Learn everything there Is to know about fItness, performance, fat loss and lifestyle from Adrian McDonnell.
Field athletes performing at the top of their game – amateur or professional have a lean physique with a low body-fat percentage.
Building this aesthetic, athletic physique is an image many people seek.
However, outside of competitive athletes, not many people take on the specific strategies required to build that athletic frame.
If you were to go to “Google Education” and look for a cookie-cutter program on “how to get leaner”, you’d likely get one of two results:
The first one being some body-part split along the lines of:
The second one being a “toning” workout aimed at girls specifically consisting of lots of cardio on the treadmill, 100+ reps of banded glute exercises, pink dumbbells in the “girls workout zone” and finishing off with some crunches.
Which approach works best? The answer – neither are optimal! So here are some tips for both males and females to build an athletic physique even if you’re not even a competitive athlete yourself!
1. Train Like An Athlete
This might sound obvious but an often-over-looked way to get stronger & leaner is to train for speed. I always say, when you focus on performance first, the look naturally comes with it.
This is something I practice & I preach and training like an athlete involves including some athletic activities into your workouts – jumps, sprinting, med ball throws etc. For instance, exercises like box jumps, broad jumps, jump squats or even speed squats for more advanced lifters all teach you to demonstrate your strength quickly. On top of this, the fastest movement you can possibly do – sprinting could be incorporated as part of your workout. Med ball throws are also a favourite of mine because they are so diverse and versatile as to how they can be used in both the upper and lower body.
Being able to demonstrate and showcase your strength quickly is the definition of power – which all athletes need to train. The athletes who I work with who are primarily focused on performance but also want some aesthetics to go with it will perform some dynamic and explosive exercises for the lower and upper body (depending on the training day) to help build this. I usually like to program power-based exercises at the start of a workout when you are freshest.
All of the above will help you build an athletic physique which will help move you towards your optimum body type faster than any leg press machine!
2. Lift Heavy And Pursue Strength
If you have access to heavier weights, you don’t just have to lift heavy weights, you have to lift heavy frequently. Athletes train by lifting heavier to build strength and power and a strong physique. Most people just rely on doing lots and lots of reps alone in order to get leaner and tone up.
Imagine two forces were to collide – both the same weight and same height. The first-person trains primarily in the 8-12 rep range while the second person trains mostly in the 1-5 rep range. All things equal, my money is going to be on the second person to win that battle!
In order to continue to build an athletic body, you need to continually aim to progress your workouts. This might mean adding more weight to the bar, adding an extra set or doing more reps than you did last week with the same weight. How many people have been benching 60Kg for 3x10 without ever increasing? This is because of lack of progression.
However, I should note an issue can come when the pursuit of that strength comes while sacrificing your technique. Don’t chase numbers at the expense of your joints and muscle health. Ensure you’ve earned the right to increase the weight of a certain lift through good technique and control before adding that extra plate to the bar.
When I’m programming for clients, the rep range they train in will depend on their overall training history. Someone without much or any gym experience will not just be asked to put a barbell on their back and test their 3 Rep Max (3RM) on a Barbell Back Squat! But, it doesn’t mean we don’t train for strength at all. Instead, they will perform a regression of a more suitable and easier to perform exercise for about 5 reps which would still be training within strength parameters.
And girls reading this who are sceptical about weight training making you “bulky”, don’t be. There have been numerous studies done on this topic and I even wrote a blog post on it.
3. Focus On Moving In All Planes Of Motion
Traditional training programs focus only on moving in a forward and backwards plane. Think squats, benching, deadlifting, lunges and the majority of machines.
How often do you see people perform lateral exercises however such as side lunges, rotational med ball slams or lateral jumps? Life happens 3D so why shouldn’t we train that way?
It is not uncommon for lifters to get injured (often outside of the gym) after “tweaking” or “turning” awkwardly on something. A possible reason might be that most people who train in the gym only focus on getting stronger working in one direction.
