Building an athlete requires building multiple physical qualities.
When I first started in this industry, I took a lot of pride in the fact that I was “strength and conditioning coach.”
But I think in many cases, we took the title “strength and conditioning” a little bit too literally. And if we’re being totally honest and transparent, there was probably a little bit too much of an emphasis on strength!
Nowadays, I think we’re all moving in the right direction and focused on building athletes.
But here’s something I want you to think about:
What makes someone an athlete?
Is it someone who plays a specific sport?
Is it someone who goes out and competes in sports?
Or is it simply someone who wants to look and feel athletic?
When Bill and I first started IFAST years ago, this idea hadn’t totally crystallized in my head. But once it really started to sink in, I knew this was our unique focus on training.
But while this is what I wanted, it probably took some convincing of my staff, at least early-on.
How could an 80-year old woman who uses a walker perform power work?
Or why should a powerlifter perform mobility or conditioning work?
In my estimation, I want all of the clients that train at IFAST to train like athletes – regardless of whether they compete in a sport or not.
So without any further ado, here are the five physical qualities that all athletes should be training.
#1 – Mobility
One of the key differentiators between an athlete and someone who simply “works out” is a focus on mobility.
However, when it comes down to it, mobility is one of the least sexy aspects of a training program.
You may know it’s important, but are you following through and doing what needs to be done to either improve or maintain it?
The starting point for mobility begins and ends with proper breathing. I’ve done by best to illustrate this time and again, and it’s simply amazing how many “mobility” issues clean up once posture and position are restored.
But that’s only the starting point – a better question may be, where should we be getting our mobility from?
Some of the critical areas for me include:
- The ability to flex – to dorsiflex the ankles, the knees, the hips, the lumbar spine, the shoulders, etc. In this day and age of excessive extension, we have lost our ability to flex.
- The ability to rotate – through our hips and shoulders (the ball and socket joints), as well as our upper back/thorax.
- The ability to separate our hips – similar to the idea of hip flexion, but taking it a step further. The idea is to be able to flex one hip, while simultaneously extending the other.
Here’s a big takeaway:
Just like core work, proper mobility has to be addressed at multiple points along the way.
You don’t just “do some mobility exercises” to warm-up and then be done with it.
Instead, everything in your workout should be driving you towards improved (or maintained) mobility, taking care to ensure that you’re moving from the right areas.
Quite simply, mobility is one of the cornerstones of any athletic development program. But what else is out there?
#2 – Speed
If you’re an adult, think about this simple question:
When was the last time you went out and simply tried to run fast?
If it’s been a while, let me remind you: There’s something incredibly liberating about it!
Here’s the big issue, both with adult and young athletes alike:
Too often when it comes to speed training, athletes and coaches are a little bit too gung ho at the start, and it gets them into big trouble.
If you look at the forces involved, high speed running is vastly more stressful to the hamstrings than anything you can do the gym.
I’m glad you RDL, trap bar and do your Nordics, and yes, they’re all great exercises.
But I repeat, NOTHING you can do in the gym is as stressful to your hamstrings as high-speed running.
Now I’m not trying to scare you here, but I do want you to realize this. If you or your athletes want to run fast, then you need to build the body up in a systematic and progressive fashion.
If you want to incorporate more speed training into your programming, here are three things I think you need to “tick off” to make sure the body is ready to go:
- The general warm-up should be extensive. Yes of course you can and should be working on mobility in the warmup, but furthermore, make sure the body and its tissues are truly warmed up. When it comes to high-speed work, elevated tissue temperature is your friend (which is why most sprinters like to live/train in a warm weather climate).
- The specific warm-up should be gradual. After you’ve gone through the initial portion of your warm-up, the next step is the specific warm-up where you’re actually sprinting. But here’s a key – don’t just jump in and start running at 100%! Instead make it a slow and gradual build-up. The key is to run fast a few times, not to work on conditioning by seeing how many times you can run fast.
- The distances (especially early-on) should be short. Now that you’re warmed up and ready to go, don’t jump right in and test your 40-yard or 100-meter dash! Short distances are best to begin with, and gradually increase the distance you/your athletes sprint over a matter of weeks or months.
Speed work is a critical element, which leads us to….
#3 – Power
Much like speed work, power training is often an afterthought in many programs.
And furthermore, even if some athletes are training power, unfortunately, they’re doing it incorrectly!
Take for example the Olympic lifts. If you haven’t heard my podcast with Bryan Mann, at some point you need to listen because it’s instructive as to how good intentions can go very, very badly.
To summarize – Bryan and his staff want to use the O-lifts to improve vertical jump performance. Except when they start to look at the data, all of the signs are saying there’s no correlation between the two.
How can that possibly be?
How can an Olympic lift not transfer over to vertical jump performance?
It’s easy – they were training the Olympic lifts too heavily (with a bar speed that better represented maximal strength), and thus weren’t getting the power benefits they were looking for!
So the questions becomes, how do you build an athlete that is truly powerful?
