How to Turn Every Client into An Athlete

Let’s face it, most personal trainers, physical therapists, and strength and conditioning coaches have a burning desire to work with athletes. 

But, why?

Maybe it is because working with athletes is associated with a higher career status; such as collegiate programs or professional sports.

Maybe it is because you think you have more options with the types of methods you can utilize.

Maybe it is because there is something exciting being associated with individuals who can express high levels of speed or move heavy loads.

Most of us will likely not be working with high level athletes, but let’s try to brainstorm ways in which we can make all of your clients more athletic despite having limited sport or training history. 

What are the qualities that athletes possess that we want in our clients?

How can we coach our inactive clients to be more athletic?

First, we need to define athleticism. Athletes are individuals who can adapt to tasks required of them in various situations, both in sport and other types of physical activity. An athlete is an individual who can be thrown into a baseball game and swing with confidence, field a ball, and throw with accuracy. Then, minutes later,  this same athlete can  jump on a soccer field and perform for 90 minutes, kick a soccer ball with accuracy, and pick up tactics of the game. Athletes can express both confidence and competency in various physical situations and demands. This definition of an athlete differs from individuals who just play one sport or are masters in one realm. Specificity limits adaptability. 

We are going to define athleticism as the combination of the following SIX distinctive qualities:  

#1 – Ability to successfully act in response to a stimulus

Athletes possess a wide range of predictive abilities. Athletes can react quickly and accurately to an unpredictable demand, as compared to inactive clients that struggle to predict where an object is travelling and where their body needs to be in space in relation to that object (hand-eye coordination). Athletes have a greater ability to place their body in an appropriate position after judging the speed and distance to a location.

#2 – Possesses a wide range of intensity and force production capabilities

Athletes possess a wide range of intensity and force production abilities. For example, if you ask an athlete to jog and sprint 10 yards, you will see a dramatic difference between the two paces, as compared to an inactive client’s pace looking very similar. 

#3 – Express confidence and accuracy of perceived capabilities

Athletes possess a wide range of perceived capabilities. Athletes are confident in their skills and movements, as compared to inactive clients who are usually unconfident, scared, and hesitant in their movements. Inactive clients may even have high levels of fear associated with movement(s), especially those that are perceived as harmful or novel. 

#4 – Ability to link movement patterns to produce coordinated gross movements

Athletes do not possess some unknown, fantasy movement patterns or skill. However, the previous qualities listed above combined with their ability to link movement patterns and skills together is how their movements outshine our general population clients. There is no difference in isolated movement patterns- a high level athlete may look exactly the same as Joe from down the street doing a squat or lunge. The difference is the ability to layer on the other five qualities, move through all planes of motion, stances, and linking movements together to produce coordinated gross movements such as gait, throwing, changing directions, changing levels activities. 

#5 – Possesses motor skills that translate to varied demands (attractor states)

Athletes possess high levels of coordination and body awareness. Athletes have a great understanding of where their body is in space and how to execute smooth, accurate, controlled movements. Inactive clients can have difficulty feeling certain parts of their body or balancing to execute a controlled movement. Athletes have high levels of motor skill acquisition or attractor states (motor skills that translate to varied demands). Athletes have the perception and understanding of their whole body in space and have an ability to put their body where it needs to be.

#6 – Possesses a wide range of bioenergetic capabilities (capacity and repeat efforts)

Athletes possess a wide range of bioenergetic variability. Athletes have a wide threshold between feeling comfortable and uncomfortable with an elevated heart rate, body temperature, and blood pressure. Inactive clients have a narrow threshold and do not possess large aerobic capacities and anaerobic repeatability. This quality may also support the ability to utilize both fats and carbohydrates as fuel sources. 

Formulating strategies to support inactive clients improving these qualities can help them gain confidence, competency, self-efficacy, and prevent muscular atrophy with aging. 

However, the qualities are not purely physical. Programming and coaching strategies can also help individuals overcome psychological and emotional limitations that create barriers for improved fitness, such as a reduction in self-perceived physical limitations, movement avoidance, and fear of failure. Consideration of non-physical qualities can help facilitate effort, perseverance, adherence, consistency, learning, and higher rates of progression. 

Now, it’s time to revamp some exercises and start implementing programming and coaching strategies to build athletic qualities in your inactive clients.  

