As a fitness coach, the majority of people that I meet have one goal: physique improvement. Whether it’s fat loss or muscle gain, most people simply want to look better naked. As an industry, we’re all too happy to help, but I’d like to encourage a different goal – greater athleticism. It’s not enough to look better. What if you could feel better? Move better? In this article, I’ll provide a general overview of some ways to modify your training to regain or improve your athleticism while still meeting physique goals.
This article is motivated by one question – After you reach your initial goal, what drives you to continue training? Many people that begin to exercise for fat loss purposes feel ’empty’ or dissatisfied after reaching their goal and drop off. Focusing on athleticism early is a powerful strategy to stay motivated.
If your primary interest is fat loss, why is that? What motivates you? Is it about the dress size, or is it about ‘feeling’ in shape? Is it about building a six pack, or knowing that you can compete on any given day. Many of the adults I’ve spoken to admit to to ‘not feeling like they used to’. A properly written training program will safely address those desires. Let’s be honest – your physique goals will always come down to nutrition. Trust your nutrition, and make your training about building your best body.
Step 1 – Get your mind right.
Try this simple experiment: For the next week, replace your physique goals with an athletic goal. When you catch yourself making an observation, swap it out. Focus on increasing the weight lifted, the reps performed, etc – and not just staring at the scale. It’s a powerful shift in mindset. Your weight training is an extension of athletics, treat each session like practice – and less like atonement for caloric sins.
Step 2 – Continue (or start) to play sports.
If you’re not playing a sport currently, start. Vary the sport by season, as to avoid developing dominant postures or imbalances. Weight training is excellent, but it is dominated by sagittal (front to back) exercises. We rarely cut, rotate, accelerate, decelerate, catch, or move in unpredictable patterns in the weight room. Compare the variety of movements seen in a grappling match or football game to those in weight training. Big difference.
Physical benefits aside, the social and mental benefits from athletics alone are reason to play. If you’re not sure where to look, check your local town’s recreation department, YMCA, Meetup, Sportsvite, or a simple Google search. I’m partial to mixed martial arts – wrestling, Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, boxing, and Muay Thai.
Step 3 – If you’re going to be an athlete, you need to warm up like an athlete.
There is no reason to still recommend a 10-15 minute warmup as the sole preparation for strength training. It’s a severely outdated practice. Instead, treat your warmup like your preparation for a game: we stretch (mobility work), perform movement drills (turn on weak or inactive muscles), and practice specific skills for the game (groove the movement patterns for the workout ahead). Wear layers to help break a sweat while you warm up.
In addition, we foam roll to release tight muscle groups and tension throughout the body. A comprehensive warm up should correct the poor posture assumed during your daily tasks and reinforce healthy movement. For many, a better warm-up is the key to improving movement.
Focus on the following areas:
- Thoracic Mobility – Simply put, this is your range of motion through your upper back. Foam roller extensions and reachbacks are two of my favorite warm-up drills to regain movement here and correct a slouched posture.
- Hip Mobility – Every athlete knows the importance of the hips. From golfers to wrestlers, the hips matter. Mobilize the hip flexors, and give the adductors (keep the lower back stable and still) some attention as well.
- Shoulder Mobility – The goal is to improve the range of motion of the shoulder joint. Wallslide variations are effective, as are Y-Raises, pec mobilizations, and lat stretches. Many thoracic mobility drills assist here.
- Glute Activation – Sitting shuts off the glutes, which makes it difficult to generate full power and speed. Bridge variations, clamshells, and lateral walks/raises all do the trick here.
- Shoulderblade (Scapular) Stability – The ability of your shoulderblades to maintain their position while the arm moves. Critically important for rotational sports (like golf and baseball), but also for strength training (bench pressing). T/Y/I, Wallslides, Band Pull Aparts, etc.
- Warm Up Sets and Movement Drills – Squat Drills, Lunge Drills, Pushup Drills, etc. Practice your major exercises briefly, or work on corrective exercises to improve your performance. Think of this as drilling plays before the game.
If everything I just mentioned is Greek to you, I’d recommend finding a qualified professional and asking them to create a proper warmup for you.
Step 4 – Incorporate power movements into the beginning of your workout.
It’s well-established that as we age, we lose power annually. Simply put, you get slower, weaker, and less explosive every year that you age. Even then, you could just be slow. If you’re strong but lack explosive speed, you lack power. Whats more, power can help maintain balance.
Power is specific to the direction in which it is applied. If vertical power is a priority, emphasize vertical movements – jumps, clean variations, and snatch variations. Horizontal speed, emphasize hip extension – speed deadlifts, explosive heavy kettlebell swings, and broad jumps. Rotational sports (golf, throwing sports, tennis) focus on movements with rotation – medicine ball throws, sledgehammers, and drills that incorporate hip rotation. Upper body variations include medicine ball throws, but also pushup or pullup variations. Bands can be helpful for this. Scale the exercises to your fitness level, but do incorporate power training.
With athletes, we dedicate a large chunk of time to this type of training. For general fitness purposes, 1-2 exercises done over a period of 5-10 minutes fits the bill. Allow for adequate rests between sets (to be clear: 30+ consecutive snatches, box jumps, cleans, and similar activities do not count as power training) and focus on maximal speed or force production.
Step 5 – Build ‘functional’ strength
‘Functional’ is one of my least-favorite fitness buzzwords. I define functional as having to do with ‘functional anatomy’ (the study of anatomy as it directly relates to physiologic purpose and role), not endless amounts of one-legged swiss ball deathtrap exercises. Simply put – train the major movement patterns: squat, hinge (deadlift, swing, thrust), single leg supported (lunges), single leg unsupported (step ups, 1-leg RDL) push/pull, vertical push/pull, and rotation/diagonal/spiral patterns. Focus on gaining strength and skill on all of these patterns and you’ll develop balanced fitness throughout the body. Add in extra work for posture/imbalance correction, and leave room for your favorites (arm work, glute work, etc).
Step 6 – Match your cardio plan to your chosen activity.
Simply put, your cardio activities should match your sport. Sprinters do not need to long miles. Neither do wrestlers, volleyball players, tennis players, and other athletes in sports with brief bursts of intense activity. Remember, the body adapts according to the SAID principle – Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands. The role of a conditioning coach is to evaluate the energy system needs of a sport, and develop a training program to best prepare athletes for those demands. Take the same approach to your training. If you don’t have a chosen sport, mix in various styles of cardio to develop efficiency in multiple energy systems.
Step 7 – Eat to improve your performance.
“Most of the food I eat doesn’t taste good. I don’t eat for taste, I eat for perforance.” – Sean Sherk. That quote is extreme, but it was incredibly motivating when I first heard it. Don’t think about your nutrition simply in terms of losing fat or building muscle, but as to how it will affect your overall performance. Cleaning up your diet (removing sugars and all processed foods) will lead to massive changes in your performance – both on the field and in the weight room.