The Ultimate Guide:
How To build
An Athletic Body
Today’s health and fitness industry makes it almost impossible to find the right solution to help you achieve your goals.
So called internet fitness gurus, bodybuilding magazines and supplement companies pump out tons of information based on “bro-science” or put together programs meant for roided-out meatheads or elite athletes.
In fact, following their advice most of the time leaves you over-trained or injured.
But, it’s not your fault!
We are constantly bombarded and overwhelmed by all the information out there that we wind up wasting our hard-earned time and money.
Even worse, we end up with a beaten-up body that is worse off than before we started.
In this guide, I’m going to go over everything you need to know about strength training the right way, how to finally achieve your fitness goals and get the athletic body you’ve always wanted.
There are a lot of different strength training methodologies out there to choose from.
To begin our journey, I want to help you take a look at the most popular strength training options and show you why they fall short in helping you get the results you're seeking from your training.
Most Popular Strength Training Modalities
Two of the most popular training modalities today are Bodybuilding and CrossFit.
Both regimes have numerous benefits including increased muscle mass and fat loss.
The problem is, often times when these programs are prescribed to the everyday person, it results in issues with adherence, effectiveness, and potential injuries.
Let’s dive a little bit deeper. What is bodybuilding?
"Bodybuilding is the use of progressive resistance exercise to control and develop one's musculature for aesthetic purposes."
A well thought out bodybuilding program can be very effective for increasing muscle mass, improving weaknesses, and body composition.
However, many bodybuilding programs are loaded with “junk volume” that is ineffective and can even be detrimental to some.
"Some programs dedicate 4-5 sets of 10-15 reps of 5 different exercises for one body part. This is ineffective wheel spinning!"
If your goal is to get big arms, a balanced program of compound pushing and pulling movements with a few sets of arm-focused accessories is going to help you as a natural lifter just as much, if not more, than doing 5 different arm exercises.
Plus, too much volume in certain areas can create the potential for problems down the road.
For example, bodybuilding programs often require a lot of pushing volume; working the quads with sets of leg press, squats, and leg extensions.
If a person isn't equally balancing volume in their posterior chain (back of the body), they can experience pulled hamstrings or weak glutes that can contribute to low back pain.
In addition, bodybuilding programs typically require frequent use of machines which takes out the ability for a person to train balance, coordination, and stability.
CrossFit appears on the opposite end of the spectrum as bodybuilding where it is defined as...
"Constantly varied functional movements executed at high intensity.” - CrossFit.com
While, CrossFit has done wonders in exposing the general population to Olympic lifting, powerlifting, and gymnastics, there are some holes in its program application.
Priding itself on being constantly varied helps provide a novel training experience that keeps people from getting bored. However, the randomness of CrossFit makes it difficult to achieve specific goals other than general physical preparation.
Furthermore, the higher level of athletic skill that you are trying to accomplish, the more the different modalities in CrossFit may keep you from reaching that goal or skill.
Another issue with CrossFit is its application of technical lifts to the general public.
Often times people beginning CrossFit are asked to perform very technical Olympic lifts or gymnastic skills that may take years to perfect.
If the individual’s goal is to build muscle or burn fat, they are far better served spending their precious time on progressive strength and conditioning exercises rather than trying to fine tune the intricacies of a snatch, which is utilized as a power exercise in the first place.
Fortunately, there are many smart coaches in CrossFit that require beginning lifters to attend basic foundational classes to perfect their form before they enter into the Olympic lifts.
Now many of the top coaches in CrossFit are starting to take an approach that is similar to strength and conditioning programming rather than traditional CrossFit programming.
Jason Brown of Box Programming is someone who I believe is advancing the CrossFit industry.
So if these training options don’t cut it, what should you do?
Train for optimal performance like an athlete.
More Bodybuilding & CrossFit Pros & Cons Resources:
Athletic Performance Training
When an athlete trains they focus on increasing performance and improving athletic qualities such as increasing strength, speed, power, agility, and their movement ability.
The greatest part of training like this is that in addition to reducing the risk of injuries and improving your movement patterns, you create a lean muscular body.
Training For athletic
Performance & AESTHETICS
Many people share a false belief that training to look better and improve body composition requires a different training approach or methodology than training to improve athletic performance.
This is called the performance-aesthetic training spectrum.
On one end of the spectrum you have physique-focused training. This is typically aimed at maximizing lean muscle mass while maintaining a low percentage of body fat.
At the other end you have performance, which is focused on optimizing movement efficiency, strength and speed to improve performance for a sport, activity or competition.
Obviously, we all want to look great naked.
