Aspects of Athleticism

Adding Functionality to Physique Training

By: Steve Colescott
Magazine12 #2

Speed, strength, and the inability to register pain immediately.

Reggie Williams (when asked his greatest strengths as a football player)

I love the obscure. If you have read any of my previous writing, you may have noticed my affinity to quoting obscure literature – this may include musclehead magazines from the first half of the twentieth century, courses from independent publishing houses or books translated from Russian or Eastern Bloc strength coaches.

What I’m going to refer to now comes from something fairly recent but still quite obscure. The following story ran in the August 1990 issue of Modern Bodybuilding, a newspaper-format publication once published by Jason Mathas that covered bodybuilding in the Southern California area.

Mathas relays a story that took place at a pro bodybuilding seminar in Italy. Two of the speakers, top Olympia competitor Gary Strydom and past Olympia winner Samir Bannout, began a debate concerning their training methods. Both bodybuilders boasted proudly about their athletic abilities and eventually a $2,000 bet was placed over which pro could win a 100-yard dash. The crowd (which included Robby Robinson, Bob Paris and Albert Beckles) filed out to an open area outside of the gym in which the seminar was being held. A distance (which upon later examination turned out to be only 60-yards) was measured off. The always-confident Bannout even agreed to give Strydom a five-yard head start.

Mathas described what happened next:

Gary’s long and thunderous stride and an extra five yards gave him the early lead which he held until about the forty-yard mark where the speedy Lion of Lebanon [Bannout] had almost closed the gap.

I could see I would catch him and win, said Samir, But about the 50 yard mark I felt something in my hamstrings and before I knew it five yards later I pulled up lame and hobbled to the ground. Samir ran into bad luck on the way to the finish line, but as fate would have it Gary Equalized Samir’s fall with a collapse of his own. Both men had something to prove and were willing to put their bodies on the line to back it up. However, both paid the price and had to go to the hospital to have their hamstrings examined.

While the story is somewhat comical, its point is readily apparent. Many bodybuilders who were once excellent athletes no longer are. While it pains me to admit it, and yes, I would have fervently argued against the point a few years ago, it is true. The training we do as bodybuilders is largely cosmetic and does not translate to real world applicable strength.

Sure, I can hear you protesting even as I type... But I am the guy that opens the hard to twist jars for my family! Sorry, but when it comes down to it, the slow, controlled type of training we do as bodybuilders does very little to prepare us to use our strength in any significant athletic way. There is a great deal we can learn from our gym cousins in powerlifting, strongman training, track-and-field, Olympic lifting or other power sports like football and hockey. When it comes to athleticism, bodybuilding develops some of the necessary traits but seems to avoid even more of them.

What is athleticism? Athleticism is a term used to describe the combination of strength, power, speed, muscular stamina, endurance, flexibility and agility. Maximal development of athleticism allows the participant to deliver fast, powerful and precise movements either repeatedly or in a sustained manner, as needed by their particular sport and position. While the development of each of these components of athleticism has the potential to deliver an improvement in the other areas, each component must be given training emphasis at specific times of the year (based upon the specific needs of that athlete during their competitive period).

Traditional bodybuilding training does little to directly develop most of these qualities. A progressive resistance program will obviously increase strength, but if the rep tempo is traditionally slow, little benefit in power or speed is derived. Rep ranges are usually too low to deliver much along the way of muscular stamina. Endurance only receives a passing focus during a definition phase, in which treadmill or other cardio work is used to stimulate the metabolism. There is an initial improvement in flexibility (if the lifter utilizes full-range movements), but rarely does a bodybuilder display proportional flexibility in all joints. There is literally zero improvement in agility (unless, like me, you train in a gym that has an obstacle course of plates and dumbbells littered all over the floor). As you can see, from an athletic standpoint, we are almost all at the nonfunctional level displayed in the Gary Strydom/ Samir Bannout story. Fortunately, this can be easily addressed.

3 strategies to increase your athleticism while building your physique

Strategy #1: Build Explosive Strength During Your Workouts

Increasing power and speed is the best way to improve an athlete’s performance.
While weight training will increase strength, training the body to perform basic movement patterns with maximal force will have a dramatic effect on sports performance.
On quad training day: The best exercise here is Jumping Squats. After your warm-up, simply perform three to four sets of three reps. This exercise is simply a bodyweight squat done explosively so that you attempt to launch yourself off the ground as far into the air as possible. (Imagine yourself pushing your feet through the floor.) Advanced lifters can hold dumbbells for added resistance, but keep the weight light enough that your upward squatting speed is not slowed.
Once you are done, perform your normal Squats, Leg Extensions, Leg Raises, Crunches and Calf Raises but do not overdo it as far as volume. You may not immediately feel tired from explosive training but it does have a profound effect on your nervous system, especially if your body is not accustomed to it. Decrease your normal workout by one or two sets per exercise to make up for the three to four explosive sets you will be adding.
On chest training day:
A) Marine Pushups: 4 sets of 4-6 reps or
On back and delt training day: 4 sets of 3 reps

