How to Train Like an Athlete and Make Bigger, Better, and Faster Gains

Athletes don't train to look good - they train to improve performance...looking good is just an indirect benefit of their style of training.
Athletes don’t train to look good – they train to improve performance…looking good is just an indirect benefit of their style of training.

You’ve heard it before: “Train like an athlete”. 

This popular little phrase has picked up something of a buzz as of late.  From TV commercials to know-it-all bloggers on the web, it’s clear “training like an athlete” is in.  Perhaps for good reason – it does make sense after all.  You want to look, feel, and perform like an athlete?  Training like one will help you get there – easy enough.

But what the hell does train like an athlete even mean?

Long ago, well before cross fit, zumba, and Tony Horton, “cross-training” was the big thing.  Think back to the mid-90’s for a second.  Everyone from shoe companies to personal trainers were pushing the idea of cross-training.  That is, training your body in a variety of different methods to improve overall performance.  It was a good, solid concept, no doubt.  Nowadays, when someone says you need to “train like an athlete” , they’re more or less talking about cross-training.  However, since the cross-training movement came about in the early to mid 90’s, we’ve accumulated more knowledge, experience, and wisdom (well, most of us anyways), and we now know simply training in different formats is not enough.  You’re not just mixing up what you do, you’re focusing on important movements, exercises, and workouts that specifically improve flexibility, explosive power, endurance, and agility – or in other words, athletic performance.

Why Should you Train like an Athlete?

Before we get any further, lets first figure out the why in all of this.  Why do you want to train like an athlete?  Well first off, I think most of us (men and women) recognize that the skin and bones look is not only unattractive, it’s not healthy.  Our idea of what is fit and beautiful has slowly changed, and personally, I think it’s changed for the better.  Instead of idolizing anorexic fashion models, more and more girls and women are striving for that “cross-fit” look, for lack of a better word.  Lean muscle mass, evenly proportioned body fat, great endurance – these are all things people are shooting for…and these are all attributes most high-caliber athletes share. 

Getting back to the why; it’s quite simple.  You want to look like a fit, healthy, and athletic?  You’ve got to train in a way that brings about these changes.  You want to look like a huge muscle head?  Train (and eat) like a huge muscle head.  You want to look like average Alice from accounting?  Train like average Alice from accounting – or in other words, do your static state treadmill workout and half pay attention to your diet.  You see, the look and health you want to achieve is the result of your training methods.  Pick the right training methods that suit your goals best.

Is your Workout Program Making you LESS Athletic?

The problem with many workouts and training programs out there has to do with the fact they will completely ruin your athletic ability, and diminish the very attributes you want to improve.  Excessive strength training, the overlooked importance of flexibility training, uneven balances between cardio/strength workouts, instructing herky-jerky form and short-range of motions will all lead to imbalances across your body. 

Who are these people you may wonder?  These are the guys who spend all their time squatting, benching, and deadlifting…but can’t bend to touch their toes…hell, they can’t even see their toes when they look straight down.  These are the girls who do tons of cardio, but still look soft, weak, and average.  You don’t want imbalances – you want to turn your body into a flexible, proportioned, explosive, lean, mean, machine. 

How to Train like an Athlete

Training like an athlete means you need to perform like an athlete.  Athletes don’t perform a lot of stationary movements, do they?  They’re constantly moving, changing speeds, intensities, and direction.  Because of this, your training needs to focus more on these factors and less on isolation exercises (think bicep curls) and steady-state cardio.

Of course, athletes not only focus on this type of work, but strength training as well.  Strength movements should be either compound in nature (hitting multiple muscle groups at once) and/or combined with intense cardio.  A power exercise, followed by an intense cardiovascular explosion closely mimics real-world athletic performance.  Think of an NFL defensive end for a second.  When the ball is snapped, he immediately rushes into, and uses brute strength against the offensive lineman.  Once he’s able to break free, it’s an all out sprint and some serious footwork as he attempts to reach the quarterback.  Strength followed by speed – this is the protocol you should follow.


This one shouldn’t come as a shock.  Athletes aren’t usually seen jogging around at one pace while they’re competing.  Their performing short, quick bursts of all out intensity.  Start giving this a try in place of your jog or even your HIIT cardio.  Think of this as micro-HIIT. 