Athletic-Style Programming Strategies

Add sequencing and contrast pairing into your program design as a strategy to progress intensity within a set of similar movement patterns. Pair together slower, force production-based exercises with faster, velocity-based exercises. This strategy will increase recruitment of type II muscle fibers, improve carry over of motor skills from static to dynamic, and promote relative high velocity training methods. 


Sequencing is pairing 3-4 exercises together of similar movement patterns. Sequences are a great way to emphasize a particular theme or movement pattern. This particular strategy is useful for learning, gaining strength, gaining speed through motor fiber recruitment within a movement, and being exposed to a full spectrum of the force-velocity curve all within a brief period of time. 

Example includes: Pair a loaded lateral squat with a lower loaded step to side and return. Those two movements then can be paired with lateral separate jumps and continuous lateral jumps.

The sequence is initiated by a force production biased 2 KB Lateral Squat.

The sequence then pairs a Lateral Step emphasizing the push back from the lateral squat, adding speed to the lateral squat movement pattern while removing load.  

Followed by bodyweight separate repetitions of Heiden Jump.

Followed by continuous repetitions of a Heiden Jump, maximizing the speed demands.

An example also includes: Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat ISO Hold paired with Oscillation Reps paired with Jumps:

Contrast Pairing

Contrast pairing is putting together two exercises with the first being biased towards force production, and the second being biased towards speed/high velocity. 

Example includes: Trap Bar Deadlift paired with a band assisted jumps.



Progress with Speed Over Time or Within a Set 

Progressing within a set maximizes learning, as a client is now able to layer context within a motor skill quickly. For example, program a static, slow, controlled cable chop for a few reps followed immediately by a few fast, powerful chops. 

In the above video, the Dynamic Cable Chop is performed in a split stance static position for a few slow and controlled repetitions bringing the cable in a diagonal pattern. Then the final few repetitions are performed at a fast rate to get the individual to move the cable as fast as they can. 

Progressing over time can improve long term learning and layering the quality of speed on top of a specific movement pattern. You can start by programming a static, slow, and controlled exercise to a dynamic, quicker exercise over the course of a few weeks’ time or block of programming.

For example, weeks 1-2 of a program you can prescribe a ½ Kneeling Landmine Press. 

Weeks 3-4 prescribe a compound exercise such as Split Squat to Landmine Press adding changing levels to the press. 


Then weeks 5-6 prescribe a dynamic exercise such as a Landmine Push Jerk adding a quick dip and drive upward. 

Create Checklists and Checkpoints

Checkpoints allow me to know if my clients are getting results and attaining adaptations, while checklists allow me to sustain those results over time with frequent exposure. I use checklists within my programming to make sure I am including the variables I deem to be important and qualities to maintain over time.

Then, I  create a feedback system by embedding checkpoints into my programs to make sure I am doing what I set out to do.

Creating a weekly checklist is useful to support the inclusion of both targeted, potent strategies and sustaining adaptations over time within your programming. You can also use the checklists in designing your programming template to provide you guardrails for your exercise selection decisions making.

I have a list of 5 programming components that I include every week in every client’s program for athleticism. I may choose to emphasize one variable over another but each variable is always included.

 My weekly programming checklist includes the following:

  1. Relative high intensity, force production activities including max to sub max strength performed at low volumes
  2. Speed within various methods to encourage effort, high velocity movements, and the intent of moving quickly performed in short durations, low volumes, and within repeatable efforts
  3. Aerobic endurance activities that are long duration, cardiorespiratory capacity building activities including interval training strategies or strength endurance density blocks. I program density blocks to track if clients are able to perform more work in a given amount of time or perform a given amount of work in less time. Density blocks include 4-5 exercises with a given amount of repetitions and the client is instructed to complete as many sets as possible within a given amount of time 10-20 minutes). You can also fix the number of exercises and reps then ask the client to perform a given amount of rounds (3-5) as fast as they can (time the duration).
  4. Exposure to all three planes of motion and various stance positions
  5. Activities that include a rotational component such as alternating exercises or medicine ball throwing

Creating bi-weekly checkpoints are useful for testing and retesting. Checkpoints are a strategy to make sure you are accomplishing what you are setting out to do. Checkpoints are to ensure that adaptations and goals are being met and to determine if interventions are fulfilling their specific intent. Programs should include embedded testing every 2-6 weeks. 