However, lots of the common problems people encounter with training – such as muscle imbalances, injuries, reduction in mobility and motivation – are often a result of making aesthetics their only goal.
Putting how you look rather than how you feel at the core of your training program can be counter-productive, especially if injury breaks your routine and leads to extended periods of inactivity.
Having been involved in competitive sports at a high-level for most of my life, I understand what it takes to be in the best physical shape possible. I competed in collegiate football and other athletics my entire life, my focus was always on specific performance goals, not aesthetics.
Yet, many people would say that I’ve been “jacked” and athletic looking the whole time.
So can you train for both? The short answer, YES!
Think about a sprinter.
They definitely don’t spend hours in the gym doing endless amounts of chest flys, leg extensions and curls.
But if a sprinter walks into a gym, I guarantee they are more muscular or "jacked" than 90% of the people in there.
When an athlete trains, the focus is not on aesthetics, rather, on improving performance through increasing strength, speed, (or any other movement quality) and setting personal records (positive goal-setting).
While maintaining a certain aesthetic look isn’t an athlete’s top priority, it’s often a nice by-product of training with a purpose.
Now this type of training won’t make you look like the Hulk and honestly, why would you want to?
If you haven’t noticed lately, there’s been a noticeable shift in what people perceive to be the ultimate physique.
Guys want to look LESS like a bulky bodybuilder, and MORE like their favorite athletes.
Back in the day, it was that big, bulky, stiff, and rigid look. Don’t get me wrong, many of the fitness professionals at that time had impressive bodies and also helped revolutionize the industry.
But now...PEOPLE ARE CHASING A MORE FUNCTIONAL, LEAN and MUSCULAR PHYSIQUE.
The big arms of the past limited people’s ability to move. Rigid shoulders became injury prone. And tight hips limited or eliminated explosiveness and speed altogether. All just to look bigger.
Don’t believe me? Take the fact that ESPN magazine now produces an annual "body issue" displaying the physiques of the world's top athletes.
OR scroll through your Instagram feed and take a look at some of the top fitness publications in the industry like Men’s Health, Muscle & Fitness, Men’s Journal. Hell, even Bodybuilding.com has caught on...
This trend isn’t just because an “Athletic Physique” is more appealing and attractive, it's because of the way it makes your body feel.
Pain-free movement with a body that is able to perform under any and all circumstances.
Why wouldn't you want that?
The Athletic Build
"The Ideal Physique"
What is an Athletic Physique?
The body of an athlete is muscular, strong, powerful, and proportional.
It is the ideal balance of muscle to body fat that is optimized for performance without sacrificing looks.
Think of old Greek or Roman statues, fitness models, action heroes or an Olympic athlete.
It’s a strong, capable body you can be proud of.
The kind of body that's muscular and lean, without looking like a chemically enhanced bodybuilder.
It’s lean without looking sick, weak, and dehydrated
The kind of body that can run, jump, lift, and move in every direction - without aches or pains - whether you're chasing your kids around the backyard or attempting a PR in the gym.
The kind of body that looks great and feels great.
So besides looking like a modern day superhero, why should you train like this?
Benefits of Training Like An Athlete
Going into the gym and performing random circuits or training one body part per day leads to inefficient results and injury over time.
Instead of throwing darts at a wall and hoping you accomplish your goals, you can discover a complete roadmap of exercises to incorporate based on your training goals.
For example, if you want to be able to dunk a basketball you aren’t going to be racking up miles on the treadmill. If you want to swing a golf club better, you shouldn’t be doing insane amounts reps on the bench press.
Training like an athlete allows you to accurately assess what training variables you should utilize and manipulate to accomplish certain aspects of your performance.
You will also move and train with a purpose. No more hours in the gym pumping out countless reps that don’t help you progress towards your goals.
In order to avoid plateaus there are 2 fundamental tenants of strength and conditioning that you must take into account:
- Progressive Overload
- The Law of Accommodation
Often times I will hear from clients that just started a workout regime that they lost weight or gained muscle initially and then they stalled. Your body is an amazing machine and it becomes very efficient at whatever movements you are performing.
Eventually, if all you're doing is running on the treadmill and doing circuit style training with extremely light weights it will stop working.
Your body becomes accustomed to the workout and the only way it will grow/change is through progressive overload. When the intensity, volume, duration, or nature of exercise doesn’t change, NEITHER DO YOU.
Working hand in hand with progressive overload is the Law of Accommodation.
The Law of Accommodation means that if you are performing the same exercises for too long you will lose the ability to continue to make progress. This is why some people stay at the same weight or strength level for years and cannot seems to progress towards their goals. In order to continually make progress you must continually switch the stimulus that you provide to your body.
