Last year I sent T-Nation my first article, 50 Tips for Serious Athletes, and received a lot of great feedback from the readers. Since that time there’s been a number of requests for a sequel, and I thought that was a great idea. So I dug deep and tried hard to outdo the first 50 tips. Hope you enjoy reading it as much as I enjoyed writing it.
You ever get that “I don’t want to go to the gym” feeling that lasts a couple of weeks? It’s bound to happen and when it does, you should listen to it. Every now and then an athlete needs to get out of the gym for a few weeks and change things up a bit. Maybe go to a playground or a track and do some non-traditional apparatus and bodyweight training.
Don’t worry about your maximal strength, but instead focus on your conditioning, mobility, flexibility and strength-endurance. This will unload your body, both physically and mentally, from all the heavy lifting. After a few weeks you might notice some of those aches and pains disappearing, replaced by the roaring urge to get back in the gym and start banging around the heavy iron again.
If you’re interested in that last tip, here’s an example of a non-traditional apparatus and bodyweight workout I did last week at the playground near my house (you might want to wait until all the neighborhood moms and kiddies have gone home: I think I may have scared a few.)
Set 1: 10 broad jumps / sprint return / airplane push-up x 20/vee-up x 20 x 3 sets
Set 2: pull-ups on swing set x failure / bear crawl forwards 15 yards-backwards 15 yards / low walking lunges 15 yards forwards-15 yards backwards x 3 sets
Set 3: Inverted row holding swing set x 20 / sumo squat burpee x 10 / 50 yards tempo run down and back x 3 sets
Many people avoid doing snatches because of the difficult technique required. The snatch balance is a light-weight movement that allows you to develop the technique, timing, mobility, balance, and speed without devoting too much time to a lift you’re not thrilled about in the first place. You can perform a snatch balance in either a base stance or in the split.
In most competitive sports, starting strength is crucial to an athlete’s successful performance. A great exercise to work your starting strength for sprints is isometric medicine ball scoop throws. Hold the med ball in a full squat between your legs for 3 seconds, then explode up and throw it vertically as high as possible. A more athletic appropriate variation is to have the coach give a go call to throw the ball. This simulates reaction speed for athletes like Linebackers or Track Athletes. Legendary track coach Dan Pfaff uses this with his athletes.
Manual resistance exercises can be a great addition to any training routine. You can use a training partner to do auxiliary exercises like resisted push-ups, rows, neck, and arm work. When there are two dedicated athletes pushing each other as hard as possible these exercises can get really intense.
There are many athletes out there who still train 1 or 2 body parts a day and have not really ever dealt with total body workouts. Many readers often e-mail me asking about how they can switch it up. Here is a sample 3 day total body athletic training routine.
1 Arm Dumbbell Bench
RDL to Shrug
Dumbbell Lunge/Alt Press
Barbell Split Snatch (Switch feet each rep)
Front Squat (Clean Weight)
Medicine Ball Push-up
Leg Curl on Ball
Clean Combo Hang Clean/Jerk
RDL to High Pull
Single Leg Squat
We all know how great the Olympic lifts are for athletes. You can add a great variation to these lifts by catching them in a split stance. Try doing cleans, snatches, and jerks, catching the weight in a split (one leg forward-one leg back split squat position). To do these lifts correctly the athlete must possess split second timing, foot quickness, balance and speed, all important characteristics of athletic ability.
A great way to do multi-throws with a medicine ball is to throw it up a hill. With the throw itself nothing changes, however, due to the downward slope, you can really get some distance in without worrying about chasing after it. Do squat throws, overhead backwards throws, single leg squat throws, and scoop throws and just let the ball come rolling back to your feet.
I’m sure you’ve all seen or heard about the “300 workout.” Athletes, especially young adolescent athletes, frequently get fired up over workouts like these. I agree that it was difficult and intense, but a workout like that should serve only as a rare challenge, not as a training program. Throw these types of workouts in the mix every few weeks to switch things up and test yourself, but maintain a thoughtful program for the majority of your training.