My programming block checkpoints include, but are not limited to:

  1. Movement assessments
  2. Tracking duration of time to complete sets (Density Block)
  3. Number of sets completed in given amount of time (Density Block)
  4. Three to 5 repetition maxes (max strength) or 15-20 repetition maxes (Strength endurance)
  5. Total Volume
  6. AMRAPs

Dose of Reality 

Above are several examples of programming strategies to improve athletic qualities and I made all the exercises in the videos look easy. But, let’s get real, most clients do not look like that. 

What about your inactive clients who will not jump or refuse to leave the ground?

I have many clients like that. What do I do with them?

Here are some specific exercise selection and programming strategies that I use to make my inactive clients more athletic:

#1 – We stand up fast or we bounce and stand up fast to change directions vertically with intensity. I coach a hard exhale and teach my clients to push the ground away with these exercises. The client then learns to stand up quickly which provides an activity they can successfully complete at relative intensity. 


#2 – We throw medicine balls A LOT in various stances and prioritizing rotational components.


#3 – We play games. All games can be progressed with added speed of a moving object, distance have to travel to reposition the body for a moving object, and added unpredictability. 

#4 – We learn to skip and in LOTS of ways: Lateral, dead leg variations, A-skips, soft skips, forwards, backwards, for height, and for distance. 

#5 – We work on hand-eye coordination.



#6 – We remove the barbell for power development exercises. 

The foundation of Strength & Conditioning as a profession has deep roots in the SPORTS of Olympic Weight Lifting and Powerlifting.

Our accreditation institutions, academic education, and common expectations involve the use of a barbell as a staple tool for improved strength and performance.

However, the Hang Clean, Snatch, Back Squat, Bench Press (specifically with low back arch) are the ways in which you either win or lose in those sports.

Of course, there are aspects of these exercise modalities that are valuable in understanding how to make people stronger and faster. However, their level of specificity also comes with consequences that on-field athletes and general population clients often do not need to take on.

We can extract the useful concepts of these modes of training and then adapt them to different contexts,such as how to support athletes in other domains and how to get an inactive client to gain confidence moving with speed and building strength.

Let’s step away from tradition and rethink some useful tools to support coordination training with resistance, help multidirectional athletes improve quickness and power outputs, and  general population clients progress into dynamic movements:




#7 – We take away the barbell and add more alternating and unilateral exercises to get clients making gains while also moving better. More on single leg exercise variations HERE.


#8 – We perform both short and long duration intervals as session finishers.

Repeat effort example: Continuous Rocker Repeat Stand Ups for 12 second with 24 second rest for 6 sets. Other options include Alternating Step-Up Jumps, Medball Slams, Tall Kneeling Medball Slams, Rear Foot Elevated Pulse Hops performed at high intensity for short duration.

Capacity Building example: Tall Kneeling Continuous Chest Pass for 40 seconds with 20 second rest for 5 sets. Other options include cardiorespiratory machines, Ankle Hops, or Medball Lateral Continuous Chop Throw performed at lower intensities for longer durations (greater than or equal to 40 seconds).

Athletic-Style Coaching Strategies

Coaching strategies for developing athletic-style programs focus around matching the language with the action. Be consistent and deliberate with the name of exercises, descriptions of technique and cues. Athletic-style coaching is speaking and behaving in a way that matches the intent with the execution.  

Match the Language with the Action

  • Cues provide attention. If you want someone to move with speed use cues that place intent on that quality. Examples include “quick”, “break the wall with the medicine ball”, “push the ground away hard”.
  • Cues provide context. If you want someone to move within a plane of motion, use cues that provide a connection to that plane. For example, for the sagittal plane use “exhale, tuck, and reach” cues, for the frontal plane use “push yourself over to the other side”, for the transverse plane use “coil” as a cue to connect with rotation. 
  • Word selection provides emphasis. Within your programming, indicate if an exercise should be ‘controlled’, ‘static’, or ‘dynamic’. The word ‘static’ refers to maintaining a stationary position while performing the exercise. The word ‘dynamic’ refers to having the intention to move with speed while performing the exercise. 
  • Name your exercises differently based on the desired execution. If you want to develop more athleticism, choose words that emphasize speed and aggressive execution. If you want a rotational medicine ball slam to be performed in a controlled manner, name it a ‘rainbow slam’, if you want it to be explosive and executed with maximal effort, name it an ‘explosive slam’.
  • Become the athlete. Demonstrate an exercise at the speed in which you want it to be performed. 