Increased Performance and Output
As you reach your fitness goals and get the results you’ve been desiring, you’ll see an improvement in overall performance.
You’ll be stronger, which in turn helps you to lift more weight.
Your body will be prepared to train harder, more frequently and consistently.
Not only that, but you won’t feel beat-up or rundown.
Which brings us to our next major benefit.
Bulletproof Your Body
Besides getting rid of “junk volume” and useless wheel spinning, training like an athlete will allow your body to function at its highest capacity and help you get rid of nagging pains and injuries.
Back pain, shoulder pain, neck pain, knee pain, the list goes on….You name it, as you get older these nagging injuries start to emerge. And more often than not, they’re a sign that your movement patterns are broken.
If you’re like me, you love to train!
Training is an area of life where we want to continuously improve and be able to perform for years on end.
If you’re chasing the long-game, you need to organize your training with science-based programming to help you avoid injuries and continually progress.
By following scientific strength training principles, you ensure your body adequately recovers and you achieve the greatest results from all your hard work.
What’s the point in being muscular and strong if you can’t use it?
I’ll be honest, there are very few things that make you feel better than throwing around some heavy weight! But not at the cost of being able to sprint, jump, or having decent mobility.
What do you think of when you think of the best athletes? I think of athletes that can run fast, turn on a dime, explode in any direction, and maneuver their bodies in unfathomable ways.
The beautiful thing about training like an athlete is it allows you to perform a variety of movements in multiple planes of motion (different directions) to discover what exercises help you develop the most and allow you to become the total package.
WANT TO START BUILDING YOUR ATHLETIC PHYSIQUE?
Why wait? Take the fast track that takes out all the guesswork. Checkout our Roadmap to the Athletic Physique consisting of 3 intense strength training programs that will help you build dense, powerful, balanced muscle that will prepare you to handle whatever life throws your way.
How To Train Like An Athlete
Here's the deal…getting an athletic body that people envy isn’t as hard as everyone makes it out to be...
But, before we get into the specifics, let’s take a quick look at some training program basics so we’re all on the same page. If you've been strength training for awhile, you can skip over this section and move onto the next section on training components for an athletic body.
Strength Training Program Basics
Like I said before, your body is a highly efficient machine and any stress you put on it, in this case, with training, will cause it to adapt and change. That’s why before you begin training you should have an idea of the basic strength training variables that can be manipulated and differ between the different training methodologies.
The amount of volume in your program is dependent on many factors, such as your goals, experience, and much more. However, there are general volume (sets x reps) guidelines utilized to induce specific training adaptations.
More Strength Training Volume Resources:
Intensity is defined by the amount of weight lifted. Volume and Intensity have an inverse relationship. Meaning, the higher the intensity (or weight), the lower the volume you’ll need to use and vice versa.
Tempo is the duration of the different phases in a repetition. So basically, it’s the speed of the lift. Tempos will vary greatly throughout your training based on what adaptation/goal you are trying to achieve.
More Strength Training Tempo Resources:
The eccentric part of a rep is when your muscle is lengthens during the movement or more technically when the distance between the origin and insertion of the muscle increases. Think lowering a bench press.
The concentric part of a rep is when your muscle shortens during the movement or more technically when the origin and insertion of the muscle get closer during contraction. Think standing up with a squat.
Muscle tension changes while the length of the muscle remains constant. Think holding the bottom portion of a lunge.
Manipulation of any of the aforementioned three phases can result in different training adaptations.
For example, fast eccentrics can be utilized to develop power, whereas slow eccentrics can be used to increase time under tension and promote muscle growth i.e. hypertrophy.
One of the best uses of tempos is slow eccentrics and isometrics in order to improve technique and increase time under tension and therefore help build muscle. I utilize slow eccentrics with the majority of our athletes to help add mass and improve technique in both max effort work and dynamic effort work (more on those later). Plus, it allows you to achieve a greater stimulus without having to add as much weight to the bar.
More Muscle Contraction Resources:
Rest Periods, Rest Days, & Recovery
The time spent resting between sets that allow the muscle to recover. The rest period between sets is usually in the range of 30 seconds to two minutes. Just like tempo, modifying the rest periods between sets of exercises can change the training effect. Power, maximal strength, and speed exercises require longer recovery time whereas exercises for muscular endurance and hypertrophy usually fall between 30-90s of rest.
