Building a strong, lean, and athletic physique isn't complicated. It requires focusing on a set of time-tested principles to help you optimize performance and longevity.
Secrets? There are none. The best way to get stronger, leaner, and more athletic comes down to executing time-tested principles, consistently.
Strength is measured in two ways: absolute strength (the maximum amount of force exerted regardless of muscle or body size) and relative strength (how strong you are for your size).
Absolute strength gets all the likes on Instagram, but what's more important for athleticism is relative strength – how strong you are for your size.
All other qualities being equal, if you're relatively stronger you'll be able to move your own body through space better. You can sprint, jump, pirouette, or whatever you want to do with more power.
Sure, having more absolute strength can improve relative strength and thus speed and explosiveness. But piling more plates on the bar does reach a point of diminishing returns.
But the takeaway is clear: Build a big foundation of absolute strength, but make sure you're also strong for your size.
Being strong in the gym is pointless if you can't generate strength fast. That's why explosive jumps and throws are crucial. Think of them as power-primers and performance boosters.
Explosive jumps and throws prime your central nervous system (CNS), activating high threshold motor units and improving neuromuscular efficiency through optimizing intramuscular (on a cellular level) coordination and intermuscular coordination within a specific movement.
This translates to improved performance on your specific movement patterns and moving more efficiently overall to improve athleticism.
So before each workout, do the explosive movements that mimic the primary lifts of the day. Here are a few examples:
Lower Body (Squat Day) – Squat Jump
Lower Body (Hip Hinge or Deadlift Day) – Broad Jump
Upper Body Vertical Push/Pull – Medicine Ball Back Toss
Upper Body Horizontal Push/Pull – Plyo Push-Up
Athletes with enviable physiques do sprints. Similar to heavy lifting, sprinting requires a huge CNS output, meaning you'll activate a ton of muscle fibers to rapidly produce high levels of tension.
As fellow T Nation experts Charley Gould and Luka Hocevar pointed out in Speed Kills, Sprinting Builds, sprinting has been shown to increase muscle protein synthesis and HGH release (by up to 230% and 500%, respectively) while increasing testosterone, improving insulin sensitivity, and increasing mTor signaling for up to two hours post-training.
In simpler terms, sprinting helps you get shredded and build muscle, all while improving athletic performance.
The key to safe sprinting is to start slow and progress intelligently. Do it on a hill, or if needed, a treadmill. The incline decreases the impact due to a shorter foot-fall distance and prevents over-striding – the primary cause of hamstring pulls.
Try this routine twice a week either after lifting, or ideally, as a separate workout.
After you warm up and do some speed drills, sprint 10 seconds on and 50 seconds off. Go for 10 minutes. Then, week by week, increase your sprint time by one second and decrease the rest period by one second. Work your way up to 15-second sprints.
- Week One: Sprint 10 seconds, rest 50
- Week Two: Sprint 11 seconds, rest 49
- Week Three: Sprint 12 seconds, rest 48
- Week Four: Sprint 13 seconds, rest 47
- Week Five: Sprint 14 seconds, rest 46
- Week Six: Sprint 15 seconds, rest 45
Unilateral training can help prevent injuries caused by muscular imbalances.
Have you ever gotten under a squat and noticed one hip coming up first? Or when you military press, the bar looks like a ski slope because one shoulder can't handle the weight?
Constantly throwing these faulty movement patterns under heavy load is asking for injury. But single-limb training doesn't just help reduce muscular imbalances and improve core/spine stabilization, it also makes you stronger.
Most people who can bench press 225-pounds with a bar can't bench press with a set of 100-pound dumbbells. However, if you CAN bench 100-pound dumbbells, you can definitely bench press 225 with a bar. Moral of the story: If you get ridiculously strong unilaterally, your main lifts will go up.
Unilateral exercises are often safer to load, which makes programming decisions easier, especially if you're training around injuries. There are definitive benefits to heavy bilateral lifts, but if you can generate a response that improves performance with less risk, unilateral lifting is a no brainer.
If your goal is to be more athletic, there are two paths to get there. Lift heavy weights, or lift relatively lighter weights (including your body) faster.
Most of us spend far too much time crushing our CNS and joints with heavy lifting, when a key piece of the puzzle is moving lighter weights fast.
Make sure those plates are moving with speed. Testing strength with a 1RM doesn't build strength or improve performance. It drains you. It serves as a benchmark for the effectiveness of your previous programming, not a key pillar for effective training every time you hit the gym.
When you're building strength (instead of testing it) check your ego at the door and move the weights with controlled aggression.
Lifting lighter faster has several benefits:
Improved Muscle Fiber Recruitment
More recruitment means more muscle fibers are stimulated. If your goal is to put on lean mass, you must fatigue as many muscle fibers as possible.