I love front squats. They are one of the most challenging but productive exercises an athlete can do. The only thing I love more than front squats are front squats superseded by a clean. For a few months skip using the power rack to do front squats, but instead power clean the weight into position. You will definitely notice your heavy sets becoming much harder, just by adding that one clean prior to squatting.
The Squat Clean. Whether you go heavy or not, the squat clean is a great athletic exercise. Complete the clean by dropping deep into a low front squat rather than pulling and catching the bar as high as possible. I usually try to teach this right away with my athletes to develop good habits.
They often have a tendency to jump the legs out wide rather than drop under and catch the weight in a squat once the weights get a little heavier. You have to be lightening-quick in order to drop under the weight and possess strong legs in order to decelerate the weight eccentrically. Practice dropping low while your weights are still light, because once the weight gets heavy enough you may have no other choice.
Many of us have heard of or used towel chin-ups to work on our grip during our back work. Towels can be used to crush your grip in countless other methods. Pulling movements like seated rows, inverted rows, partner rows and even grip specific work like farmer walks with towels through a kettlebell or a plate will leave your hands feeling like arthritic claws for hours.
If you like the idea of training your grip through towel work, here’s one you can do right at home. Roll-up a large beach towel, soak it in water and put it into the sink. Then ring out the water with both hands as vigorously as possible for 1 minute. This’ll crush your grip and you can do it right before you hop in the shower after a workout. If you shower at the gym and want to give this a shot, do everyone a favor and do it beforeyou drop the shorts.
Warm-ups are meant to do exactly what their name indicates. You should raise your body temperature until you have nice beads of sweat running down your forehead. For athletes, this means doing ground-based total body movements in multiple planes of motion. Skipping with arm swings forward, backwards and sideways, shuffle with big arm circles, carioca with arms overhead, high knee running with forward and backwards arm swings and push-ups mixed with crawling motions are just a few that we use with our athletes. These exercises are essential for 3 main reasons. They incorporate both the upper and lower body at the same time, teach coordination and synchronization between body parts, and of course, warm up the athlete.
Who says you need to spend all that money on a sprint sled? Just find an old tire, tie some rope to it, tie the other end to a belt, put the belt on and sprint. It’s simple, effective and affordable.
Make do with what’s available. If you’re from an area that actually has four seasons, you know how shitty and unpredictable the weather can get during the winter. Unless you’re fortunate enough to have an indoor track or facility near your house, it becomes impossible to get any sprint work done during this season.
I found a solution via a hotel staircase a few blocks from my house. It’s about 5 floors and is just about perfect for quick accelerations or conditioning work. You can vary it up hitting every step, skipping steps or even jumping up steps. If you’re worried about people in the stairs, ask yourself when the last time you opted out of the elevator and used the stairs at a hotel. Whether you use a hotel staircase or not, be creative and get your workouts in despite the obstacles in your path.
Everyone knows how important it is to switch up your routine in order to make progress in the gym. Instead of changing up the exercises or the reps and sets all the time, try mixing up the emphasis of the lifts instead. For example, at our facility we like to vary our hang cleans using a progression from an isometric hold, to an eccentric lowering and then onto a ballistic movement.
We will do 3 weeks of an isometric hold above the knee to teach proper pulling position and develop starting strength. Then onto 3 weeks of a slow eccentric lowering into pulling position, in order to further strengthen the posterior chain. We finish this progression with 3 weeks using a very fast or ballistic eccentric to concentric movement emphasizing speed-strength.
Quick decisions and fast reaction times could be the difference between falling a step short or making a big play. It’s important for athletes to train these skills using both visual and auditory stimuli to incite a reaction. In the example shown below the athlete is expected to react off visual and audible commands in a number of different planes and movement patterns as fast as possible. We usually explain what movements will be done prior to the set. What we try to include in these series are multiple movements and skills like jumping, twisting, shuffling, level changes, and short sprints.
Watch the hamstring pulls. I learned the hard way when I was a younger coach having had some of my athletes jump right into doing maximal velocity sprinting ( with my athletes I classify that as sprinting distances of anything over 40 yards). Some athletes are just not ready for that stress and need to be slowly introduced to that type of training. Over the past few years we have done build up sprints for 3 weeks prior to doing any serious maximal velocity sprinting. Build ups are done over a 60-80 yard distance where the athlete will start out jogging and slowly pick up speed as they run down the field.
