterns needed for producing neutral spinal alignment not only for squats but for other movements as well.

With that said, how can we get into proper position to optimize movement patterns? Active thoracic mobility training.

Drills to improve thoracic mobility:

Bench T-Spine Extension Mobilization: 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps Daily

Why: By improving t-spine mobility and targeting the lats, serratus anterior, and traps you’ll improve the shoulders ability to stay in position and transfer force.

How to: Start by kneeling and facing a bench while holding a dowel or PCV pipe in your hands with your elbows on the bench. Holding onto the PVC pipe, rock your hips back, dropping your head until it’s even with your arms and extending through your upper back.

Floor Slide: 2-3 sets of 8-10 reps daily

Why: The floor slide actives muscles of the mid and upper back, namely the mid-lower trap to fire, helping combat poor posture to improve overhead work.

How to: While supine, keep the lower back flat with the arms extended overhead. Without arching, drive the elbows down towards your sides, squeezing through your mid back. Work to keep the ribcage down through the full range of motion.

Stop your range of motion if you start to arch your lower back, or elevate the rib cage (as seen at end range in the video.) Gradually increase your range of motion.

 

2. Poor Strength in the “Rack Position”

By hammering thoracic spine mobility, you should be able to get into the rack position.  The rack position is when the bar is situated on the front of the shoulders with the arms parallel to the floor.

To get stronger in this position, you’ll need a dose of goblet holds and positions to strengthen the anterior core, rhomboids, and traps.

As Coach Bob Thompson puts it:

The goblet squat makes the transition to front squat smooth and easy because you’re already familiarized you holding the rack position while keeping an upright torso. Once a barbell is added, the body is already familiar with the pattern that it performs it effortlessly.

3. Front Squat Grip

Gripping the bar on the front squat is a common issue that comes down to technique and mobility. There are numerous grips covered in my Complete Guide to the Front Squat eBook.

Just fill out the form at the end of this article and I’ll send my Front Squat eBook to you for free …  instantly. 

 

front squat, front squat progression

Front Squat Progression:

So far, I’ve touched on improving mobility and strength to hold thoracic extension. Now, let’s put it all together. After all, you can’t just jump from “no front squats” without the prerequisite stability and mobility.

Further, it’s never a good idea to load an exercise without establishing stability through an acceptable range of motion and  good technique. To learn how to front squat you need a progression. Here it is.

The Third World Squat:

Ever wonder what people did before chairs….or toilets?

Sitting on the ground wasn’t the only option– they had what’s now termed the third-world squat.  As coach and former special ops operative Craig Weller says,

“In third-world countries, there will be a lot of situations where people are hanging out or working, and rather than sitting or kneeling down, they squat. They can sit like this comfortably for hours. It seems like a simple thing and can be easily overlooked, but try it some time. The average North American adult can’t even get into this position, let alone stay there for any length of time.”

3rd world squat, Front Squat Progression

I could spend all day discussing third world squat position, but Craig did a killer job of this here on T-Nation.

To cut to the chase:

Add 20 full squats to the end of every warm-up.

Once or twice per day, drop into the lowest squat position you can handle for 30 – 60 seconds and hold position.  Keep your heels down and chest up.

Over time, this will improve total body mobility and posture to optimize front squat technique.

Goblet Squat:

Brought to the forefront by Dan John, goblet squats are the ultimate teaching tool for squatting. Like a front squat, the anterior load engages the core, keeping the spine more vertical. With this increased engagement, you’re more easily able to sink the hips between the knees without posterior pelvic tilt-butt wink, as shown below by the Glute Guy Bret Contreras.

bret contreras, bret contreras squat
Goblet squats are idiot proof a the easiest way to groove squat technique in all of five minutes.  Grip a kettlebell or dumbbell underneath one end (or the horns) and hold at chest height. Keeping the chest tall and abs braced descend by breaking at the hip and knee until the proper depth is achieved. Extend the hip and knee, returning to a full stand.

Goblet Squat With Pause:

Grip a kettlebell or dumbbell underneath one end and hold at chest height. While keeping the chest tall and abs braced descend by breaking at the hip and knee until proper depth is achieved, pause while staying tight, and extend the hip and knee, returning to a full stand.

Incorporating this pause reinforces your mobility by pouring concrete on the movement foundation. This builds stability from head to toe.

2 KB Front Squat:

Using two kettlebells greatly increases the demands on your rhomboids to maintain thoracic extension and strength. Since most lifters miss front squats by the elbows dropping and weight shifting forward, this variation improves strength in the rhomboids to prevent that problem before it gets started.

Holding one kettlebell in each hand at chest height stand tall and brace the core. Keep the kettlebells “up” by driving the elbows high, then breaking at the hips and knees simultaneously until the proper depth is achieved and pausing without losing tension. Extend the hip and knee, returning to a full stand.

Frankenstein Front Squat:

After chatting about the Frankenstein front squat on Travis Pollen’s podcast, I asked PhD Student Marc Lewis to chat about his favorite progression, the Frankenstein Front Squat.

After the goblet squat has been utilized, and loads have been progressively increased, the barbell loaded front squat would be the next logical progression.

However, before transitioning directly into a “normal” front squat (i.e. clean grip, strap grip, arm crossover grip, etc.), it’s critical to learn proper bar placement and body position with a barbell located anteriorly.

Therefore, the Frankenstein front squat is the ideal exercise to reinforce proper bar position, while teaching the athlete/client how to complete the movement with proper technique throughout the entire range of motion.

  1. The unloaded barbell should be unracked and placed on the on the flexed anterior deltoid. This teaches the athlete/client to create the “shelf,” which is vital to the set-up of the front squat as well as for maintaining the correct torso position.
  2. Elbows should remain at or above the bar level at all times, which will reinforce the cue of “elbows” not “hands” when using the clean grip.
  3. When driving out of the hole, this variation assists the athlete/client with maintaining a vertical torso and driving through the heels. Remember, if they start rounding at the thoracic spine or shifting their weight forward, the barbell will fall.
  4. Finally, this front squat variation will assist in teaching the athlete/client to brace their core and the proper breathing pattern with a barbell placed anteriorly.

Many athletes/clients will appreciate this part as it’s uncomfortable to breathe properly with a barbell snug against your throat.

Front Squat with a Pause:

Using a clean grip (2 fingers only if necessary) break at the hips and knees simultaneously, keeping the abs braced and elbows up as you descend to depth. Pause while maintaining a “rigid” core, then stand up by fully extending the hip and knee.

Focus on driving the elbows high throughout the lift to keep the elbows parallel to the ground and spine vertical.

Front Squat Progression

There are many ways to “skin the cat” when it comes to squat progressions, but this technique has worked best for me when teaching my clients how to front squat.

First, mobilize the movements and tissues needed for movement.

Then, reinforce the movement foundation with rock-solid stability to hold position. Crush each rep with intent!

Finally, keep your ego at bay. With this progression, you’ll be piling on plates in no time.

Like this article?

Then you’ll love our Front Squat progression checklist and Front Squat Specialization workout. Get them free by clicking here.

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