Progress Speed with Language

Transition your cues and exercise labelling week to week to match the speed progression. For example, week 1-2 use words associated with static movement and controlled positions such as  ‘technique’, ‘set position’, ‘step’. These words associate the exercise the client is performing with slow, controlled movement. 

Week 3-4 use words that emphasize more effort and moving towards dynamic movement such as ‘step’, ‘push away’, ‘drive’, or ‘quick’. Week 5-6 use words associated with explosive movement such as ‘speed’, ‘punch’, ‘hit’, ‘push’. These words associate the exercise the client is performing with quick, powerful movements. 

Positive Reinforcement

Movement can also have fear associated with it through emotional and psychological components. The first priority as a coach would be removing that fear. If a client is nervous about movement, their capacity for learning will be lowered, as well as their ability to continue through failure, and their ability to progress is lowered.

Coaching should involve quality moments and experiences to produce positive memories. Including both subjective and objective measures to determine your effectiveness is important. Subjective measures include having a vision towards a greater trajectory, such as a positive relationship with exercise. You can not control a complex system, you can only facilitate and influence, so put your effort into empowering. 

As a coach, you want to use positive reinforcement to avoid associating failures with negative emotions. You want to control how clients associate an experience with emotions, as much as you can. You want clients to build resiliency through failing, but then continuing on with their training. You do not want to teach your clients to become fearful of exercises or movements.  

You may have the best intentions, but the aftermath of poor communication may lead to fear of movement or movement avoidance. Words provide context, create a story, a way to rationalize, carry limitations, threaten, carry possibilities of capabilities, and can create safety. Learn more about building resilience through language HERE. 


In order to get our inactive clients moving more like athletes, we need to determine what qualities athletes possess that differ from our inactive clientele. Then, we have to formulate ways to implement these qualities into both our programming and communication strategies. 

To create more athletic-style programming take the following qualities into consideration: Widen range of intensity capabilities, improve perception of capabilities, develop movement foundations, improve body awareness, wide range of bioenergetic variability, and create process oriented habits. 

Develop efficient and effective programming and communication strategies to facilitate more athleticism:

  • Be creative with exercise selection in order to allow your clients to express speed within their relative abilities and allow room to progress
  • Create a weekly checklist to include athletic qualities variables within your programming each week
  • Create programming checkpoints to keep track of progress
  • Change the name of exercises on your program to drive intent
  • Be descriptive with your cues and demonstrations 
  • Progress with speed throughout your program (week to week) OR within a set
  • Pair exercises together to target more fast twitch muscle fibers and support faster movements
  • Be positive with your language to improve client’s perception of their abilities and self-efficacy 

Now, you will always be training athletes! 

Want to learn more about programming and coaching strategies?

The next Strategy Course Group Classroom begins February 8th 2021. The MBT Strategy Group Classroom includes weekly content designed to provide YOU with the skills to identify, formulate, and implement YOUR own training methods. We will work together to build principles and have weekly calls to problem solve. You will turn your knowledge into a full principle-based training system. At the end of the experience, you will have confidence in your ability to get your clients the results they want. You will gain like-minded friends and a mentor that will continue beyond the 8 week course.


AUTHOR: Dr. Michelle Boland

  • Owner of Michelle Boland Training
  • PhD in Exercise Physiology
  • Instagram @dr.michelleboland
  • Email: [email protected]
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    Thank you for the sound scientific and pristine academic approaches to your PT coaching.

    You proffer new exercises for classic foundational movements — push, pull, lunge, hinge, squat, rotation / core — within all 3 planes of motion with athleticism and gentle plyometrics, best for our compromised and aging PT clients.

    And in so doing, slowing down the “dual devils” of aging — gravity’s inevtiable “sag” and sarcopenia.

    Thank you, Dr. Boland!

    You are as EXCELLENT a PT as Dr. John Rusin!!

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