Bigger and stronger is great but it doesn't make you more athletic. Here's how to build that elusive quality.
Here's what you need to know...
- Athleticism requires movement quality, coordination, strength, and speed – in that order.
- It's a lot easier to pack on size and strength if you're flexible and move well.
- Focus only on movements that have the highest carryover to other things.
For many people, the quest for daily physical improvement is centered on ability. The ability to be thrown into any situation – sports, lifting, self defense, daily life – and come out on top.
Fortunately, when you prioritize this way, the aesthetic benefits of training typically fall into place as well.
A lot of guys are strong. A lot are flexible. Some are even fast. However, few possess all these qualities and look jacked to boot.
Here's how to train for it.
The difficulty with any pursuit is that you typically have to give up something in one area to gain in another. After all, there are only so many hours in the day.
You've heard stories of heavyweight powerlifters who nearly pass out just from walking up a flight of stairs. Now these men are seriously strong, but I wouldn't consider them "athletic."
Every new client comes in with different strengths and weaknesses, but I get most excited when someone shows up who's flexible and coordinated. It's a lot easier to pack size and strength on someone if their movement quality is solid.
We can look at these qualities as an athleticism pyramid:
The point is, you need to have good quality movement on which to build the rest. Only when you achieve adequate amounts of all four qualities do you become truly athletic.
Below is a short video of the qualities I think encompass athleticism.
The best approach is to methodically address each quality individually while being mindful of the pyramid above.
It's important to focus on movements that offer the biggest bang for your buck. This may only require three or four days of training per week if planned correctly. Focus only on movements that have the highest carryover to other things.
1 – Movement
To be athletic, you need to be able to move well, without restriction. The best way to achieve this is through active mobility work. Stick to mobility drills that incorporate many joints and muscles that also build strength.
2 – Coordination
There are many ways to improve hand-eye coordination and footwork. Favorites include letterball catch, juggling, and cone drills.
To make a letterball, draw a letter on six sides of a tennis ball with a sharpie. Throw it against a wall and as it returns, call out the letter in mid-air. It forces you to focus on the ball and track it all the way to your hand.
Progress to juggling three letterballs. Ultimately you can even juggle three letterballs overhand against a wall, still calling the letter each time.
You can also set up cones 3-10 yards apart in different patterns and run to each cone, reaching down to touch the cone each time. Simply doing this can improve your lower body coordination dramatically.
3 – Strength
Being fast or agile is pointless if you can't lift heavy things. The best choices for building strength are full-body movements like the deadlift or the squat.
I prefer to use deficit deadlifts as they have more carryover to the sports I compete in. And if you can deadlift something from a deficit, you can easily pull it off the floor. This movement also maintains and cultivates hip mobility and strength.
Did you notice the rep speed I used? If you keep the rep speed strong and fast, you'll become strong and fast.
For upper body strength, the movements that have the highest possible carryover come from gymnastics.
In the first video, I started with an L-press to handstand followed by handstand push-ups. This movement takes you all the way from shoulder extension to complete shoulder flexion, while transferring the entire weight of your body to your arms throughout the movement.
I'm no gymnast. When I first started lifting at 17, I couldn't even do a pull-up or touch my toes. Steady, simple progressions will do the trick.
The front lever is the most difficult pulling exercise combined with the toughest core drill imaginable. Just by itself the front lever will build big pulling strength and lats that block out the sun.
Both movements also require very little time investment but pay huge strength dividends.
Bonus: The muscle-up on rings. It's the toughest pull-up combined with the hardest dip. If you have to pick just one, make it the muscle-up on rings. Load it with weight and use your strength instead of kipping and you're in business.
If you stick with these movements and progress them appropriately, you'll find that lifting weights just feels easier.
It should be said that these are meant to complement the heavily loaded full-body movements. You can't expect to lift a heavy weight overhead if you don't have the foundation for it.
4 – Speed
You can't go wrong with sprinting at full speed. Be sure to progress slowly and if you haven't sprinted in a while, start with hill sprints instead. It reduces deceleration demands along with the chance of pulling a hamstring.
Olympic lifting leaves jumping in the dust, but I still like performing some weighted jumps. Either strap on a vest or load up a trap bar and let 'er rip. That said, you should already be proficient in unweighted jumping before trying these variations.
Power snatches and power snatch pulls are awesome for building explosive hip power, flexibility, and supporting back musculature. I especially like the one-two combo of power snatch plus overhead squat. It's fantastic for coordination, strength, power, and flexibility.
Bonus: Hitting or kicking the heavy bag is probably my favorite expression of full body power. Not only is it great for coordination, you're building a practical skill in case you ever find yourself in a bad situation.
Putting It All Together
Here's a simple program to follow using the above movements. The exercises paired together should be performed in order, for as many sets as you can comfortably do in the allotted time period. Rest as needed, keep the repetitions low and focus on building your skill and strength simultaneously.
|A1||Thoracic Bridges plus Movement Flow (warm-up)||3|
|A3||Power Snatch + Overhead Squat||3||3+1, 3+1, 3+3|
|B1||L-Press to handstand * *|
|B3||Letterball catch or juggling|
|C2||Airborne Lunge||5 per leg|
* 12-15 minutes for superset
* * L-Press to handstand — No need to go all the way up to a handstand, just go as far as your strength allows
Cardio: Shuttle runs to finish
|A1||Thoracic Movement Flow||4|
|A2||Trap Bar Jumps||4||5|
|B1||Handstand Practice *|
|B2||Power Snatch Pulls||3|
|C1||Muscle-Ups (or pull-ups and dips on rings) *|
* 12-15 minutes for superset
Cardio: Beating the hell out of the heavy bag, interval style
While this is far from a blueprint for becoming a complete athlete, it will make you a better lifter and more well rounded. Combine that with years of hard work and you just might surprise yourself!