How to Be a Better Athlete

Regardless of our goals, we all want to be a better athlete. Nothing is more gratifying than simply dominating your opponent and being the one everyone wants on the team. Whether you are trying to make the varsity football team or even just trying to score some extra points in a pick-up basketball game, you need the proper training and nutrition to excel in your sport.

You need a program built for you to run faster, get stronger, jump higher, and to increase endurance. It doesn’t matter your age or gender. It doesn’t matter if you strive to dunk the basketball, run faster on the track, or hit that home run. No matter the sport, it begins and ends with specific exercises and meals to maximize your athleticism. You could possess all the skills in the world. However, if you aren’t reaching your peak athleticism then it will be next to impossible to truly excel at your sport.

#1 – Do Your Compound Exercises

Bodybuilders and fitness enthusiasts incorporate a lot of isolation exercises into their workout regimens. Although isolation exercises can offer some benefits for athletes, most of your program needs to focus on compound exercises. Unlike isolation exercises, compound exercises target more than one joint and muscle group. You are recruiting more muscle fibers throughout the body since you are training more muscles at once. The more muscle mass stimulated during an exercise, the more testosterone and human growth hormones are released in the body. Since compound exercises work many muscle groups at once and recruit the most muscle fibers, you’re getting even more of these muscle building hormones. More of these hormones mean you will run faster and get stronger. You will become a more explosive athlete who can jump higher with even more endurance. In sports, you need to jump, cut and explode at any given moment, using several muscles and joints at the same time. If you are just isolating one specific muscle group at a time then your body won’t develop as a whole. Training your body as an inseparable unit is how you bring about balance, as you’re using the body the way it was meant.

The most injury prone athletes are the ones who are exercising on the machines and doing isolated movements. The athlete becomes injury prone due to the fact that machines balance the weight for the user, which doesn’t properly target the stabilizing muscles. Wear and tear is greatly reduced if the stabilizer muscles are strong. Stabilizer muscles also reduce energy waste as muscles get to work more efficiently. That means you get a better balance and coordination as well as speed and power. We are not bodybuilders. We are athletes. Athletes need their muscles to work together while bodybuilders win competitions by their aesthetic look alone, regardless of what their muscles can do when it comes to strength and performance. As an athlete, you can’t just do the same types of compound exercises. You must learn and incorporate all the necessary movements. Let’s start with the upper body.

There Are 4 Movement Planes:
  1. Vertical pushing
  2. Vertical pulling
  3. Horizontal pushing
  4. Horizontal pulling

That may seem complicated, so let’s just break it down into upper body push and pull.

An example of a push would be a bench press. An example of a pull would be barbell bent over row. It is important to balance your push and pull exercises, so you do not develop an imbalance between your push and pull muscles. Doing both of these movements is great at developing more functional strength and muscular balance. It trains the muscles to get stronger at every angle. This is great to reach full strength and as a deterrent to future injuries.

Now on to lower body.

Leg exercises are divided into two groups:
  1. Quad dominant
  2. Hip dominant (Part of the Posterior Chain)

An example of a quad dominant exercise would be leg press while a hip dominant exercise would be the deadlift.

Most athletes focus on quad dominant exercises, which creates a terrible imbalance between the quadriceps and hamstring. If you are more quad dominant, the quads will want to do what the glutes and hamstrings should be doing. This imbalance can cause injuries and slow you down. It can prevent you from running faster, being stronger, jumping higher and increasing your endurance. You can develop a hamstring strain to something more complex like chronic back pain. As quad dominant athletes, we have extremely tight quadriceps muscles, hip flexors and hip rotators. Your glutes are weak and ineffective, almost like a light with the dimmer turned way down. This imbalance can be the primary reason for lack of speed and quickness in your game. Balance and mobility must be restored first, which comes with balancing the quads and hips.