When the athlete reaches about 80-85% top speed they will shut it down and walk back to the start line. This allows the athlete to focus on good sprinting mechanics like staying tall and relaxed. After a few weeks of doing build ups the athlete is usually ready to tackle more intense sprinting.
If you’re one of those athletes who can’t keep your ass out of the gym, here’s a low intensity bodyweight circuit that will help promote recovery and improve work capacity. Training hard every day can be detrimental to your gains by overloading your central nervous system. You can avoid this overload by instituting a few regeneration workouts in between your harder sessions.
10 Inverted Rows
10 Lunges (5 each leg)
10 Push ups
This circuit is done continuously for 10 rounds without stopping or hesitating. This will really get some good blood flow throughout the muscles to help with regeneration. It will also get you sweating a lot and give you something to do on a “day off” from training.
I don’t know about you, but it seems to me that I run faster when someone is chasing me. I think I first noticed this during my teenage years when my friends and I were a little more “adventurous” in our weekend activities. So why not use this principle to your advantage when training. When you have two or more athletes training together, especially athletes with similar speed, you can use the competitive nature to push the efforts even further.
Chase sprints are the most effective way to extract this fight or flight mechanism. There really is no limit to the starting positions or combinations you can perform chase sprints in. Standing up staggered, lying down side by side, backwards, forwards whatever you can think of, they all work. Chase sprints really get the athletes engaged and excited to work hard. Think about it, nobody ever wants to be caught or run down, so athletes will give everything they have to catch or beat the other. Here are a few clips on how to do chase sprints with a group of athletes.
A Medicine ball can be a great tool for acceleration work. It provides a great weighted throwing implement that doubles as a target object to chase. In the first part of the clip, the goal is to touch the medicine ball before it bounces a second time. In the second part, the goal is to catch the ball before it bounces a second time, throw it back towards the original spot and then beat the ball back to the starting line.
Athletic preparation is not solely based upon lifting weights. Without question it’s one of the most important components of a program but some athletes get so caught up with the weight room, they neglect other aspects such as speed development, mobility/flexibility, conditioning, and recovery/regeneration. The overall goal for an athletic training program is not about achieving maximal strength but achieving optimal strength that will help carry over to the playing arena. Lacking any of the components could be the difference between a healthy successful season and a season spent watching from the sideline.
I once had a college football player trying to increase his bench from 390 to 405 pounds. This became his sole focus during training and he completely forgot the fact that he was training to get ready for football. Football, we know, is a sport that takes much more than upper body strength to be successful. Do you think that fifteen pounds is really going to make a difference on the field in the fall? Being strong is good; being able to use your strength to be athletic is great! As an athlete don’t forget what we are training for.
Need a quick warm up that provides low intensity conditioning as well as a core strength developer? An easy way to achieve this is by throwing a med ball off a concrete wall from the hip, chest, and over head in multiple movements. But what if you don’t have a wall to throw a medicine ball against? No problem! You can perform the same movements using a core ball (med ball with handles).
We use the core ball to do a series of chopping, squatting, reaching, and throwing exercises linked together in a row. Not only does this provide a great total body non-running based conditioner, it also helps with core strength and mobility. Here is a look at just one of our core ball series circuits. If you don’t have a core ball, don’t be discouraged. You can perform these circuits using any weighted implement including a dumbbell, plate, medicine ball or sandbag.
There’s nothing like a little obstacle course to get the competitive juices flowing at the end of a hard workout. With all the toys that coaches use these days like mini-hurdles, ladders, cones and sleds it should be easy to set up an effective obstacle course for athletes to rip through.
You can have the athletes face off against each other or even run it relay style and have the group try and beat their time the second run through. Either way, to an athlete, the mere thought of a stop watch kicks them into the next level. Many athletes might not have access to all the fancy equipment, but by no means is it necessary. Just last week I made a simple course using nothing more than cones on a football field and some bleachers. We sprinted, back pedaled, hopped, jumped, and crawled all over that field and it made for a crazy workout.
