| June 8, 2021
By Trevor Mah
Read time: 9 min.
After spending a fair amount of time training, some people like to make the transition from traditional workouts to something more fun. You may no longer be a beginner from your early days, you developed a physique you’re happy with, and you’ve become fairly strong in your lifts.
But now perhaps you are looking to improve your specific performance in recreational sports, curious about improving your athleticism, or just simply wanting to try something new. Regardless of your new athletic endeavours, there are multiple options to pursue. My definition of athleticism is simply “always being able to perform/do stuff”. Training the basics is the foundation for many pursuits, but it does have its limitations if you are engaging in a highly active lifestyle outside of the gym.
When picturing training amongst the general population in your head, I’m certain that there are many common things that come to mind. People bench pressing, using the squat racks, the whirring of all sorts of cardio equipment, spin classes, etc. you can basically fill in the blanks. But now you may be starting to see a shift at the gym in what you see. Perhaps your gym is rolling out some turf, they bought some rubber bumper plates, constructed a rig that looks like a jungle gym for adults, or brought in kettlebells, new attachments, etc. The list goes on but you don’t know where to start.
This is not a comprehensive list, but here are 5 things that are worth your time developing as you venture more towards training for general athleticism to get you started in the right direction. Speaking of direction...
Compared to traditional training that involves barbells, dumbbells, and machines, you are normally situated in a fixed position moving either up and down, or forward and backward. From a technical standpoint, the majority of your training (squats, deadlifts, bench press, pullups) trains your body’s sagittal plane.
Rather than get into an anatomy lesson, athletic training will require you to train in different directions. This is where multi-planar training is essential as movement in sports and life are not always fixed. Moving laterally (side to side) and including rotational movements will give your new workout a different aspect to improve.
This is where you will start to include less common movements (or improve upon exercises you may have previously classified as accessory/assistance) such as side lunges, trunk rotations, and plyometrics.
While options for athletic training are endless, one piece of equipment that will help is the barbell landmine. The versatility of the landmine allows you more freedom of movement and angles to press, pull and rotate.
Even without a landmine, you can still start by incorporating exercises such as lateral/side lunges, Cossacks (or other variations) for your lower body. Many core exercises such as Russian twists, Pallof presses (which covers multiple planes), and cable rotations also fit the bill. Keep in mind not to go overboard with anything you see as flashy on social media. If something looks like someone is just showing off, they probably are. Always keep in mind the intention and goal of the exercises over the appeal.
This is basically focusing on shifting emphasis on incorporating or modifying your exercises so that they are unilateral (one leg or one arm). While many benefits are listed here, the main importance, is the fact that nearly all sports and activities are predominantly unilateral. In fact, there are very few sports that are bilateral in nature (i.e. competitive rowing). As such, placing focus on exercises such as lunges, single arm presses and rows, single leg work, etc. will have a much better carryover effect into your athletic pursuits.
You don’t necessarily need to train exclusively unilaterally, but improving on your split squats for example will also shore up some other gaps such as imbalances and weaknesses overall in your performance both inside and outside the gym. Modifications can be simply replacing one or two normal bilateral movements in your usual routine, or alter the order if they are already included, to prioritize them. For instance, replace your squats in your routine with Bulgarian split squats. Or switch up your lat pulldown with a single arm row. To reiterate another point of importance, unilateral variations also cover different planes that are sometimes not available through their bilateral methods.
Training for power may seem complex, but there are many options available to work on your general “explosiveness” using low maintenance alternatives. Power is defined similarly to strength, with the main difference being the element of time (speed). Another way to frame power training is to lift light weights quickly (but still controlled of course). For example, a max deadlift will likely move off the ground fairly slowly, but when reducing it to about ~25% will enable one to lift it fairly quickly. Your muscles are composed of different types of fibers, and training for power will tap into a particular type that is responsible for power and strength.
It goes without saying that in sports, being strong is important, but being powerful is helpful specifically to what you are doing. Power in sports comes in the form of running fast, swinging a bat, shooting a puck, jumping, etc. you get the idea. Being athletic involves being able to move something (or your body) quickly with force.
Starting with the most complex option, Olympic weightlifting is a high-power based movement. Compared to powerlifting (yes, there is a confusing misnomer there), these weights move off the ground to overhead very quickly when done right. This is a great way to develop not only power, but general body awareness and stability as well. If you are interested in this, I highly recommend working with a skilled trainer due to the technical nature of the lifts. Learning from a video or book is not recommended especially if you are new to this.
Now in terms of general power training, there are many ways to develop explosivity. Remember that power is essentially moving lighter weight quickly. While it isn’t necessarily something like bicep curling 3lbs as fast as possible, you don’t need a bunch of heavy weights either. Common plyometric training can be helpful, but there’s usually a learning curve when it comes to coordination and control at first. Definitely start with something you are comfortable with, but keep in mind that jumping is all about your control and landing. This would be classified as low-mid bodyweight power training.
