Why You Should Train Like an Athlete

Have you ever noticed how athletes in power sports tend to have the best looking bodies? Think of gymnasts performing the crucifix on the Olympic rings, 100 metre sprinters, track and field athletes, martial artists and boxers. These athletes are often quite big and muscular, but somehow manage to pull it off a lot better than your average gym rat with the same amount of muscle mass and body fat levels. Ponder that for a moment and if you’re a bit puzzled, then read on, because I think I have the answer.

One thing I’ve noticed with athletes is that they tend to flow from muscle to muscle as if there bodies were in fact one muscle. This may not be far from the truth if you look at the myofascial bands that run throughout the body, but from the classical anatomical perspective, we are taught that we have deltoids, triceps, biceps etc. and that these muscles are separate from one another. Well, armed with this knowledge, a lot of people set out to train this way by isolating each muscle group. Look around the weights room of your gym and you will see people performing an entire lifting session designed around only two muscle groups per day. They’ll perform countless exercises for the same muscle group with the idea that training the muscle from all different angles stimulates the most number of muscle fibres and induces the most growth.

This style of training has developed from modern bodybuilding and for those guys, this type of training is appropriate to their level of experience and what they are trying to achieve – getting as big as humanly possible. Pavel Tsatsouline, the self styled ‘evil Russian’ and ex Spetsnaz trainer, points out that modern bodybuilders look like a ‘collection of body parts’. I tend to agree with him on this and find it somehow ironic that the bodybuilders who strive for total body development and symmetry, by performing lots of isolation movements, look to me like the ones with the least symmetry.

It never used to be like this mind you. Since the introduction of steroids, modern bodybuilding has become less about building an aesthetically pleasing body and has become more of a freak show to see who can get biggest. Even our old favourite, the Californian Governator in his heyday, pales in comparison to some of these modern day mass monsters. Back when bodybuilding began, there was less of a distinction between how athletes, strong men and bodybuilders trained.

Contrast this to the way an athlete trains. They train their bodies for power, functional strength and speed. They achieve this by training there bodies using total body weightlifting movements, especially movements that involve lifting while standing up, using free weights, lifting explosively and supporting weights overhead, which I mentioned in The Secret to Sexy Abs. Ok, this is probably a gross over-simplification, but hopefully you’re starting to understand that to train like an athlete, you need to shift your mindset from training muscles to training movement patterns. Here are six basic movement patterns you should be training.

  • Horizontal pressing movement (e.g. bench press, push-ups)
  • Horizontal pulling movement (e.g. bent over barbell row, 1-arm dumbbell row)
  • Vertical pulling movement (e.g. pull-ups, lat pulldown)
  • Vertical pushing movement (e.g. incline press, military press, push press)
  • Quad dominant exercise (e.g. squats, Bulgarian split squats, lunges)
  • Hip dominant exercise (e.g. deadlift, romanian deadlift, goodmornings)
  • Rotational/Twisting movement (e.g. boxing, medicine ball throws, cable wood chops)

What else does the average trainee miss out on?
One thing that you’ll notice is that athletes dedicate a lot of attention to the posterior chain muscles. Those are all the muscles that run along the back of your body, from the calves, hamstrings and glutes to the lower back spinae erectors and upper back muscles. Why do they train these muscles specifically? Well, that’s where a lot of explosive power is developed for running and jumping sports. If you look at a good sprinter you’ll notice that they have very well developed hamstring muscles. Good sprinters run in an almost upright position and tend to run with their hamstrings, whilst a poor sprinter will have a more forward tilt and tend to rely more on the quads to power them forward.

This is in stark contrast to the average gym rat who just wants to look good nekkid and who usually only focuses on the mirror muscles in front of the body. If this is you , you’ll not only not look your best, but you’ll also develop potentially harmful strength imbalances.

Don’t be that caveman trainee.
Again, take a look around your local gym and you might notice that a lot of the big guy’s look like Neanderthal man. With all due respect to Neanderthal man, who could probably pound these guys into the dirt, these guys tends to have a slouched posture, rounded shoulders, excessive lower back arch and internally rotated humeri (funny bones), which pulls the arms out in front of the body, palms facing backwards and knuckles practically dragging the ground. King Kong look out!

Athletes on the other hand, have good posture, which makes them stand tall and look good. They have good posture because it is essential to be in correct alignment in order for the body to develop the maximum amount of strength and power it can. Deviating from the correct anatomical position will limit your strength potential and set your up for acute or chronic injury in the near future.

