Let’s be Clear:
To Improve athleticism, building muscle and strength isn’t enough—you must be able to move and generate force rapidly to stand above the average meathead.
Who wants to be all show and no go?
Further, what fun is having tons of endurance without appreciable muscle mass?
If you’re like most lifters, you
want demand a blend of both athleticism and muscle mass, and that’s what I’m here to deliver.
In today’s post, I’ll show you how to build a body capable of competing with the toughest athletes, yet still lean and muscular.
I reached out to a handful of expert coaches in the industry to help you maximize your training and improve athletic performance.
Not only will you maximize your training, you’ll build real-world athleticism. In other words, these tips will help you become Unleash Your Athleticism, and become a beast both in and out of the gym.
1) Value Relative Strength As much as Absolute Strength
There are many factors to consider, but heavy strength training is a tool for improvement, not the end-all be-all in performance.
Does the allocation of resources towards building more strength with potential gains in size outweigh the benefits of higher relative strength and corresponding improvements in agility, speed, power, and coordination?
Sorry to burst your bubble, but no.
There are always exceptions like absolute strength athletes such as lineman, throwers, and strongman competitors, but when athletes’ sports are movement based relative strength reigns king.
Incorporate bodyweight training, movement skills like sprints and jumps, and stop blindly adding weight to the bar above all else.
2) Develop Unilateral Strength and Power
David Dellanave of Dellanave.com
If you want a more athletic, and dare I say functional, type of strength prepare to get comfortable with unilateral work. The fact is most sports movements happen from an offset stance and favor power development unilaterally.
Let’s look at two great movements to make this happen:
The first is the skater squat or airborne lunge. This is a super challenging movement that is fantastic for building single leg strength. Don’t be put off by this bodyweight exercise – most people have to progress from a Bulgarian split squat to develop single-leg strength and stability to prepare for the unsupported, skater squat.
The skater squat is like a pistol squat, but instead of the non-working leg being outstretched in front of you, the hip is flexed and you tap the knee of the non-working leg on the ground near your planted foot. Here’s one of Ben Bruno’s guys doing it:
In most cases, you’ll want a little weight to act as a counterbalance to aid in balance. To progress the skater squat slightly reduce the range of motion by tapping the knee to a yoga block rather than on the ground. This increases the difficulty of the exercise by requiring additional eccentric control. Gradually increase the range of motion until you’re going all the way to the ground.
The second unilateral power exercise is the split stance one-armed push press, one of the most underrated exercises for athletic power development. Working with one arm negates the bilateral deficit and allows you to move a ton of weight for massive gains in strength and power. The push press requires other transfer of force from the power body until a full-body, coordinated movement.
When done from a split stance, the push press forces stability through the hip and trunk. Keep in mind the best way to find which foot position is best is to biofeedback test it.
Integrate these two staples into your strength and conditioning program and you’re going to be a force to be reckoned with on the field.
3) Jump Rope to Improve Coordination
Jumping rope is an excellent way to develop the individual qualities that make up coordinative athletic movement—what we typically call “athleticism.”
Hitting the weights hard and eating well is important, but true athleticism requires coordination, not just brute strength. Everyone loves being big, strong, and fast, but they’re useless without technique and the ability to consistently express those physical qualities on demand in a coordinated manner.
Jumping rope not only allows you to develop these qualities individually but also trains your body to seamlessly integrate them in concert with one another.
4) Improve Functional Mobility and Reinforce with Strength and Stability
Dr. John Rusin, the Strength Doc.
If you have goals of becoming an elite athlete, functional mobility is a pivotal aspect of high performance.
If your first thought in achieving Gumby-like mobility is with the addition of more stretching and foam rolling to your training program, think again.
Whether stretching and rolling works is still under academic debate but one thing holds true; neither of these modalities are going to streamline translatable mobility like the pristine execution of accentuated loaded eccentrics to your training schedule.
You have most likely already had a taste of the basics of accentuated loaded eccentrics in foundational barbell movements like the Romanian deadlift. With the operative word being “accentuated,” this type of training method is largely dependent on the execution of prescribed tempos and extended ranges of motion.
Increasing the time under tension during the eccentric phases of big compound movements while moving into the last 10% of available range will strategically micro-tear facial layers and muscle tissue, while also retraining neural receptors to adapt to extended ranges of motion under load.