Another great alternative is medicine ball training for low implement power training. Whether you have access to a softer Dynamax type ball, or a dead bounce version, training with one is a great way to develop power. Exercises such as medicine ball slams and throws can be executed in a variety of ways to develop your force output. By combining certain throws in multiple planes mentioned previously, you can cover a good amount of athletic exercises. Compared to other methods, it is one of the safest and easiest to execute. In fact, it is one of the few methods where you can perform with high reps (10+) before your form begins to truly degrade to signify your need to stop.
Finally, another important benefit is that training for power is essential as you age. Your muscle fibers (fast-twitch) responsible for strength and power naturally degrade over time, and training for power whether using complex or simple methods will fight against it. This is especially important for older males. If you want to remain athletic for a long time, at the very least train to maintain it with one or two exercises per week. Naturally, this is where you notice a decline in performance if you follow sports and aging professional athletes.
If you have been training competently at the gym, you should already be fairly balanced with your posterior to anterior muscle training. However, people do get caught up with aesthetics and from time to time (or all the time) start to overemphasize the glamour muscles. Too much time spent on bench pressed and shoulder raises not only leads to imbalances, but an awkward posture does not represent strong athleticism. Training your posterior chain with exercises such
as deadlifts, rows, pullups, hip thrusts, back extensions, and so forth will not only balance your body out (especially for sedentary people), but these movements play a role in lots of athletic movements including running and jumping. In order to accelerate, which you do in almost every sport, you must have a strong foundation to drive and generate force.
Not to completely discredit anterior muscles as they still have their part in athletics (think pushing or throwing something explosively), but most people can certainly benefit more from performing posterior work. Everything in the body works in conjunction with one another in some form, and many posterior muscles serve a function in stabilizing their antagonistic counterparts. What this means is that training your muscles on one end will serve a benefit for the opposite side as well.
If you have already been training exercises such as the deadlift, pullups, rows, and many other variations, you simply just need to continue doing so and progress. At the very least, keep in mind to balance these workouts with any other beach muscle exercises. To be on the safe side, it doesn’t hurt to train at a 2:1 ratio for posterior to anterior muscle groups in your training program. As long as you remain diligent with your rest and general maintenance, you’ll be fine.
Last but not least, you are probably already aware of the benefits and correlation of just being generally coordinated or having rhythm with athleticism. While you may not have lofty goals such as accomplishing high level gymnastics routines, or competing on America’s Ninja Warrior, being able to move smoothly can definitely help you with whatever you choose to do.
I’m going to keep this category simple by grouping rhythm, coordination, and change of direction as there is interplay between all of them (but they can certainly be trained individually). To keep it simple, they are all related to proprioception -- awareness of your body within space.
The expression of having two left feet is common among people who have accepted their lack of rhythm and coordination, but developing it slowly can come down to something as simple as being aware of your cadence when you walk or run. Think about how you are (or not) striking the ground evenly with your feet, swinging your arms forward and backwards, or properly breathing with each step. Being aware of small things like this can be a stepping stone to jumpstarting your brain and progressing to more complicated drills.
Beyond the walking example mentioned above, there are many other ways to develop your coordination. While you can easily sign up for a dance class or take lessons alone at home through Youtube videos, more reasonable alternatives include using agility ladder drills, cones, or sport-specific exercises if applicable (i.e. baseball - pitching, catching, batting).
Agility ladder drills are low maintenance and can work on your proper ground impact and coordination. They don’t need to be super quick at first, but can be something you can build up to. Using a set-up of cones can be another way to give yourself a type of obstacle course as you run to different cones spread out in different directions. Having a training partner and making it into a game can also make it entertaining.
It is also worth mentioning that partner training is also an under-utilized method of training athletically. Since sports is naturally competitive in nature, integrating that sense of competition with someone else can also drive up your engagement levels.
To summarize, training athletically consists of filling in potential gaps in your programs by incorporating exercises in multiple planes, unilateral improvement, power outputs (low and high), rhythm/coordination, and bringing your posterior chain up to speed. Find one or two to focus on initially, and embrace the learning curve as you start to slowly adapt. Remember that if you are training for a sport, you will still need to train specific skills relevant to your actions. Training outside of your environment will certainly help, but will only take you so far. For instance, if you want to become better at skating, you will still need to actually skate to improve no matter how much time you put in the gym.
Lastly, while all of these options and new focuses can be enticing, don’t neglect your basic training that got you to this point in the first place. Without developing competencies with your basic movements, developing adequate strength, and a strong core, your athletic potential will always be held back by it. The best way to improve on anything is to work on mastering the basics.
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