So how do I fix my posture?
Pilates has taken Hollywood and the world by storm. Next time you watch a blockbuster movie, chances are you’ll notice that the actors tend to have good posture and stand tall. Pilates is only one modality though. More recently, sports coaches have started to include more prehab exercises such as mobility training to keep athletes healthy and address postural issues. They also tend to have focussed, personalised training programs which are designed to address their posture problems by paying specific attention to weak areas and also stretching over-tight areas. Contrary to what I’ve said above, this is one instance where I like to perform isolation movements – to fix certain weaknesses and to activate muscles that don’t fire properly. It is probably beyond the expertise of most people to assess their own bodies, but this is where a good personal trainer can come in handy. Even if you’ve been training for years and think you know it all, I guarantee you that a trainer will see something you’ve missed.

It can often be a bit more obvious to find out which areas you need to work on. You know that exercise that you hate doing? Or that exercise that you really suck at and tend to avoid in order to spare your ego the embarrassment of lifting puny weights? Well, THOSE are your weak areas and that is what you should be focussing on. Pretty simple, huh?

But I’m not an elite athlete; won’t I hurt myself training like one?
Probably no more than with your current training, in fact, by redressing your imbalances you’ll make yourself healthier and less injury prone. You may also prevent chronic joint degradation from having poor biomechanics and unequal strength around the joints.

Consider the bigger picture
Athletes don’t just lift weights; they practice their sports, work on postural issues, go for regular massage and Active Release Therapy and may also incorporate foam rolling into their workouts. For athletes, weightlifting is just a means to an end not an end in itself, so try to incorporate some other forms of exercise into your workouts, even if you think you’ll look like a pansy doing yoga with the ladies. You never know, you might even get a hot date with that bendy instructor. :-)

And ladies, don’t be afraid to mix it up with the meatheads in the weights room. They’re either too focussed on their own workouts to notice you or are much more concerned with the guy across the room who’s got bigger arms than them.

That’s quite a lot to take on, so let’s recap.

  • Identify your own weaknesses
  • Try to utilise total body, compound movements
  • Fix your weak, lagging areas with single joint isolation movements
  • Where possible, opt to do an exercise standing rather than sitting down
  • Don’t be afraid to lift weights explosively to develop power
  • Focus more attention on your posterior chain muscles
  • Think of incorporating some modified Olympic lifting exercises.
  • For the average trainee, forget the body part split programs that bodybuilders use. Rather do total body training or use an upper/lower or push/pull training split.

Incorporating total body movement patterns into your routine is a fun way to train and can break the monotony of your regular workouts. Along with that, you can expect to perform better and look better too with a body that is as sleek and powerful as it looks.

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13 Responses to “Why You Should Train Like an Athlete”

  1. Hi there…I Googled for yoga ball exercise, but found your page about ou Should Train Like an Athlete…and have to say thanks. nice read.

  2. Hi Mike,

    This is an excellent article and I agree that compound exercises should be focused in, especially for people who have been training for few years. Leave the comfort zone by cutting down on isolation workouts.

  3. Thanks for the kind words Kiana, it means a lot coming from somebody as involved in the fitness industry as you.

    Mun, that’s a good point. A lot of more experienced gym-goers know what they should be doing, but mustering up the motivation to do a few sets of ball busting squats or deadlifts is too much effort. Much easier to spin their wheels doing lots of bicep curls.

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  5. Nice aticle, are you familiar with Coach Dos Remedios? he teaches the same workout concept, in fact he just released a book tiled “Men’s Health Power Training.”

  6. Hey Richard,

    I am familiar with Coach Dos. Funny you should mention that book - I looked at it the other day in the book store and quickly added it to my Christmas list.

    There’s also a great podcast interview with Coach Dos recently on www.thefitcast.com. Episode 72, I think.

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  8. Hello…Man i love reading your blog, interesting posts ! it was a great Wednesday

  9. Thanks Kiana, glad you’re enjoying it.

  10. Very inciteful post (esp the posture part). I’m not an expert but never aspired for the over-chiseled SuperHero bodybuilder look. I try to do alot of crunches/weights and I wear the Pro Power Suit that alot of athletes use. Good results so far. Nice article.

  11. Hi Tim,

    I’ve never seen that power suit before, looks interesting. Here’s the link for anybody else who wants to check it out.

  12. Hello…Thanks for the nice read, keep up the interesting posts..what a nice Tuesday

  13. Very useful information. . being an athlete myself, i have watched fellow athletes develop some of the most sculpted and aesthetically pleasing physiques on the planet.

    training like an athlete is the way forward!

    enjoyed the article . . glad someone is on the same page as me!

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