#2 – Better Squats Make for Better Athletes

As mentioned, you must do your compound exercises. However, squats should form the basis of your compound lifts, especially for your lower body. Better squats make for better athletes. It’s that simple. Let’s examine 5 reasons why squats can make you a better athlete:

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1) Run faster and get quicker:
    Squats train the quads, hamstrings, glutes, and calves to produce more ground reaction force and will increase the entire core musculature. This will increase speed and quickness into sports-specific movements on the field or court.
2) Increase vertical and jump higher:
    Your quads and hamstrings are your primary thrusters. But if you want to jump even higher, it’s equally important to strengthen assisting muscles- your calves, the muscles around your hips, and your glutes. No better exercise is better at strengthening these muscles than the squat.
3) Builds stronger abs:
    Squats depend on the ability of the core to stabilize you throughout the full range of motion. The core keeps the weight stable during squats and is constantly being stimulated by the weight placed on the entire body. Greater core strength means better sports performance. We’ll discuss more about that below.
4) Even more testosterone and human growth hormone:
    The body produces testosterone and growth hormones based on the amount of muscle fiber recruited. As stated, compound exercises provide the most testosterone and human growth hormones. Out of all the compound exercises, squats recruit the most muscle fibers so the maximal amount of testosterone and human growth hormones are being increased in the body. This means even more strength and muscle.
5) The best way to train the posterior chain:

The posterior chain makes up some of the most important muscles for any athlete. The posterior chain is made up of muscles in the rear of the body, including the hamstrings, glutes, lower back and calves. These muscles play a major role in any athletic movement like running, jumping, throwing, etc. No exercise is better at strengthening the posterior chain than squats.

#3 – Sprint, Sprint, Sprint!

Sprinting will clearly help you run faster and get quicker. Those are the obvious reasons why athletes who already sprint in their sport should continue to train that way. Nevertheless, it may be not so obvious for those athletes who participate in sports like tennis, golf, volleyball, rowing, mixed martial arts, baseball, dancing, skiing, gymnastics, etc. Here are the 5 reasons why you need to sprint to excel as an athlete:

1) Train fast to be fast:
    Not only will you be able to run faster, but you’ll also be able to move and react in an explosive manner. The ability to produce power, which is developed through sprint training, can be directly expressed through other skills such as hitting a baseball, jumping for a rebound, or kicking a soccer ball.
2) Develops coordination on multiple levels:
    Sprinting requires the movement and coordination of multiple body parts at once. Being able to control your body at such high speeds is an essential ability that can be used in virtually all sports.
3) More muscle and strength:
    Just compare an Olympic sprinter to a marathon runner. An Olympic sprinter is completely jacked and powerful. A marathon runner looks frail and weak. Sprinters maximally contract their muscles, which require a lot more work from their bodies than a long distance run. In addition, there is more testosterone and growth hormone being released with short, maximal energy busts. Sprints can increase natural HGH production by as much as 530%! During sprints, there is more fast twitch muscle fibers being utilized, which is directly correlated to gains in lean muscle mass and strength.
4) Improves VO2 Max:
    Most sports are made up of constant sprints and explosive movements. Besides your muscles, your lungs must also be trained. Sprinting is the best way to improve your VO2 Max. Your VO2 Max is a measure of the body’s ability to take up, transport, and utilize oxygen. The higher your VO2 max, the greater the ability to produce energy aerobically, which will increase your endurance.
5) Specifically develops athletic muscles:
    Sprinting forces the athlete to recruit and produce contractile velocities in the hip and knee extensors at speeds and eccentric loads that would be nearly impossible to achieve with any other training activity. These are some of the muscles most utilized during athletic competition.

#4 – Put More Emphasis on Core Training

Many athletes define the core as the abdominal muscles. While they are certainly part of the core, it also includes the pelvis, flank (basically the sides from armpit to hipbone), back, spine and hips. It’s not just where your six-pack may or may not appear. Athletic movements are a chain reaction starting from the ground up. The scientific term for this is kinetic chain.

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If we look at throwing, for example, the kinetic chain starts at the feet and the energy travels up through the core and out through the arm to the ball. Any weak links in the chain- such as in the core- can cause many problems such as a decrease in velocity or movement. This can affect performance and may even lead to injury due to overthrowing. Increased core strength leads to increased balance, something especially important to those whose sport involves kicking a soccer ball or football (for kickers and punters). For runners, a strong core helps keep the pelvis properly aligned and also improves one’s running economy. A wrestler needs a strong core to be hard to turn over or be controlled. A strong core is needed in every sport. You cannot excel as an athlete without a strong core. It’s where all your power and explosion originate. The core is the foundation and base of your entire muscular structure.