It’s not only a great question, but a loaded one as well.
- What kind of power does this athlete need for their sport?
- What does their current force-velocity curve look like?
- What tools do they have access to in their gym?
Once answered, all of these questions will give us a better idea of what exactly we should be working on to make this athlete more powerful.
But at least initially, I think opening our athletes up to a broad array of power development tools is key.
Teach them to jump.
Teach them to throw medicine balls.
If you’ve got the time and skills, teach them elements of the Olympic lifts.
All of this brings me to one other aspect of training that we often neglect, that’s something of a sub-component of power training:
I don’t know about you, but for many years I totally neglected elasticity development. Even in my power training programs where I was doing the above mentioned things, I wasn’t addressing elasticity in my programming.
In this case, little things like low-level plyos and jumping rope could make a world of difference in the development of your athletes.
Okay so mobility, speed and power have all been covered, but I know what you’re thinking.
“Yo Mike – what about STRENGTH?!?!?!”
I’m glad you asked….
#4 – Strength
When it comes to athletic development, strength is absolutely a key.
However, at the risk of losing my “Cool Coach” membership card, I have to tell you this:
My views on strength have definitely softened over the years.
Is strength still a valuable tool?
One we should be addressing with the bulk of our athletes?
But at the same time, I’ve also come to realize that strength is often a means to an ends.
And the goal is NOT to see what kind of numbers we can push in the gym, but rather, to make that strength work for us on the field, court, or pitch.
Allow me to rant for just a second…
You see, for far too long, we lived by the mantra of “more strength makes a better athlete.”
As coaches (many of us who came from a powerlifting or Olympic lifting background), even if we intuitively knew our athletes weren’t O-lifters or powerlifters, we were still seduced by the idea of our athletes being freakishly strong.
But there’s definitely a point where continuing to push strength with our athletes is doing them a disservice.
At best, they’re losing valuable training time, where they could be working on physical qualities that would give them bigger returns on their training investment.
At worst, we’re doing things like slowing down contraction times to a point where they are no longer useful in their respective sport!
But here’s the thing – I can feel this growing surge of coaches who are spouting the new mantra that “strength isn’t important,” or that it’s not valuable.
Which is also laughable and brings us back to the world of “functional training” on Bosu balls and Airex pads we saw 10-15 years ago.
The more I think about it, the more I feel Loren Landow was on to something when he said that vertical jump (an indicator of relative strength) may be one of our best monitoring tools with regards to chasing strength.
With a high-level or elite athlete, building more strength may not improve their vertical jump performance. Instead, you have to get more specific with bar speeds, loads being used, etc.
However, let’s not over-complicate things either. We’ve known for years that getting a young athlete even a little bit stronger does wonders for both their speed and power development.
Teach them how to move well, load them up a bit, and watch what happens to their athletic development.
So please – don’t throw the baby out with the bath water here. Is strength valuable? Absolutely.
It’s just not the ONLY valuable thing we should be chasing with our training.
#5 – Conditioning
Last but not least, we have conditioning.
And when it comes to conditioning, too often what immediately comes to mind are the edges of the spectrum.
Either you’re doings balls-out, high-intensity fat loss intervals, or mind numblingly boring distance running.
But now that we’ve got better resources out there, I hope that as an industry we’re going to continue to get better with regards to our programming of conditioning and energy system training.
When you’re building a base, there’s absolutely a time and place for low-intensity cardio. Not only is it great for the cardiovascular system, but it enhances recovery and balances the autonomic nervous system.
If you want something a bit higher intensity, you can always go with high-intensity continuous training, or HICT. This is great for athletes that want (and need!) to be explosive for extended periods of time.
There’s tempo or oxidative lifting as well. Slow twitch fibers get a bad rap, but this is a great tool for both lifters and athletes alike.
And that doesn’t even cover the high intensity methods. I know and realize that athletes want to feel fast and explosive, and I’m not against high intensity work.
If you want to start incorporating high intensity intervals into your programming, start with a lower work time (~6-8 seconds), paired with a rest interval 5-6 times as long. Not only will this make sure that every bout is explosive, but it will tax the aerobic system as well.
There’s no excuse in this day and age not to have some conditioning in your programming.
Whether it’s longer duration cardiac output circuits or higher intensity intervals, find something that works for you and stick to it!
So there you have it – the five physical qualities all athletes should be training: Mobility, speed, power, strength and conditioning.
Now keep in mind, every athlete is unique, and not all of them need the same degree of each quality. A powerlifter doesn’t need the same amount of conditioning as a triathlete, and a soccer player doesn’t need the power or speed development of an elite sprinter.
But therein lies the art of coaching.
Make it a goal to develop more well-rounded athletes, and I guarantee you’re going to love the results!
All the best
If you want to regain some of your lost athleticism, I’d love for you to check out my Everyday Athlete training group.
In this program we’re going to help rebuild the athlete that many of us have lost over the years.
Registration is open through this Friday, so if you’re interested, please sign-up ASAP.