Push Up with Pilate ball

Marine (or clapping) Pushups are explosive pushups in which maximal force is directed through the hands so that your body is propelled into the air. Clap your hands together before dropping back down to the starting position. Medicine Ball Pushes for chest are done by approximating a benching movement with maximal force using a medicine ball. These can be done lying, kneeling, seated or standing with subtly different angles of trajectory.

On lower back and hamstring training day:
Kettlebell Swing: 5 sets of 5 reps
Kettlebell Swings are one of my favorite explosive posterior chain exercises. I favor this exercise because it builds explosiveness without the spinal compression of Good Mornings and Deadlifts. The exercise is done with a wide stance (so that you do not bang up your ankles). The Swing begins with the kettlebell placed between the heels so that you must reach down and slightly back to grasp it with your hands. With a hip thrust, swing the weight forward (arms straight) until it is at face height. Lower the weight back down between the legs and then back up again to face height.
(You can see a demonstration of this exercise at Pull-ups: Straight arms on the [video] )
If you don’t own a kettlebell, this exercise can also be done with a dumbbell. Either grasp both hands around the handle or... (my preference) hold onto the plates on one end of the dumbbell with both hands like a steering wheel. Just make sure that your grip is adequate so that you do not launch a fifty-pound metal projectile across the gym.
On back and delt training day:
Power Cleans or High Pulls:
4 sets of 3 reps: 4 sets of 3 reps

To break into Power Cleans, use a program of progressively more explosive movements. This will allow you to gradually develop the movement patterns necessary to execute a proper Power Clean. Begin with Barbell Shrugs and Upright Rowing. From there, you should switch to Power Shrugs and High Pulls. These exercises involve the use of triple-extension. Triple extension occurs in any movement in which the hip, knee and ankle joint are all flexed at the same time, such as the jump of a basketball rebound or volleyball spike. It is a core motor pattern for nearly any athletic activity.

Power Shrugs are similar to traditional Shrugs except as the bar is pulled upwards, the hips are driven forward into the bar and the lifter comes up onto their toes. It might take a couple of workouts to get the timing and feel of the exercise but it will be well worth it. High Pulls are basically a cheat Upright Row in which the lifter begins the exercise from a hang position (holding bar at knee height with the lower back arched). The bar is driven upwards with an explosive triple-extension and deltoid/trapezius pull.
For a change of pace, you can also do Upward Medicine Ball Throws (4 sets of 3 reps). Although shoulders and triceps are the primary movers, think of this as a full-body movement.

Power-enhancing supplements

Even though neurological training may feel less stressful on the body than the typical hypertrophy training that makes up bodybuilding programs, it can lead to overtraining if you do not address your nutrition needs. I recommend taking advantage of the anti-catabolic benefits of a quality whey-protein hydrolysate/isolate blend such as Muscle Provider for your post-workout needs. You may even want to consider bolstering these shakes with a serving of Mass Maker to provide greater recuperation from your training sessions. Creatine Select is also useful for power building as creatine has been shown to provide an immediate increase in explosive contraction ability.

Strategy #2: Build Muscle Stamina with Finishers

One of my favorite stamina-enhancing techniques involves the inclusion of higher-rep finishing exercises at the end of a training session. These should be exercises designed to work the four major body functions – quad-emphasis lower body work, upper body press, upper body pull and posterior chain flexion; as opposed to the bodypart-based hypertrophy training you do in you bodybuilding training. In addition to the benefit of the higher reps activating any sleepy muscle fibers, this type of training will also work synergistic and stabilizer muscles in ways that they do not normally experience. Plus, it’s a challenge and can just be plain fun.

After leg day:
After training legs, stretch, take a few short, easy runs, then do two to three 40-yard dashes or 20-yard uphill dashes to melt every last muscle fiber in your legs. You may not feel fast and your legs might feel as though you are wearing lead shoes, but this will add some great functionality to your body and hit every last muscle fiber. Other options include outdoor distance Lunges with either a barbell or two dumbbells, sled-pulling or pushing a car or truck in neutral.

After chest training: To finish off your pecs, go for fifty reps of the old classic push-ups in as few sets as possible. More advanced athletes can elevate their feet and hands to increase the range-of-motion. Use uneven surfaces (one hand raised on a platform) or go side-to-side to get a different feel. As an alternative, you can do high-rep presses from various angles.