“The plate push” is a devastating sprinting specific leg exercise. You simply place a 45 pound plate on the ground on its smooth side, put your hands on the plate and push it down field for a given distance or time. We usually have beginners push it about 20 yards but we have pushed it a bit with our older athletes and had them push 2 plates (side by side) for up to 30 yards and back (note: this works best on turf and short grass). Even after just one of these you’ll notice how awful your lungs and legs feel.
No space to do conditioning? Using a step or a small box any athlete can do multiple foot patterns like stepping, shuffling, hopping and jumping for periods of 15-30 seconds in a small space.
Read John McCallum’s book, Keys to Progress. It’s a series of articles written in the 1960’s and 70’s that helped put a ton of muscle on thousands of readers. Not only are the articles loaded with training information, they also provide some great stories.
For any of you athletes out there who are pressed for time and need total body conditioning work, give 6-10 sets of this combination a try. You can find examples of some other possible combinations in a number of articles on T-Nation over the past couple months including an article I recently wrote called, Combos for Power and Size. The example below works well to hit every major muscle top to bottom. Start light and move up gradually through the sets. 3 RDL/3 Hang Clean/3 Push Press/3 Front Squats.
Set a time goal when working on speed of movement. This variation of the dynamic method has the athlete try and get as many repetitions as possible in a set amount of time. For example do as many squats as possible in ten seconds. Over time try to add to the number of repetitions in that time frame, adding external load once you reach a set number of repetitions. Due to the high speed of movement and rapid change from eccentric to concentric contractions, this becomes very difficult and is meant only for advanced athletes. Also beware of your first run-through; it usually leads to some significant DOMS (delayed onset muscle soreness).
I have to share with you the best tasting meal replacement/nighttime protein shake ever. Mix 1 scoop of Banana Metabolic Drive® Protein, 1 spoonful of natural peanut butter, Vanilla Calorie Countdown milk, 1 tablespoon of milled flax seed and a shot of extra virgin olive oil. This is a high protein, good fat, low carb shake that tastes great.
Get rid of your foam roller. After rolling with a foam roller consistently they become soft and wear out over time. Instead, cut some PVC piping to the size of your liking and roll. There is a significant increase in the pain level when rolling on those tight spots which, for some reason feels so good!
The neck is an often neglected area of the body. Especially in combat and contact sports, the neck must be well developed in order to deal with collisions and trauma. All you need is a wall and a small inflatable ball or nerf ball to get some serious neck work in. Place the ball between your head and the wall and press your head into the ball forwards, backwards and from the side. You can use continuous motions or short isometric holds to stimulate some strength development. This is simple and quick. It takes only a few minutes and can be used to start or end any workout.
Here are two of my favorite quotes from legendary track coach Percy Cerutty:
“The introduction of resistance in the form of sand and hill is too important to be ignored.”
“If you die, I’ll bury you in the sand hills with all the other runners.”
I guess the point here is that if you’re an athlete you better be running sand hills! Just give them a try and find out why there may be a few carcasses buried beneath you.
In most sports you compete on your feet. If you’re on your back, chances are your opponent just put you there. So why do all of your abdominal work lying down? There are a number of standing rotational exercises that crush your core (when done right) that are more functional for athletes than simple crunches. You can find some examples of these movements in the core ball series video from tip number 74.
A close friend of mine wanted nothing more than to play linebacker in college but was way undersized. He needed a significant increase in muscle mass to be able to take the constant trauma linebackers deal with on a daily basis. During the spring of his senior year in high school, he made tremendous gains by doing this simple program consisting of 4 exercises over two “leg days”.
This first day, he started with full/deep back squats following a rep scheme of 5-4-3-2-1. He added 5-10 pounds each set, and worked up to a heavy single for that day. The next exercise was deadlifts. He’d take 2 sets to warm up then complete 3 heavy sets of 5 reps. Adding weight whenever he could really made all the difference. The second workout consisted of front squats and dumbbell walking lunges.
