If you have played sports you might have fond memories of training like an athlete. For many of us, one of the great things about when we trained for sport was how well we felt and functioned.
We were in great shape and felt like we could do anything.
We can take some of the lessons from training elite athletes and apply them to lifelong human performance as well. If you train like an athlete with these 3 tips you can get more out of life.
Training With Purpose
Workouts are great. You sweat, get endorphins, share the struggle and energy with the group, and keep your fitness up.
Across your lifespan, you’re going to do a lot of workouts. A random mix of things in a workout can be fun. There are times you just want to mindlessly sweat.
But athletes don’t work out.
You see, the difference between working out and training is two-fold;
- There is a specific goal
- Each training session is part of a bigger plan.
We can make the case that workouts can have a goal. Lift heavy, burn calories, sweat, and struggle. All of those are could be goals. But they aren’t part of a specific performance goal.
Athletes train so they can improve things that help them reach their performance goals. Build power to run and jump higher. Get stronger to improve joint stability and reduce injury risk. Improve VO2 max so they can race at a higher pace. And so on…
Planned, Not Random
For an athlete, each workout is designed to be part of the overall plan and progression. The workouts aren’t just a random collection of hard stuff. They compliment each other to increase your results.
When you train like an athlete you stop just doing random things that are hard. You know what you want to get better at and then you follow a plan to achieve that.
This is not just true in sports performance, but human performance as well. If you want to run the Spartan Race faster or be able to play 18 holes on back-to-back days without pain, you have a specific goal.
Your training should help you achieve that. It should progress through phases that build the right physical qualities so you can get better.
Having a specific goal, progressive variation exercises, and loading to pursue it, and training sessions that compliment each other is training like an athlete.
When it comes to strength & conditioning for sports, the goal is to improve the sport. Sports are about movement not muscles, so we should train that way.
Yes, it’s your muscles that generate force and make you move. But if we try to break the human body down into individual muscles, joints, and tissues we are missing the athleticism.
What you need to understand is that the brain doesn’t organize muscle by muscle, it is organized in movement. When researchers observe brain activity through EEG they recognize that the brain activates by the movement pattern. The same muscle can light up different parts of the brain in different movements.
So if we want to move and function better, we better make that the basis of our strength programming.
This wasn’t always the case in strength training for sports. For many years (and still today), bodybuilding influenced athletic strength training. One of its basic approaches is a focus on isolating individual muscles to add maximum stress and growth. That’s great if we are only trying to build muscle. But if we want to improve movement, we need to train the muscles and the brain.
Isolation work has its place, but most of your workout program should revolve around the 7 foundational movement patterns.
The basis of most sporting movements is the coordinated extension of multiple joints and muscles of the lower body. Just picture a sprinter simultaneously extending their hip, knee, and ankle joints as they propel their body forward out of the starting blocks. You can also imagine a volleyball propelling themselves upward by extending hip, knee, and ankle to jump high and make a block.
Another fundamental human movement pattern is the single-leg stance. Because human gait involves single-leg support variations, we find this everywhere in sports where athletes are moving over the ground.
Another lower body action we see is hinging at the hip. This might also combine with some extension at the torso.
In sports, we might see examples in a wrestler bridging, trying to get their shoulders off the mat, or standing trying to throw an opponent backward. Or if we observe a track athlete sprinting at full speed and focus on how their leg moves backward to hit the track by extending at the hip. In other parts of life, this might be lifting furniture to help a friend or picking up the kids.
Upper Body Push
When we have a coordinated extension of joints in the shoulder, arm, and wrist, we consider this a push. We can classify these as vertical or horizontal push motions based on the plane of movement.
In sports, we see athletes pushing against opponents and it’s part of swinging and throwing motions. It’s also common when we have to put something up on a shelf or push ourselves up off the floor.
Upper Body Pull
This is the inverse of the push and is the coordination of flexion in those upper body joints. While it’s slightly less common than pushing, it’s critical in many sports. The “pull” in swimming strokes is what we would consider a vertical pull. It could also be a rock climber or gymnastic pulling their body upward.
Horizontal pulling occurs in wrestling and grappling sports as opponents battle for position. Another common horizontal pull would occur in rowing, kayaking, or canoe.
This isn’t a movement pattern at all. Bracing is actually an anti-movement pattern. In their core, athletes need to control and transfer force from the upper to the lower body.
The efficient transfer of force often means limiting motion so that force isn’t lost. Resisting flexion, extension, and rotation in the pelvis and the spine is critical for efficient and explosive movement.
This is a key function to bulletproof your back and hips. Since you experience the transfer of force through your spine in so many activities, it needs to be up to the task.
Finally, we have the coordinated rotational action that builds up from the lower body, through a stable core and transfers into the upper body. It is easy to picture this in sports from a batter swinging to a quarterback throwing. Sports such as golf, tennis, and hockey all involve rotation to swing an implement.
LEARN MORE: The Seven Movement Patterns You Need To Master
Athletes move faster, farther, higher, and stronger. But most of all they move.
Often in fitness, people keep working out, but they stop moving. They end up doing a lot of lifting in the sagittal plane of motion. People end up on spin cycles, treadmills, and machines. They stay in one place and use cables, bands, and weights repetitively.
There is a place for all those things, but it’s missing athletic movement.
Athletic movement includes moving our body through space. Coordinating to move faster and slow down. Jump and land. Move sideways and twist. But most of all, to challenge our coordination in dynamic and changing ways.
That’s what we do in sports. It’s what we should do as humans.
This doesn’t mean we have to go full speed into contact to improve performance. But those who want to improve their human performance and health do need to move dynamically.
Moving at faster speeds, and decelerating is a unique load for our tendons and connective tissue. Sports science has demonstrated that for optimal tendon health we need to regularly expose our tendons to fast stretch-shortening cycle movements.
These are movements where we quickly load our muscles and change from flexing to extending or vice versa. Think of dipping down before a jump in basketball. Or the backswing in driving a golf ball.
When we aren’t used to doing those things, they start to cause tendon pain when we go do them. That’s when people get tendonitis problems like jumpers knee or tennis elbow. Small doses of fast stretch-shortening movements can help your tendons stay ready for the weekend activities.
There’s also growing research that shows challenging your coordination can benefit lifelong brain health. Moving the center of mass, changing your orientation in space, tracking moving objects, and coordinating body movements all can contribute to a better quality of life and improved memory and cognitive function.
If you can sprinkle in actual dynamic movement with these challenges, you are training like an athlete. You likely perform better in your sporting activities, have a lower risk of injury, and improve your overall health along the way.
Train Like An Athlete For Human Performance
Whether you want to run a better race, be a weekend warrior, or just feel better and eliminate pain, training like an athlete can help.
Start by changing your mindset from working out to training with purpose.
Then makes sure you think about movements and not just muscles when you pick up the weights.
Finally, move more and move better. Dynamic, challenging athletic movement will change the way you function and feel.