Here are some example rep increases from my training diary. Once I reached 50 reps, I added 20 pounds of heavy chains crisscrossed across my upper back. Experiment with different compound exercises and see which ones feel best to you.

  • Push-ups (feet elevated) for 29 reps (5 second rest); 13 reps (5 second rest); 8 reps
  • Week 1: 34 reps (5 second rest); 14 reps (2-3 second rest); 2 reps
  • Week 2: 41 reps (5 second rest); 9 reps
  • Week 3: 50 reps
  • Week 4: bodyweight plus 20 pounds for 29 reps (5 second rest); 13 reps (5 second rest); 8 reps

After posterior chain and/or trapezius training:
Adapt a strongman event to finish your workout. There is no better tool to drive up your lower back, trapezius, leg and grip strength and endurance than the Farmer’s Walk. This simple exercise involves walking a set distance or for a predetermined length of time carrying heavy weights (dumbbells) in each hand. If you train with a partner this can add a degree of competition to the exercise. My training partner and I would go out the back exit of the gym and walk to the corner of the building (30-40 yards) before turning around and returning. Once you are able to make the round-trip without dropping or setting down the weights, you need to grab a heavier set of dumbbells. If I’m the second person up I do everything in my power to make sure I get at least a handful of strides beyond the point where my friend bailed on his attempt.

After back training: Go for reps on either Chin-ups or Inverted Bodyweight Rows. Once again fifty reps in as few sets as possible is an excellent strategy. Inverted Rows are done by setting a bar in the squat rack at waist height, lying on the ground under the bar facing upwards, grabbing the bar with a shoulder width undergrip and pulling yourself up until the bar meets your lower pecs. Elevate your feet or add resistance (heavy chains work well) to make the movement more difficult. If you wish to do Chin-ups but fifty reps seems a long way off, heavy resistance bands (like the ones sold by or for powerlifters) can be looped over the chinbar and attached to your belt or placed under the back of your knees.

Strategy #3: Expand Beyond the Gym

Powerlifting guru Louie Simmons has been so successful with his Westside Barbell Club that he has attracted the attention of collegiate and professional level athletes and coaches. Louie’s influence on track-and-field, rugby, football and any other sport that benefits from increased strength and speed is unprecedented.

In a conversation with Simmons at his gym, he related the story of a strength coach visiting Westside. The coach’s introductory question was a simple one – How do you adapt your powerlifting system for football players?

A football player training for the NFL combine overheard the question and asked if Simmons minded if he answered it. The response was, I do what they do in the gym and then I go play football.

In case you don’t get the gist of the story, the training that Simmons prescribed for both his powerlifters and athletes was designed to increase their strength and speed to its maximum. He left it up to the athlete’s coaches to develop the specific sports skills that allowed them to display that explosive strength with bone crushing tackles, lightning fast rushing and gravity defying leaps.

So what if your training in the gym increased your strength and power but you had no sport in which to express it? Simply find one. Play some pick-up basketball; try your hand at racquet sports; find a summer-time volleyball league; try a track and field event. Try new things.

Your training is supposed to enhance your life, not be a replacement for it. I recall going to Park City (home of the ski runs used in the 2002 Winter Olympics) and only skiing on the first day because I was worried that I would loosen the soft tissue structures of my knees, which would harm my squatting poundages. Insane! Embrace life.

General sports-enhancing supplements:

Traditional sports nutritionists took such a simplistic view of optimal eating, focusing almost entirely on energy balance. This meant they generally prescribed high carbs in order to fuel training, often recommending simple fast absorbing carb sources.

They now have learned (catching up to bodybuilders two decades later) that higher protein levels improve the strength, energy levels and recuperation of athletes, even athletes that are primarily involved in endurance. Protein powders (such as Ultimate Muscle Protein, and Muscle Provider) provide highly quality, convenient protein sources and should be a core component of any athlete’s diet – particularly if they are concerned with body composition.

Muscularity BCAAs are an excellent addition to your program and can be used prior to exercise (both in the gym and performance of your sport) to diminish the catabolic effects of muscle breakdown. Super Pak multi-vitamin/mineral and EFA sGold should be considered basic nutrient support for everyone, lifter and non-lifter alike.

Lastly, Joint Care contains Glucosamine, MSM and Chondroitin – nutrients that enhance joint health while reducing inflammation, allowing you to continue training or playing harder and for longer.

 Brian Wiefering
12-Week Out Diet Supplement Plan


Practical Eating for Lean Muscle
Part One: The Grocery Store

© Beverly InternationalBack to top