In other words, you’ll build strength, stability, and increase range of motion all in one.
Give it a shot, and remember this method can be used for nearly any movement pattern or muscle group. The key is in the execution– own your movement, challenge your body and reap the benefits of Olympian level mobility.
Check out this awesome tip to build athleticism in the gym @Eric_Bach: http://bit.ly/1bg0bAw #performance #training
5) Incorporate Basic Movement Patterns Like Skipping
I like to use skipping drills with many of my general fitness population clients. Most have spent YEARS in front of a computer and their idea of athleticism is taking the stairs over the elevator. People don’t move a lot anymore and end up having the movement quality of a crowbar.
It’s funny: I’ll say to someone, “we’re going to warm-up with some skipping drills,” and many will roll their eyes and chuckle as if to say “dude, really? Skipping?” Then I watch them skip and I’m the one who ends up laughing.
Skipping is a nice way to help build “groove” proper sprinting mechanics (opposite arm/leg swing), not to mention is a low-grade drill that pretty much anyone can do without risk of injury.
It’s a nice way to “extend” a warm-up or to introduce SOME form of athletic movement if they haven’t done anything more than walk to the water cooler in the past ten years.
6) Balance Training based on Neural Demands
When setting up any training program or workout, you need to place more neurologically demanding exercises early in the week, and early in each session.
In other words, neural demands are the requirements placed on the nervous system for the ideal execution of an exercise.
Athletes require high speed, technical, multi-joint movements like sprinting, jumping, and compound lifts. In these exercises, the nervous system is the driver of performance.
If you’re blasting cleans with excess fatigue the nervous system fails to send signals to the muscles fast enough to allow technique execution of the exercise.
In the case of sprinting under fatigue, you’re unable to produce maximal efforts and training conditioning rather than truly increasing speed, all while increasing the risk of injury due to technical changes. This leads to missed lifts, altered technique, and potentially wreckin’ yo gains.
Keep the high-intensity exercises like sprinting, cleans, or near-maximal lifts with full recovery in the beginning of your workouts.
Exercises towards the velocity portion of the graph (i.e. speed) are obviously faster and more sensitive to changes in technique than slower speed exercises like heavy deadlifts or squats.
To get jacked to the max start your workout with explosive movement like sprints, jumps, or throws and then hit the weights to get stronger and create muscular damage for growth.
7) Build your Base of Strength to Improve Athleticism
For most gym-goers, a basic strength- training program will go a long way in improving athleticism. Keep the specialized exercise programs for more advanced athletes and hammer full-range-of-motion strength training.
Training with good form and in a progressive manner will give you a bigger bang for your training buck than a lot of the fancier “sport specific” drills, especially until you have a foundation of strength.
Emphasize major lifts with sound technique, get strong and develop your base of strength. This sets the table for improved training with more sports specific drills going forward.
8) Move Explosively Everyday
Nick Tumminello of Nicktumminello.com
If you’re like most lifters, you stopped rapid, explosive movement years, if not decades ago.
Rather than solely lifting heavy, incorporate explosive movement and do something fast every day.” That means you should sprint, throw, punch, or jump regularly.
Being jacked and strong is nice, but expressing strength fast and generating tons of power separates the contenders from the pretenders.
Moreover, rather than spending countless hours refining technique on Olympic lifts, it’s best to use exercises with an accelerated learning curve to train the same qualities: explosive power, nervous system activation, and activation of high threshold muscle fibers.
Whether your goals are physique or athletic oriented, you’ll reap huge benefits from explosive throws, pushes, and jumps. By bridging the gap between strength and speed, your nervous system functions at a faster, more efficient rate to improve firing rates of muscles on your big lifts.
Add in jumps for the lower body and push-up variations or explosive throws for three sets of five reps with light resistance after your movement training or directly after your warm-up.
That way, you’ll improve neural activation, better recruit muscle fibers, and prepare the body for activity and sport.
9) Incorporate Multi-planar Training
Travis Pollen, the Fitness Pollenator
As an amputee, I might be a little biased, but single-leg training with the aforementioned exercises will boost athleticism, especially if you’ve been spending all your time on conventional barbell exercises.
Train unilaterally: multi-planar split squats and lunges, single-leg stiff-legged deadlifts, single leg hurdle jumps, even single-leg hang cleans.