Think about trying to deadlift 500 pounds (90% of your max) for 5 sets of 2 reps. If you try your second, third or fourth set after only 30 seconds of rest, I guarantee you aren’t getting through all 5 sets. If you do, you aren’t going heavy enough.
Rest days are non-training days that exclude any activity that would stress your body enough that it inhibits the ability for your muscles to recover/repair. You want to make the most of your recovery days so that you can continue building muscle and improving your physique and performance. We encourage you to perform some type of light active recovery exercise such as walking, jogging, rucking, yoga, light band or sled work, self-myofascial release in the form of rolling, cryotherapy, sauna, ice baths, or float tanks.
The faster you can recover from the workouts the faster you will see progress.
No need to make it complicated do something that you enjoy whether it is walking the dog around the block or playing some pick-up basketball.
More Strength Training Rest Period Resources:
Exercise selection refers to the type of exercises used within a training program. There are a number of different options for the types of exercise you choose including, but not limited to…compound or isolation, the equipment used (dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell), bilateral (2 limbs) or unilateral (1 limb), high intensity or low, goal based (power, strength, endurance), movement pattern or muscle worked. The list goes on.
More Strength Training Exercise Selection Resources:
Frequency in your training can refer to how many times you lift weights per week or how many times you train a particular muscle group per week. In this case, we will stick to the first one. There are several different training splits such as 2-day, 3-day, and 4-day a week splits that help you define your training frequency.
Research has shown if the total volume performed in a week is kept similar, the actual training split isn’t as big of an indicator of training effect.
The key is finding the right program that allows you to feel fully recovered between sessions, something that fits your schedule and that you enjoy, so you stick with your training program.
I prefer training every day, which means that since I train more frequently throughout the week, the volume in my workouts has to be substantially lower than if I were training 2x a week.
More Strength Training Frequency Resources:
Rep Max or RM
RM refers to rep max. Calculating a rep max allows you to identify certain percentages to use for various exercises throughout your training program. As we demonstrated in the volume guidelines above, certain volumes correlate with different adaptations. Knowing your 1RM allows you to train for your goal. If you are trying to increase power, you know the percentage guidelines you need to train within, and you can adjust those percentages as you move through your training cycles.
Rate of Perceived Exertion or RPE
RPE stands for rate of perceived exertion. RPE is another tool that can be utilized to work within certain intensities. RPE is measured on a scale from 1-10. 1 is correlated with very light activity where is 10 is maximal effort.
More Strength Training RPE Resources:
Now that you’re on the same page, let’s look at the different components that make up our training programs.
Athletic Body Training Program Components
To build a body that's just as athletic as it is aesthetic, there are certain training components you must include in your programming.
These training components include mobility and stability, power, strength, hypertrophy and endurance.
The problem is, programming multiple training variables can be like a mad-science experiment if you don’t know what you’re doing.
Mobility & Stability Training
As we stated before, the body is an extremely efficient machine and all the bones, muscle, and connective tissue around each joint act as an integrated system that relies on the health of other joints. If a single joint doesn’t work properly, the joints above and below it can be affected. This is where mobility and stability come into play.
In order to move correctly your body needs to be able to move uninhibited through the full range of motion of any movement.
Mobility is our ability to take our body (specifically our joints) through a range of motion with CONTROL, before being restricted. Mobility is based on movement and motor control, mainly stability.
A good level of mobility allows a person to perform movements without restriction and produce power more efficiently. Freeing muscles from protective inhibitions helps them generate more force.
While mobility relates to movement, stability relates to control. Stability is the ability to maintain control of a movement or position by coordinating actions of surrounding tissues and the neuromuscular system. Your core and joint stability help protect you against injuries. Injuries including ligament tears and sprains can often lead to stability issues in the joint.
Mobility and stability are the basis of all functional strength.
Our ability to move without pain or restriction during our daily activities and training is essential to our overall quality of life and in the prevention of injury.
In our programs we include active warm-ups and cool downs that utilize techniques to improve mobility, flexibility and stability so that you can move pain free and avoid injuries.
More Strength Training Mobility & Stability Resources:
Power & Explosiveness Training
The next component in our training arsenal is the inclusion of movements to train for power.
Training for power increases explosiveness and rate of force development, which leads to improvements in your strength and body composition.
In more technical terms, training for power primes your central nervous system (CNS), activating higher threshold motor units like your type 2 fast-twitch muscle fibers and improves your inter-muscular coordination within a specific movement.
Basically, this means that these movements prime your body by lighting up your CNS, making you more efficient and more coordinated when doing any strength movements that follow.
Also, power production severally declines as we age, especially for populations that spend most of their time at a desk.