Less CNS Stress
Listen, we're already stressed and over-tired. Start the week off with a set of max squats and your CNS will be trashed for most of the week. Mix in some explosive lifting, drop a max lift session, and take a walk. You'll be less stressed and still get the gains.
Keeps Joints Healthy
Heavy lifting over time wrecks joints. Play the long game and keep strength gains by introducing lighter, explosive lifting. Painful knees and elbows can disrupt training consistency. Stay healthy, get more training sessions under your belt over the long term, and get stronger.
Unless you're in a specific phase of body recomposition where you're trying to lose fat to compete at a certain weight, there's no reason to be in a caloric deficit. You must maintain a proper caloric intake to feed recovery and fuel your performance gains.
This can mean anywhere from two to four grams of carbs per pound of bodyweight a day, on top of one gram of protein per pound recommended for athletes.
Here's an example using a 205-pound competitive athlete:
- 205 x 4 grams of carbohydrate = 820 grams x 4 calories per gram = 3280 calories
- 205 x 1 gram protein = 205 grams x 4 calories per gram = 820 calories
That's 4100 calories before consuming healthy fats, which could add another 1000 calories to that total.
Whether you're a competitive athlete or just like to train like an athlete, your nutrition demands are much higher than the average Joe. You must eat high levels of quality food if you're going to demand high performance from your body. This doesn't mean eating garbage calories, but fresh, minimally processed foods that build you up for the next performance.
Hydration is critical for athletic performance as well. Aim for at least 3/4 ounce per pound of bodyweight of water per day. This is a bare minimum. Add an electrolyte beverage for every hour of continuous activity.
The biggest performance enhancer is typically the most underutilized – sleep. You need 7-9 hours a night. Get the bedroom cool and dark. Try to finish your last meal at least two hours before bed.
Trouble falling asleep? Pick up some good fiction and read for 15 minutes before bed.
Trouble staying asleep? Supplement with magnesium 1-2 hours prior to bedtime to help with increasing a deep sleep state.
Go to sleep and wake up at the same times everyday, no matter what. Your body will thank you with gains.
The stress of a bad relationship and a brutal lower-body workout both take a toll on everything from your immune system to digestion to recovery. The body doesn't recognize the difference. Practice some different ways of reducing outside stress.
Meditation not your thing? Cool, find a quiet place to write in a journal and brain-dump some of the life issues bothering you. Or just go for a walk to end your work day.
This rule has as much to do with your overall well-being as it does athletic performance, but if you're in a toxic relationship, not just with a partner but with an all-consuming job, friends, bad habits, or substances, you need to make decisions to improve or eliminate that relationship.
If it isn't helping you move forward, it's holding you back. End of story.
Injuries are part of the game. No matter how carefully you lift or how diligently you warm-up, at some point there will be an ache, pain, or strain that just won't go away without treatment.
This doesn't mean you have to lay off the iron for multiple weeks. Training around injuries can be a great time to focus on bringing up a weak body part. Research shows that training one side can still lead to strength gains in the opposite side, known as the "contralateral effects of unilateral strength training."
For example, if you injure your left biceps tendon, doing biceps curls on the right side can keep both arms relatively strong. So when injuries occur, don't try to push through them, just shift your focus.
Tweak your shoulder benching? Lay off upper body training for a bit and put some meat on those quads. Train smart and ride the gains train.
I learned this from Loren Landow, strength coach of the Denver Broncos: "Joint position dictates muscle function."
It's a lens through which you should analyze everything you're doing in the gym. If you use shoddy form on an exercise, you're no longer loading the tissues (or the movement pattern) you originally intended.
So first, make sure you're training what you intend to train. If you squat with a low-bar position, wide stance, and your toes externally rotated, you're going to load your glutes, lower back, and hamstrings to a greater extent than a quad-dominant high-bar squat.
With this mindset, a squat isn't just a squat. What you're doing and why you're doing it is crucial. Is your technique congruent to your goal? If not, adjust.
Form is everything, not just to hit the right areas, but to prevent injury. Remember, the best ability is availability. The key to long-term prosperity as an athlete and lifter is being able to complete full training cycles and avoid major injuries.
Leave your ego at the door. Own every inch of every rep. Control the eccentric (negative) on your lifts and train with purpose.
- Sandvei M et al. Sprint interval running increases insulin sensitivity in young healthy subjects. Arch Physiol Biochem. 2012 Jul;118(3):139-47. PubMed.
- Nevill ME et al. Growth hormone responses to treadmill sprinting in sprint-and endurance-trained athletes. Eur J Appl Physiol Occup Physiol. 1996;72(5-6):460-7. PubMed.
- Carroll TJ et al. Contralateral effects of unilateral strength training: evidence and possible mechanisms. J Appl Physiol (1985). 2006 Nov;101(5):1514-22. PubMed.