Using moderate to heavy weight, really focusing on form and depth he would complete 4 sets of 5 reps in the front squat. The dumbbell lunges followed a scheme of 3 sets of 8 reps on each leg taking fairly big steps. He put on close to 20 pounds of muscle that spring and summer, and went into his freshman year with new-found strength and confidence, which is a must when you’re trying to move to that next level. I’ve changed my thoughts on many things since those days, including rep schemes and program designs, but one thing that seems constant is the basic movements that always work.
What’s better than free information now-a-days? Dan John wrote a great book on Olympic weightlifting, called From the Ground Up, and you can download it free at his web site. It’s actually a very enjoyable read, chock-full of inspirational anecdotes that’ll keep you reading intently time after time. It’s a great read for any athlete or coach and especially anyone dealing with Olympic lifts.
Circuit training has gotten a bad rap over the years. Many believed it was only for the “chrome and fern crowd” (as Brooks Kubik called them), who would bounce from one machine to the next and pump out lightweight reps for 30 seconds. The result was a great aerobic workout that gave minimal results in muscle mass or strength. This is known as a continuous style circuit, but athletes can also utilize a type of circuit training that Mel Siff called interval style circuits. In an interval style circuit, the athlete will move from one exercise to the next using heavy weight (80-90% RM), but take the appropriate rests between sets in order to provide enough recovery to develop strength and power. A sample workout looks something like this:
Hang Snatch x 5 (rest 1:00-1:30)
Power Clean x 3 reps (rest 1:00-1:30)
Bench Press x 5 (rest 1:00-1:30)
Front Squat x 5 (rest 1:00-1:30)
Pull-up x 8 (rest 1:00-1:30)
Repeat this series for 3-5 sets. You might realize that you would be using a lot of equipment and changing weights often through this circuit. This is actually a good thing, because it acts as a good rest period. I would not recommend using this style all the time for many athletes, but it works great for a change of pace and as a substitute when you need to accomplish a lot in a small amount of time.
It’s absolutely imperative that developing young athletes do exercises that force them to move in every imaginable movement pattern and plane of motion. If you deal at all with young athletes or kids in general, I’m sure you’ve noticed the two trends that pain me so often. The first is the takeover of video game playing and the collapse of active youth lifestyles. The second is a shift from a multi sport upbringing to a single sport specialization much too early in life.
Not enough kids these days free play on a daily basis, and they focus constantly on one sport year round. Too often I encounter 8 year old kids playing soccer 7 days a week with multiple game tournaments every weekend. This is detrimental to youths in two ways: it not only leads to incomplete general movement skill development and coordination issues, but also creates overuse injuries.
My advice: play as many sports as you can growing up, and when it comes to training for both youths and advanced athletes, incorporate a healthy dose of movement, mobility, and dynamic flexibility exercises into your workouts.
Linemen need speed too! A few years back Charlie Francis came out with a DVD called GPP Essentials, which is a must have for any coach or athlete in my opinion. On that DVD he showed some great examples of combining medicine ball throws with jumps and sprints for acceleration development. I couldn’t help to think of how great these drills would be for a lineman.
By combining an isometric squat hold with a medicine ball catch, immediately into a throw and followed by a sprint, you get a great explosive exercise similar to a movement pattern many linemen will use during drive blocking. For more stimulation you could also add a jump after the medicine ball catch. This exercise will help build that starting strength and rate of force development that a lineman needs to smash an opponent. Adding the medicine ball catch and throw also develops the ability to receive and redirect forces with the upper body. Here is how it looks:
Do multi-joint compound exercises through the full range of motion using heavy weights. It’s some of the best flexibility work an athlete can do.
Resisted lateral walks, crossovers, and backward runs all make great alternative ground based strength exercises. We often use these to conclude an agility/change of direction focused workout once a week. You can do them slow and heavily resisted for a strength emphasis, or fast and explosive for a speed emphasis.
Why does conditioning seem to be such a drag for athletes? It’s probably due to the bad stigma attached to conditioning and the way most people correlate conditioning with running. The endless running of 300-yard shuttles, gassers, and 110 yard sprints can get monotonous and even be detrimental to some speed and strength gains.