What happens when your dog gets out of the fence and you need to sprint after it? Or what if you need to jump to get your kids kite out of a tree? Hell, what happens when you need to simply get out of a chair? If you aren’t training for power, it’s going to be a problem as you get older.
Explosive movements for power need to be incorporated into your training regardless if you’re a competitive athlete or not.
Most lifters already get enough maximal and sub-maximal exercise, but miss out on the inclusion of speed-strength movements that mimic what you used to do when playing sports.
High-velocity movements like explosive push-up variations, jump squats, sprints, and medicine ball throws can be easy additions to bring explosive training back into your regimen.
How you do them and how much you do matters.
You don't want to just jump around willy-nilly without a specific reason for it and tons of random med ball throws and jumps won't work here.
You need to be smart about it. You want the explosive movements to actually improve your lifts.
That's why in our programs we typically match the explosive exercise with the primary movement pattern of the day.
Training for pure power and explosiveness typically involves very low reps (sets of 1-5 reps), with a focus on moving the weight as quickly and explosively as possible.
Remember, your goal is explosive power, not turning high-performance training into an inhaler-induced HIIT training class.
More Strength Training Power Resources:
Strength is at the center of training like an athlete. The stronger you are, the more effectively you can train for any goal, whether it's performance, fat loss, or building muscle.
It builds the foundation for all fitness skills: without it, all the volume in the world won’t help you put on muscle mass; the overall stress on your body would be too low.
As we get stronger, we reduce our risk of injuries, we become more stable, and we can apply more force into the ground.
That allows us to run faster, jump higher and change direction more easily.
Strength not only helps us from a performance standpoint, but it also increases our muscle mass and allows us to handle higher volume and higher intensity training.
Building strength is vital for building muscle.
The problem is, most people start lifting with a random article online that tells them to do 5 sets of 10 reps for every exercise in their workout so that they end up pumping their muscles before they have any real muscle to pump.
You have to be able to lift moderately heavy weight for the right amount of volume and have the ability to build tension in your muscles in order to create the necessary amount of stress to actually build muscle.
Training with an emphasis on strength allows you to lift heavier weight for more reps which equals a greater muscle-building stimulus.
Higher levels of strength result in higher levels of muscle fiber recruitment, mechanical tension and improved work capacity. More on this later.
Types of Strength
In our programs we focus on improving multiple qualities along the Force-Velocity curve. If you can improve the amount of force you can generate and the velocity at which you can do it, along with all the other strength qualities in between, you will be strong, fast, and athletic.
The Force-Velocity curve we described is made up of several different types of strength.
Absolute strength refers to the maximum amount of force exerted regardless of size or muscle mass. Think exercises that improve max force such as the squat, bench, and deadlift.
Strength-Speed refers to exercises performed to increase strength at low velocities. These typically take place in the 60-80% range of 1RM.
Speed-Strength refers to exercises performed in the 20 - 50% of 1RM range usually as weighted jumps and medicine ball throws.
Max Velocity refers to exercises that are unweighted such as full speed sprints and unloaded jumps.
In general, strength training takes place in the 1 to 6 rep range. This differs from training for power because you’ll use heavier loads. Also, as you’d expect when using heavier weights, the weight won’t be moving as quickly. Keep in mind though, you’ll still be trying to move the weight as quickly as possible.
Typically, you’ll increase the weight on each set and work to make your last set your heaviest while keeping a few reps in the tank and avoiding failure.
More Strength Training Resources:
Hypertrophy refers to an increase in muscle size achieved through exercise.
Training for hypertrophy brings in classic bodybuilding inspired methods to increase total training volume, metabolic stress, and as a byproduct, create some muscle damage. When done correctly, this will also add targeted muscle to common weak areas including your glutes, hamstring, upper back, and triceps. Basically, this is the aspect of our training targeted at building muscle, increasing muscle mass, improving our body composition, eliminating weaknesses and increasing our connective tissue.
Muscle Building, Muscle Responses
In order to build muscle, there are 3 different responses you have to induce while training: Metabolic stress, mechanical tension, and muscular damage.
Strength Training for Muscle Mass
Skeletal muscle represents up to 40% of your total body weight and muscle mass declines by 3-8% each decade after the age of 30. The loss of muscle mass can lead to a variety of metabolic disorders and an increase in body fat.
While I previously stated that having big muscles shouldn’t be the main focus of your training, muscle mass does have its place and carries a handful of benefits.
In the hypertrophy portion of your workout, you’ll be utilizing sets of 6 to 12 reps using moderately heavy loads and working towards fatigue or muscular failure.