Most lifts take place solely in the sagittal plane, yet sports are chaotic and take place with frontal, sagittal, and transverse plane movements. All movements have forces in multiple planes, but it serves the average gym-goer well to incorporate direct multi-planar movements.
While you must master basic exercise first, incorporating movements that require greater stabilization throughout the entire body will undoubtedly improve a variety of qualities that contribute to athleticism. There are the obvious ones like strength and power and then some less obvious ones, too, like mobility, stability, balance, and proprioception.
10) Build Up Multi-level Strength
Chad Landers of Push Private Fitness
To improve athleticism get stronger, both in an absolute and relative sense. 90% of people will never have the issue of being too strong to excel in sports. As a result, improving strength and training with a variety of rep ranges to set your infrastructure for speed, stability, power, and improvements in body composition.
It’s imperative to note that you don’t need to train at 90, 95% of your one-rep-max, save that for the powerlifters.
Instead, hammer the 3-5 rep range with 80% 1-RM in the “big lifts” like squats, deadlifts, presses, cleans, rows and pull-ups.” You’ll still build strength without excessive stress that crushes the high training demands of athletes.
Not only do the lighter loads add a greater speed component, they reduce the risk of technical breakdowns and form.
11) Improve Rotational Strength and Power
Kennet Waale is a facilitator, coach, and founder of Move Strong and www.kennetwaale.com.
Power is vector specific, so it requires athletes to train rotational skills directly. The four exercises below are thoroughly explained in the videos regarding execution to help you build rotational strength and power. Following is an outline of how you could use the exercises to improve rotational power and strength in a more traditional athletic performance program.
A proper periodization plan is obviously important and practicing the foundations is of utmost importance to master any skill. Don’t let your ego come in the way – start light; master the movements and progress the weights and tempo as you go. Soon, you’ll be swinging and punching harder with specific rotational power.
- Males +70kg start with: 20kg Kettlebell
- Males -70kg start with: 16kg Kettlebell
- Females +60kg start with: 16kg Kettlebell
- Females -60kg start with: 12kg Kettlebell
- Stick with the above weights for the first three weeks before you decide to increase it when technique is optimal.
|Day 1: Lower BodyDate:||Week 1||Week 2||Week 3|
|A1) Half Dragon Press (Weeks 1&2)Full Dragon Press (Week 3)||Weight||*As Above||*As Above||*As Above|
|Sets vs. Reps||3×5/side||3×6/side||3×8/side|
|Rest||1-2 minutes||1-2 minutes||1-2 minutes|
|A2) Depth Jumps||Weight|
|Sets vs. Reps||3×5||3×6||3×6|
|B1) Sumo Deadlifts||Weight||50%1RM||55%1RM||60%1RM|
|Sets vs. Reps||3×6||3×5||4×4|
|C1) Rotational Medicine Ball Tosses||Weight||3kg||4kg||4kg|
|Sets vs. Reps||3×6-8||3×8-10||3×8-12|
|C2) Walking Lunges with Bar in Front||Weight|
|Sets vs. Reps||3×10/leg||3×10/leg||3×12/leg|
|Day 2: Upper BodyDate:||Week 1||Week 2||Week 3|
|A1) Lateral Cleans||Weight||*As Above||*As Above||*As Above|
|Sets vs. Reps||3×5/side||3×6/side||3×8/side|
|Rest||1-2 minutes||1-2 minutes||1-2 minutes|
|A2) Push Ups w/Clap||Weight|
|Sets vs. Reps||3×5||3×6||3×6|
|B1) 1-Arm Dumbbell Floor Press||Weight||50%1RM||55%1RM||60%1RM|
|Sets vs. Reps||3×6||3×5||4×4|
|C1) Rotational Swings||Weight||*As Above||*As Above||*As Above|
|Sets vs. Reps||3×8-12/side||3×8-12/side||3×8-12/side|
|C2) Cry Babies||Weight|
|Sets vs. Reps||3×6-10/side||3×6-10/side||3×6-10/side|
The Dragon Press Half Rotation
The Dragon Press Full Rotation
The Lateral Clean
The Rotational Swing
12) Improve Thoracic Mobility for better Overhead Movement
Thoracic mobility gains could be made through improving breathing patterns and glute engagement.