Even if you don’t have any intentions of playing team sports, building an athletic body and well-rounded physique is complimented by adding in movements in different planes of motion.
A segway from moving in different planes of motion is to try to perform each exercise through a full range of motion (ROM). Focusing on adding some mobility work into your daily routine and consciously trying to perform each exercise through a full ROM is going to improve your overall movement quality and aid with injury prevention.
What do I mean by moving through a full ROM? If you have the mobility to squat to parallel but don’t choose to hit that depth and instead perform quarter squats, you are not performing the exercise through its full range. The stronger we can become through a full ROM, the better.
Train, Don't Workout
How you spend your time in the gym or working out at home is important. There’s a difference between working out and training. Workout out involves exercising for the sake of it while training involves following a plan and bringing the right intensity and effort into every session of that plan.
The only way you can add more intensity to your training is with more effort. I’ve been there many times before where I’m in the middle of a set or a session but my mind is elsewhere. I’m thinking about what I’m going to cook later on that day, or what work I need to do after the gym session or something completely irrelevant or off topic! These sessions usually involve going through the motions and not pushing yourself hard enough.
But to get the best possible results, not only do you need to be following a plan, you need to put enough effort in and bring enough intensity into that session so you come out stronger. Effort doesn’t come easy. You will have to convince your mind to give your body what it needs. If you’re capable of doing 5 reps but your program has written down 3-5 reps and you stop at 3, you didn’t bring enough effort. This is something I’m trying to get out of doing myself and I’ve caught myself many times in the past settling for less.
But if you want to build and maintain an athletic body you have to be willing to push harder. It’s a tough thing to do. Whether that’s not stopping when you feel slightly fatigued, reducing your rest or pushing some lighter lifts to near failure – these are all things which require a high output but need the right input. As challenging and all as these things are, it’s such a rewarding feeling after completing a training knowing you gave it your all.
5. Don't Forget The Pump
If you’re an athlete, I feel it is almost frowned upon to “train for the pump” every now and then. I’m talking doing a few reps of bicep curls or tricep pushdowns at the end of your workout. Will this have a direct improvement on performance? Probably not compared to exercises such as sprinting or jumping.
However, performance aside for a second, what about the psychological benefits that come from seeing yourself with a good amount of muscle on your frame? Everyone has come up against an opponent before with jacked arms and subconsciously, this makes you think that you need to be on your game.
The good news? Whether you’re an athlete or not, I think there are benefits for training for the “pump” - that burning sensation you get as you reach failure or near failure of one of your working sets.
So while building an aesthetic & athletic body does require you to focus on speed, pursue strength and multi-directional movements, it doesn’t mean you have to do all of the above at the expense of not getting a “pump.”
If you want to train for the “pump”, put a strong emphasis lots of time under tension with shorter rest periods (60-75s). The more reps you do, the more blood that will flow to the working muscles which gives them that swollen look.
Sometimes, these can be single-joint exercises such as different bicep curl variations. Other times it might be bilateral exercises such as skull crushers. A personal favourite of my clients is when I program one of my many different “shoulder shocker” variations. I try hit the front, medial and rear delts when I program them and the pump you get off them is insane!
If you want to look ripped like an athlete, try including some of the following methods into your training:
Thanks for reading. I hope you found this beneficial.
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References: Leyland, D: “How to Exercise Like an Athlete.”
Two Next Steps:
If you know what to do, why haven’t you done it yet?
This is where having the structure and accountability of a coach comes in. I’ll help you get the results you’ve always desired and make your journey much easier and quicker than doing it on your own.
What’s the purpose of the consultation call?
To deep dive into your health & exercise history, your goals and current struggles and from there decide if we’d be able to work together (note – I am not the right coach for everyone which is why I have consultation calls with potential clients of mine).
If we are a good fit, we can get working on your personalised program so you can finally make the changes you’ve always wanted.
Adrian McDonnell -
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