#5 – Consume the Proper Nutrients at the Right Times

As athletes, since we train more than our less-active peers, we need extra calories to fuel both our sports performance and our growth. If we don’t eat the proper meals or simply don’t eat enough, our bodies are less likely to reach peak performance and may even break down rather than build up muscle. Therefore, it is imperative to time your eating across the course of a day to optimize your body’s response to training and recovery. You need proper glycogen storage and protein synthesis and this can only be achieved through the proper nutrition. Carbohydrates are an athlete’s main fuel. They are converted to glucose, a form of sugar, which is stored in muscles as glycogen. When you exercise, your body converts glycogen into energy. Therefore, the vast majority of your diet should come from carbohydrates. Protein does not provide a lot of fuel for energy, but it is essential for muscle growth and repair. An athlete should consume about 1.5 grams of protein per pound of bodyweight. So if you weigh 180 pounds, you should have 270 grams of protein per day. Athletes need to include some sources of fat in their diets. Our bodies need some fat to help absorb fat-soluble vitamins, provide protection for our internal organs, and provide insulation. Not to mention, fat provides the highest concentration of energy of all the nutrients, especially for pure endurance athletes. However, fat is slow to digest and will take time to be used as energy. In addition, fat uses up a great deal of oxygen to be converted into energy. In general, it’s not a great idea to eat fat immediately before or during intense exercise.

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The most important rule for any athlete is to eat frequently. You need to eat every 2-3 hours during the day. When you do this, your metabolism skyrockets and your body knows food is coming. It can use the food you eat as readily available energy opposed to storing it as body fat for energy later. The three meal mantra is done and outdated. When you eat infrequently, you tend to overcompensate for what you really need. You may eat more food in fewer meals, making it hard for the body to properly digest all that food at once as energy. Instead, this can all be stored as fat. In addition, when your body goes more than four hours without eating, it stops burning fat (instead of holding on to it) and catabolizes your muscle to be used as energy. We don’t want to use muscle as energy for obvious reasons. We want to use fat and carbohydrates. As athletes, we need a constant supply of energy to excel on the playing field and this should only be used through fat and carbs. Out of all the meals you should eat during the day, breakfast and the post-workout are the two most important meals for athletes. So you probably get between 6-8 hours of sleep a night. That’s a long time to deprive yourself of food. Your body needs a consistent supply of nutrients to build muscle and to maintain proper functioning. When you are sleeping, your body goes into starvation mode since you aren’t eating anything. As a result, your body triggers a natural defense mechanism that decreases the amount of fuel it burns in order to conserve energy. Your body uses up its glycogen stores (carbohydrate stores), which are found in the muscles and liver. Therefore, when you wake up, your body is tired and less able to function. When you “break the fast,” you replenish your body with glycogen stores that boost the body’s metabolism. Besides giving you physical energy, breakfast has been proven to improve memory and cognitive functions, essential elements to an athlete’s game.

The main rule of thumb is to always consume protein and carbohydrates immediately after a workout. The biggest mistakes athletes make is that they consume fats as well. You need to stay away from fats for at least one hour after exercise. Simply put, fats slow down the digestion of protein and carbs. Your post-workout meal should be designed to promote the most rapid delivery of protein and carbs. As a result, fat should be avoided during this time because it can limit your muscle growth and recovery. Protein provides the amino acids necessary to rebuild muscle tissue that is damaged during exercise. Carbohydrates are stored as glycogen in muscle cells. During exercise, the glycogen levels deplete and an intake of carbs is needed to replenish the body. Neglecting carbs immediately after exercise could result in muscle breakdown and added fatigue. You need the necessary insulin spike after you train and this can only be achieved through the consumption of carbs. Insulin “opens” cells up to the nutrients in the blood stream and ensures that the muscle cells uptake the glucose and amino acids for muscle growth and recovery.

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