You will also either maintain or reduce rest times in the 15 seconds to 90 seconds range to blend both mechanical tension and metabolic stress.
Typically, for each workout, your hypertrophy movements will focus on taxing the same muscles you trained with your explosive and heavy strength movements to accumulate more stress.
More Strength Training for Hypertrophy Resources:
Muscular Endurance Training
Last, but not least, training for muscular endurance.
Now let’s be honest, the typical lifter hates cardio and I’m right there with you. At least as far as doing any activity without a true purpose that gives you suboptimal results.
But, increasing your conditioning and muscular endurance is a necessary evil if you want to truly build an athletic physique.
Getting in great shape requires some form of cardiovascular training, but it doesn’t have to be spent running/dragging yourself miles and miles on the treadmill.
In order to achieve the results, you desire and get more bang for your buck, we train muscular endurance and conditioning through metabolic conditioning using what we call “Finishers.”
Finishers are short-term high-intensity exercises performed at the end of a workout, designed to maximize workout density as well as push your body and mind to the limit.
Finishers create significant improvements in work capacity and fat loss through short, high-intensity bursts using basic gym equipment.
This type of training utilizes a lighter load and higher rep ranges, usually in the 12 to 20+ rep range.
This type of conditioning helps you to burn calories and build your “engine” so that you have the general physical prep to live life on your terms and have an active lifestyle outside of the gym.
Not only that, it helps you build muscle, supercharge fat loss, and get the mental edge to dominate in and out of the gym.
Finishers like this build muscle by creating a ton of metabolic stress and kickstart muscle growth.
Finishers will push your body to the limit that ultimately build your total work capacity.
By completing more work in less time, you significantly challenge the muscular, aerobic and anaerobic systems of the body to adapt.
Training utilizing high intensity intervals or HIIT exceeds the fat burning achieved with steady state cardio in a fraction of the time. Your muscles and energy systems have to work overtime increasing what we call exercise post-oxygen consumption (EPOC) that keeps your metabolism revving and heart rate elevated for hours after your workout.
Finally, metabolic conditioning through finishers and HIIT training pushes you to the edge mentally. Honestly, it can be hell! But if you can embrace the suck and push yourself through the challenge, you can take yourself to new levels both physically and mentally.
But you can’t kill yourself every time in the gym and you can’t just do random challenges so that you feel like you’ve “worked out” and burned off those pop-tarts.
That’s just a recipe for injury. Ask those CrossFitters...
Just like anything else, this type of training has to be programmed intelligently to reap the benefits and avoid overtraining or injury.
More Strength Training for Muscular Endurance Resources:
At the end of the day, you need to focus on giving your body the training it needs right now based on where you’re at in your fitness journey, so you can look and perform the way you want.
That means how you pull all of this together depends heavily on your fitness goals.
So if you’re looking to build muscle as your number one goal, your program would emphasize hypertrophy more and a little less on strength, power and endurance.
A performance focus would have a greater focus on strength and power, with less volume and fewer bodybuilding methods. You can manipulate these components at any given time, but the attention you pay to each one should be specific to your goals at the point in time.
Now that you know the different puzzle pieces to train for performance and aesthetics, let’s dive into the methodology we utilize to program our training programs.
For An Athletic Body
The Conjugate Method
To design our training programs, we use what is known as the Conjugate Method created by the Soviets and popularized by Westside Barbell’s Louie Simmons.
The Conjugate method consists of various training methods designed to improve numerous athletic qualities, at the same time.
Here is an excerpt from the book "EFS Basic Training" written by Dave Tate and Jim Wendler describing this method.
"When training for maximal strength, one must use the three methods of increasing muscle tension—the maximal effort method, the dynamic effort method, and the repetition method.
Conjugate training is a method that brings together all aspects of training at the same time. Most training programs have separate phases throughout the training cycle. One of the biggest problems with this kind of program is that after you stop the phase, you lose the benefits that accompany it. Conjugate training combines all of these phases allowing for an athlete to maximize his potential."
The max effort method utilizes weights above 90% of your 1 rep max in order to develop strength as well as internal and external coordination. Meaning, you will be stronger and have greater control over your body.
For Max Effort work you will start light and work your way up in weight over the course of 6 to 8 sets in order to achieve your desired rep max. Advanced trainees will be able to work up to their max in fewer sets than beginners. Max effort days will involve working up to a 1-5RM in a particular exercise working between 1 and 5 reps for each set. The exercise and tempo will vary from week to week.
We are training for health, longevity, and improved performance so your top set should cause you to strain without compromising your form.