Instead of 30 seconds all out sprinting followed by 1:30 of jogging, you’re going to bring those intervals way down.  Go for 10 second sprints, followed by 15 second jogs, repeated 10 times.  Then go for 5 second sprints, followed by 5 second jogs, repeated 10 times.  Keep playing around and mixing up your sprint and rest intervals so you’re really fatiguing your system in a variety of ways.

To take a step further, try hill sprints, reverse sprinting, sideways sprinting, scissor sprints, or a multitude of over sprint techniques to really get your body working at peak performance.

Footwork, footwork, footwork!

"Train like an athlete" means working on the finer points, like your agility.
“Train like an athlete” means working on the finer points, like your agility.

You’d be surprised how much an increase in agility and footwork can do for you.  Using things like an agility ladder or simply shuffling quickly back and forth, or in zig-zag position can do wonders for your overall mobility.  If you’re not already in peak condition, working on agility will help make other movements “easier”, thereby helping you lift more weight, run faster, or quite simply, make more progress.

Not only that, just like the short sprints we mentioned above, quick agility drills will help spike your heart rate and have you burning through a ton of calories while you’re working out.  Keep at it long enough and you’ll enter the beloved  EPOC zone, where your body will continue to shed serious calories well after your workout has ended.

Metabolic Conditioning

Athletes look so good, because they train so good.  When you’re hitting the weights, don’t fall into the old lift, rest, lift, rest, cycle.  While this format can have it’s benefits, it’s not good to only rely on this method.  Try a little metabolic conditioning work.  This type of workout has you quickly shifting between a compound strength exercise and a short (30 seconds or so) burst of all out cardio.  Something like clean and presses followed by 30 seconds of mountain climbers, for instance.

Think about that defensive lineman when you train.  Go all out on the strength portion, then when it’s time to hit the cardio….really hit the cardio.  Go at it like a mad man or woman, giving it your all.  You’re going to spike your metabolism, boost your heart rate, and just crush calories working out in this format.  By strategically varying your strength exercises, you’ll be able to hit your entire body in one workout, and have helped yourself reach your goals faster.

Roll it Out

Or even stretch it out.  Either way, your flexibility is a vital partner in all of this.  Grab a foam roller and roll out those IT bands (outsides of your legs), hamstrings, back, glutes, quads, etc.  Combine this with some moderate stretching for about 10-15 minutes a day, and you’re on the track to a seriously athletic body.  By improving your flexibility, you’ll alleviate aches and pains, prevent injuries, and even make better muscular gains?  Better muscle gains – say what?!

When you stretch, or especially foam roll, you loosen the fascia covering your muscle.  When these fascia lengthen, they allow more room for your muscle to grow.  This extra room makes it so your muscles become more apt to fill up the loosened space, thus helping you build muscle better and faster.

Get bored easily with rolling around your living room and/or holding static stretches?  Give yoga a try.  Yoga will work wonders for your flexibility AND give you the added benefit of strengthening muscles and burning additional calories.


Jumping is one aspect of your training that you need to remember to pay attention to.  Explosive plyometric movements like jumping will do wonders for your lower body strength, definition, and power.  Not only that, these type of movements will also help bring up your heart rate, thus helping you slash more calories than a standard leg press ever could. 

Mix in box jumps, jump roping, tippy-toe jumps to failure, Bulgarian squat jumps, barbell squat jumps, long jumps, side jumps, quick hops….the list goes on.  When combined with standard lower body resistance training, the benefits of these plyometric exercises are further magnified. 

When training to improve athletic performance, I want you to think and act like an athlete.  What this means is…

  • Explode through your cardiovascular exercises.  Give it 110% effort since you’re going for only short bursts.
  • Make fast, clean, and quick cuts.  What seems difficult at first will slowly become easier over time – don’t give up.
  • Power the weights up and bring it down in a slow controlled fashion.  Explode up/control down – every time.
  • Train your entire body to perform – this means don’t slack on your flexibility training, whatever it may be.
  • Use timed workout challenges that have you competing against yourself – pushing to beat a previous personal best time can be a great motivator and get you over a hump.

Bottom line, if you’re looking for a healthy, fit, and all-around fabulous physique and health, you’d be wise to start incorporating more components of athletic training into your routine.  By utilizing these concepts you’ll be well on your way to changing your body faster than you ever thought possible.



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