Stay with me, as I know it sounds crazy, but the implications are pretty powerful. For breathing work, inhalation involves the expansion of the rib cage and extension of the thoracic spine, helping you pull in larger volumes of air during inhalation. As a result, this increases movement in thoracic mobility and stability for overhead movements.
For the glutes, their glute contraction has a massive impact within a very short period of time to help increase thoracic drive. In a situation where the glutes aren’t being used, the pelvis can be held with a bit more anterior tilt, which causes a compensatory movement of the lumbar spine into more lordosis, or extension.
To balance this out, the thoracic spine winds up getting more kyphotic or flexed so as to keep your head vertical over your feet and keep you from falling over.
Flexing the glutes helps to pull the pelvis into slightly more posterior tilt, which reduces the drive on the low back into extension and thus reduces the drive into the thoracic spine into flexion. It’s simple tip with profound, performing improving implications.
The combined aspect of breathing in more air, opening the lungs, and flexing the glutes, increases thoracic extension range of motion rapidly, which can help put you in a better position to overhead press while stabilizing the pelvis for less discomfort and pain in overhead movements.
13) Don’t Sacrifice Nutrition
With all the training sessions and high demands on game day, athletes have an extremely high-energy output.
This gives the perception that because of the high-energy output, athletes don’t have to watch what they eat and body composition is last on their list.
Unfortunately, most athletes crush insane amount of junk, wrecking body composition and reducing recoverability. If you’re a recreational athlete and scarf skittles like Marshawn Lynch, you’ll turn into a slob rather than a high-performance machine.
Even though most of us aren’t looking to be a stage ready bodybuilder anytime soon, improving body composition can help improve athletic performance.
Seriously, body fat doesn’t produce force the way muscle can and may decrease relative strength by increasing bodyweight.
The better your body composition is and the higher the ratio of muscle you have to fat, the more force you’re cable of producing. This force, under the right training conditions, will enhance your athletic potential.
By periodizing your nutrition, being aware of your food intake and using specific supplements will help improve your body composition.
Instead of eating everything in sight thinking you’ll burn it all off during training or competition, focus on your body composition with proper nutrition.
Besides, who doesn’t want to be a badass on the pitch while looking jacked on the beach?
14) Incorporate the Medicine Ball Back Toss for Explosive Power
One of my favorite drills to use with clients to improve athleticism, more specifically jumping ability, is the overhead backward medicine ball toss for height. I like the throw for height opposed to distance because it decreases the likelihood of over extending the low back in an attempt to get more power, which is a common fault for beginners and those new to the movement.
Most clients who haven’t jumped in years let their arms flop around like wet noodles or tuck them tight to the side like pencil diving in a pool. Not only is this disadvantageous for jumping but it’s an awkward thing to see. This movement gives the client a basic understanding of using an effective arm swing, gets the CNS jacked up and most importantly, it’s fun.”
15) Start Sprinting to Improve Athleticism
Option One: Sprinting before lifting is ideal for improving performance by potentiating the nervous system for heavy and explosive training.
This comes with a risk versus reward trade-off as sprinting done before training must be enough to spark the nervous system, yet low enough in volume and intensity to not fatigue the body and hinder lifting ability. When fatigue is managed, strength performance, conditioning, and athleticism will skyrocket.
After your dynamic warm-up (that you’re already doing, right?), do some submaximal speed drills like skips and low-intensity sprints for 5-10 minutes.
Low volume, short distance sprints performed before strength training help prevent injury and improve performance, as opposed to doing a technical, neurologically demanding exercise after training when fatigue predisposes you to injury.
Perform sprints two days per week. Start with 5 sprints of 10-20 yards with 30-60 seconds of recovery and add one sprint per week, maxing out at 10 sprints.
Option Two: Sprints Conditioning After a Lift
Sprints require sound mechanics and practice before you can pile on tons of volume, a process to which most gym rats aren’t willing to dedicate time. With that in mind, sprinting for conditioning must be done sub-maximally on either a hill or incline to prevent overstriding and hamstring injuries.
How to Improve your Athleticism: Wrap Up
Your body is an integrated system and should be trained as such. When in doubt, training for improving performance builds a foundation for better training of aesthetic goals, bringing you the total package of a lean, strong, athletic body.
Take a few minutes to review your training and ask, “Where can I improve my performance?”
I put together a brief checklist covering all 15 tips, on one short list for you to throw in your gym bag. Download for free below to optimize your athleticism.