As a new coach, I used to think that running was necessary because I heard it from some other coach or read it in a book. What I now know is that conditioning can be fun, and be done in more thoughtful practical methods than long drawn out running. You can play games in big groups (which I’ll talk about in the next tip) or set up some medley’s using a few exercises/movements that can engage an athlete, develop work capacity, and add a little fun to the end of a workout.
Here is my training partner Dave doing his version of conditioning doing a push/pull medley. You use nothing more than a weighted object that slides and a chain or rope. (We use a box full of weights with a chain attached in our facility, but on grass it might work better with a weighted sled or something comparable) Football and soccer guys eat this shit up!
Games are also a great tool for working on other aspects. I find agility is best developed using different games that force the athlete to make quick decisions and react to changes of direction and constant movement, similar to that of sport. Our personal favorite is called speed ball but it’s too complicated to get into or show on video, but we use another one that might look familiar.
You may remember a show called American Gladiators where Average Joe athletes competed against chemically altered behemoths in various physical events. One of those contests was called power ball. The objective was for the Average Joes to put as many balls into the bins as possible while the gladiators tried ripping their heads off. The game was very physical and took a great deal of speed, agility, and toughness to elude and defeat the Gladiators.
We liked the idea behind the game so we toned it down a bit and made it more suitable for our athletes. In our version you can have a number of athletes working on speed and agility without worrying about 260-pound gorillas chasing them down. Here’s what it looks like:
The Fartlek training method is another great way to work on GPP or general conditioning. This form of conditioning requires the athlete to vary the intensity/speed of the running throughout the workout. There are two that I find work the best and are easily accessible to many people. The first is done on an ordinary road or street. You simply use the lengths between telephone poles as your distances and set a certain pattern of alternating speeds between the poles.
For example, an athlete can sprint for two telephone pole lengths, than walk to recover for a few lengths, then jog for a few more. This can be repeated any number of times in any combination, depending on what the athlete is working on. The other version is similar but done on a track. Sprint the straightaway and jog or walk the corners. The principle remains the same while the setting is changed. By doing this type of training both the aerobic and anaerobic energy systems can be developed simultaneously.
Many of us know how important jumping can be in developing explosive leg strength. But don’t stop there. Jumping can also be used to develop coordination, change of direction, and lateral stability. By adding twists, jumping from foot to foot, or alternating jumping from one leg to two legs and vice versa can make jump training irreplaceable in an athletic training program. Here are a few clips to show you what it’s all about.
Having a flexible and strong hip girdle is very important for avoiding injury during intense sprint workouts. Static stretching of the hip flexors and rectus femoris accompanied by glute activation prior to sprinting will drastically decrease your vulnerability to muscle pulls of the quads, groins and hamstrings. I give full credit to Mike Robertson for this one.
Remember your Pop-Warner football days when Coach Hardass made everyone do bear crawls until they puked? To an appropriate level, athletes should incorporate more of these into their workouts. They help develop upper body strength, core strength, hip mobility, leg drive and provide a brutal conditioning tool. Try doing them forwards, backwards and side ways, and for some real fun do them resisted with a band or a sled like this.
Whether you’re a coach or an athlete, if you haven’t read every articles by Christian Thibaudeau, Mike Robertson, Charles Poliquin, Chad Waterbury, Mike Boyle, Alwyn Cosgrove and many other T-Nation writers, than you’re missing out on a wealth of great training information. Along with these writers, look up anything you can find from Dan Pfaff, Carl Valle, Mike Young, and Ethan Reeves. These guys have been in the trenches for years and know exactly what it takes to make a better athlete. I just want to thank them for all the great information they have provided as well as recommend them to anyone who reads this.
Go back and read and tips 1 through 99!
I’d like to thank my training partner Shane Davenport for his editing and creative writing ideas. He’s responsible for turning my jargon into somewhat legible thoughts. I’d also like to thank David Jack as well, for his maximum intensity in every aspect of life and his never-ending creativity.