A good method is to think of it as a training max. For the athletes I train at my facility, I tell them to work up to a 5RM, however, you should have 1 to 2 reps left in the tank that you could achieve if you absolutely had to. This allows us to never fail at a rep max and helps us maintain impeccable technique.
When working on accessory lifts, you should pick a weight where the last few reps are very challenging and cause you to strain, but don’t fail. Remember you won’t achieve much progress if you are doing sets of 10 with a weight you can perform 30 times.
For max effort work you will obviously need more rest in between sets to allow your energy systems to fully recover. However, if your goal is improved body composition most of your accessories should be performed in a circuit style fashion to increase your fitness level and ensure that you finish your workout in a timely manner before hormone levels depreciate.
The dynamic effort method is performed to develop acceleration and power with loads of 30% -75% of your 1 RM to create peak force. The dynamic effort method helps increase coordination under high velocities.
Dynamic effort days will involve 8-10 sets of 3-5 reps. The reps are kept low and the sets high so that each rep can be performed as explosively as possible and that there is no drop-off in speed from fatigue. The percentages, as they relate to your 1RM, will change in a wave like fashion from week to week.
Combined, the max effort method and dynamic effort method are used to train the central nervous system and create an individual that can rapidly increase force production.
Force = Mass x Acceleration
The max effort day is the mass portion of the equation and the dynamic effort day is the acceleration portion of the equation.
The repetition method is the method you are probably most familiar with. The repetition method uses 5-85% of your 1RM and is utilized to develop muscle tissue and eliminate weaknesses. This is where the volume comes in to play in our training.
Repetition method will be utilized on both days with a variety of different rep ranges and tempos.
Repetition work can vary greatly. If the goal is hypertrophy you will usually perform 3-5 sets between 6 and 12 reps. If you are working connective tissue you could perform sets of 100 with light bands.
These three methods provide the framework on how we structure our training.
Let’s get into some of the reasons why we structure our training under the conjugate method.
Benefits of The Conjugate Method
The first benefit of the Conjugate Method is the ability to periodize our training, but not in a way that hinders reaching certain physical adaptations.
Periodization simply refers to how you switch up your workouts over time.
There are an infinite number of ways to apply periodization to your workouts.
Simply progressing to more challenging exercise variations over time is one method of periodization.
In regards to periodization, the most important thing is that you progress in your workouts by using better form, performing more repetitions, and increasing intensity.
We need to have a balance of work and recovery and an understanding of how to manipulate volume and intensity to get our desired result.
We could throw darts at a wall and provide a random training program with 4-5 sets of 6-10 reps for every exercise (I have seen it done), but that would lead to suboptimal training with suboptimal results.
As we highlighted above in the excerpt from the EFS book, the Conjugate Method allows you to combine different aspects of training at the same time allowing you to reach multiple goals during your training and maximize your potential.
Many people will argue that the conjugate method should be reserved for advanced powerlifters, or athletes, however, we utilize this method for all of our programs and clients. Why? Because it’s one of the safest and most effective ways to train, if you know what you’re doing.
Which brings me to the next benefit that the Conjugate Method is safe and effective helping you to prevent overtraining and overuse injuries.
People that don’t understand the concepts of the method believe that it involves maxing out every week on the same exercises, which would lead to overuse injuries. This couldn’t be further from the truth.
The actual volume on compound exercises, which are the hardest on your joints, is much lower than a traditional linear program.
Instead of performing 5 straight sets of 80% of their 1RM, the athlete may work up to a heavy 5 and be done with the compound lift. This results in less wear and tear on the body.
Another benefit to this training method is that you avoid boredom/burnout and plateaus by rotating the max effort exercises frequently that prevents staleness and accounts for the law of accommodation.
Finally, the program follows the law of 72 hours which states that the body can’t perform an extreme workload in the same muscle group within 72 hours, making the training more optimal than a full body split done 3 times a week.
This is one of the main reasons I like to use a 4-day split for my workouts.
My typical split consists of a Max Effort Upper, Max Effort Lower, Dynamic Effort Upper, Dynamic Effort Lower.
Regardless of the day, at the end of each workout I add in a “finisher” to improve my fitness level or work capacity and increase fat loss.
If you’re looking to ramp up the frequency of your training, you can perform these finishers or metabolic conditioning on separate days.
Now let’s take a look at all of these components together as we look at how to structure a typical training session for performance and aesthetics (aka “The Athletic Body").
More Conjugate Method Strength Training Resources:
Workout Structure For An Athletic Body
Designing a training session involves a certain structure and well-thought-out scheme. From a high-level, when structuring a workout, you want to begin with the most neural demanding exercises followed by the least. Think those that require using the most muscles and use the most amount of energy. Jumps and sprints come before multi-joint compound exercises like a squat, and isolation movements and accessories are performed last.
