As the head strength and conditioning coach for ten different sports teams, I've worked with athletes of all shapes and sizes. Believe me when I tell you: all of them—even the most elite—want to get more results in less time. I help them do that. How? I change their workouts to focus more on what matters for athletic performance.
Whether you're a hard-working newbie who's looking to crack the starting lineup, or an all-conference standout who wants to make your game razor-sharp, here are 10 ways to improve your training program. Follow them and you'll get stronger and perform better on the field—no matter what your sport.
Train the posterior chain
Too many people spend too much gym time working on the "beach muscles"—chest, arms and abs. That may help you look good, but if you want to play good, what really matters is your posterior chain: hamstrings, glutes and back. These are the muscles responsible for jumping, sprinting, and other powerful movements athletes must perform. So let the poseurs hog the Bench Press while you opt for exercises like Deadlifts, Kettlebell Swings and Hip Extensions instead.
Avoid rehab through prehab
It's impossible to know whether and when you'll get injured on the field, but history shows that athletes of certain sports tend to experience certain types of injuries: ankle and shin pain for runners; neck injuries among football and rugby players; shoulder problems for volleyball, tennis and baseball players. Stay ahead of the curve (and away from the scalpel) by training the areas of your body most at risk from the activity. Runners should incorporate four-way ankle work into their training; collision sport athletes should develop neck strength; and athletes performing overhead motions (like volleyball, tennis and baseball players) should do shoulder prehab exercises like shoulder internal and external rotations.
Record your workouts
Wait, was that five reps or six? Did you finish that third lap in 71 seconds or 75? For recreational athletes and weekend warriors, the numbers may not matter much, but if you're training to the best of your ability, you need to track your results to the best of your ability. Translation: write down everything. Record your times for drills and sprints, and note how much weight you lifted and how many reps you performed during each set. This not only boosts your confidence by showing your progress, it also gives you a distinct goal to beat in each new workout.
Perform a dynamic warm-up before your workout
The five to 10 minutes spent on proper warm-up could be the difference between being stuck on the bench with an injury or having an outstanding season. A dynamic warm-up gets your body ready for the demands your training session will place on it. (Just be sure to steer clear of the 5 Ways Athletes Screw Up Their Warm-Ups.)
Stretch before and after a workout
A good dynamic warm-up will have some short, dynamic stretches. After your training session, you want to work on longer-hold static stretches, which can help stave off soreness and improve muscle flexibility over time. Why does flexibility matter? The National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) states that "decreased flexibility results in more work required for limb movement, which then decreases speed/force of a muscle contraction, which results in decreased performance. Also decreased flexibility decreases joint range of motion, which causes altered movement patterns that decrease performance."
Focus on form, not weight or reps
You may think you look cool when you're slapping big plates onto the bar, but lifting more weight than you can handle is a big mistake—and it can be downright dangerous. There's no faster way to strain or tear a muscle than to place too much of a load on it. And even if you don't get hurt, acting tough with a too-heavy weight is counterproductive to your development as an athlete. Why? By sacrificing technique to perform the exercise, you hamper your body's range of motion. That range of motion ensures your muscles are being developed correctly, and that your joints are working properly. Cheating form during the move allows bigger muscles to compensate for smaller muscles, and can put your joints at risk in the process.
Perform compound movements, then isolation movements
Every workout I put someone through starts with a compound movement—an exercise that requires more than one joint and more than one muscle group. For example, lower-body workouts should begin with a full-body movement like a Squat or Deadlift, and gradually progress into an isolation movement (an exercise that targets one muscle group), like Hamstring Curls.
Work opposing muscles groups evenly
This rule is perhaps the most simple, yet it's the one people break most often. Too many athletes get in a habit of training their favorite muscles (like their pecs or quads) and neglect equally (if not more) important opposing muscles (like the lats or hamstrings). Listen, if you perform five sets of Bench Presses, you need to balance that with five sets of rowing exercises. In fact, I tell my athletes to do even more pulling moves, because most people already have an imbalance, with shoulders that are rounded forward from poor posture. To fix this, we need to strengthen the upper back by performing exercises like Rows.
Allow your body to recover
The rest you get between workouts may be even more important than the workouts themselves. Why? That's when your body makes repairs to the damage you inflict on your muscles during training—making those muscles stronger in the process. So you should aim to get at least eight hours of sleep a night. Have at least a couple of days per week when you're not training to allow your body to build itself back up for your next workout. Make sure to eat a meal with quality protein and carbohydrates after your workout and perform soft tissue work by foam rolling at least once a week.
When it's time to train, train hard
I saved the best for last with this tip. It doesn't matter how good of a program you are following, or how many of the other nine upgrades you make to your training; if you're not pushing yourself, you'll never reach your full potential. Something I tell my athletes and myself is to treat every workout like it's your last.
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