First there are some general rules to keep in mind when structuring your workout.
Strength Training Workout
General Rules of Thumb:
Strength Training Rules of Thumb:
Now let’s get started taking a more in-depth look at how we structure our training days to develop an athletic physique.
You want to begin every session with an active warm-up.
When designing your warm-up, you want to ensure that you are activating weak muscle groups, improving global core stability, performing mobility work and cementing those new ranges of motion by strengthening and firing up the Central Nervous System.
For example, if my workout was a lower body focused day, my warm-up might look something like this.
1A. Squat to Stand
1B. Cossack Squats
1D. Ankle Rockers
2A. Glute Bridges
2B. Lateral Step Downs
2C. 45 Degree Hypers
3. MOVEMENT PATTERN:
4. CORE STABILITY:
4A. Front Plank
4B. Side Planks
Proximal stability provides distal mobility, i.e. when your body sense you are stable your extremities with open up.
5. CNS Activation:
After your warm-up, you’ll work your way down in the workout from compound exercises to supplemental lifts to accessories.
If you are performing any power-based exercises, these would come first. I begin all of my training sessions with some form of jump, sprint, or throw in order to excite the central nervous system and prepare it for the big lift.
After your power work, you’ll move onto your main lift for the day, which should be the exercise that requires the most energy and recruits the highest amount of muscle fibers.
Staying with our lower body example, maybe I would begin with a back squat as my main compound lift.
Next, you’ll perform a supplemental lift based on any of your weaknesses. Most lower body weaknesses are in your glutes, hamstrings, and lower back.
That being said I would ensure that I picked a hamstring dominant exercise as my first supplemental lift over a quad dominant exercise. I would also ensure that the multi-joint exercise is utilized before the single joint exercise.
For example, I would perform a barbell RDL before I would perform a hamstring curl.
After the supplemental lift you would perform accessory exercises such as a hamstring curl or triceps extensions.
You perform your core lift, supplemental, and accessories all within 45-50 minutes. There are numerous research studies that found that once your workout exceeds 50 minutes, your testosterone tends to drop giving you diminishing returns.
Typically, you should be performing about 5-6 exercises per workout and not much more. 1
It is important to understand how to prioritize the muscles you’re focusing on in your training.
If you are training for health, performance, and longevity (which you should be, as this will also lead to improved body composition) you need to focus on the posterior chain (back of the body), which is the most common area neglected/weak point for the everyday person.
As we stated before, the most common muscle weaknesses are glutes, hamstrings, lower back, and triceps.
Our lifestyles are extremely anterior dominant. Everything we do is moving forward. Combined that with gravity and massive amounts of sitting and you get a rounded posture, glute amnesia, and a sore back. The worst thing we can do is walk into the weight room and hammer out some reps on the bench press, curls, and leg extensions as we are only feeding into our poor posture and overdeveloping the muscles that are more dominant and most likely stronger.
If you focus on developing your weaknesses, then your technique will improve on all of your lifts, your posture will improve, you will bulletproof your body against injury, and improve your overall body composition.
The number of reps and sets will always depend on your training goals and vary from day to day based on whether you are performing max effort, dynamic effort, repetition, general physical prep, or connective tissue work. If you need a quick refresh, go back and checkout the previous section for more details.
Exercise selection needs to be varied constantly. Your body is an extremely efficient machine. If you continue to provide the same exact stimulus to your muscles, you’ll plateau and never grow.
Although you need to vary your exercise selection consistently, that doesn’t mean you need to pick random exercises each week. The exercises you choose need to be similar enough to your particular training goal due to the principle of specificity. For example, if I am trying to increase my squat, I will still train with a squat variation like a box squat, or I’ll change my foot position, or use a different bar.
More Strength Training Exercise Order Resources:
If I haven’t convinced you by now, training like an athlete is the only way you should be training if you want to be stronger, more explosive, healthier and better looking than ever before.
Other training methodologies like bodybuilding and CrossFit have their benefits, but fall short in the end, leaving you with insufficient results, overtraining or injured.
Now it’s not going to be easy, but if you take the info I’ve laid out here and put in the work, I will guarantee you that you’ll be well on the way to a total body transformation.
If you want a fast track that takes out all the guesswork, checkout our Roadmap to the Athletic Physique that will help you build dense, functional, powerful and balanced muscle so you can handle whatever life throws your way.
NOW GET TO WORK AND START LIFTING!