A Case for Athleticism

It’s fantastic how quickly the online strength and conditioning community grows. 70’s Big started in 2009, and I’ve been coaching since 2005, but the number of athletes has never been larger. Powerlifters, weightlifters, CrossFitters, and general trainees range from the kid that never exercised growing up to the professional athlete. All of us have something in common: improving performance. Despite our intentions, most of us leave out critical components of athleticism.

CrossFit bills itself as the everything program. Almost ten years ago we talked about it in terms of a General Physical Preparedness (GPP) program. GPP programs have their roots in Russian sport science with respect to periodization. In Supertraining, Mell Siff describes that GPP “is intended to provide balanced physical conditioning in endurance, strength, speed, flexibility, and other basic factors of fitness” (pg 315). GPP was either followed by or performed congruently with Specialized Physical Preparation (SPP). This type of phase was commonly used in younger athletes who had not specified in a particular sport, but it could also be used as an introduction phase after a long off-season. Siff even points out how a hypertrophy (or muscle building) phase can be included with GPP. Historically GPP was used as a phase instead of a training paradigm.

We see trends of using phases in a variety of sport or competitive based events. Smart CrossFit competitors know they can’t train hard all year, and usually when their competitive season is over they’ll reestablish a training base or work on deficiencies in their fitness. Then their training will filter back into preparing for competitive events. This is almost ironic given how we used to consider CrossFit as a GPP program, but a large portion of its annual calendar forces most competitors to shift to a SPP approach in order to adequately prepare for “the open”.

What about those who don’t have an annual training cycle? Or don’t care about CrossFit or specific national events in a sport? It’s almost a negative stigma to not specialize in a type of competition, because not specializing likely means not performing to the utmost ability. For example, a guy recently wrote me asking why I did or didn’t compete in various sports and what my opinion is. And I think he honestly wanted to be blessed off on not specializing in order to dabble in several sports throughout the year.

Within the online strength and conditioning community – which includes the social media concerning CrossFit, powerlifting, weightlifting, etc. – there are general trainees. They want to be strong and fit, but don’t specialize their training because they don’t want to or don’t care to. There’s also the “applied fitness” trainee – a term we used in FIT to describe military, law enforcement, and people with active jobs. Applied fitness trainees often train for a reason and can’t specialize in order to preserve performance for work. In other words, they can’t afford to specialize.

Regardless of their reason for not specializing, it behooves these populations to maintain a broad proficiency. Nearly all exercises in “the big three”, CrossFit, powerlifting, or weightlifting, are linear in nature. A snatch, box jump, or squat require the trainee to face one direction without deviation. Even movements where the trainee’s feet move, like a box jump, Olympic lift, or burpee, do so in one direction. All of these movements are fantastic for building the capacity to be athletic, but doing them does not make someone athletic.

An argument could be made that a muscle up or snatch is an athletic movement – because they aren’t easy – but they are skills that require practice. I don’t want to get into a “Athleticism vs Skill” argument; it doesn’t have a clear delineation. Instead, I want to focus on how training for the big three competitions excludes important elements of athleticism such as reaction, lateral and angular movement, and change of direction.

John Welbourn said in 2013, “Athleticism only really becomes glaring apparent when you force an athlete to move in space as it relates to another competitor, task or obstacle” (Link).  I don’t know if I agree that this is the only time it’s apparent, but I do agree moving in space and reacting to a competitor, task, or obstacle is inherent in athleticism. Reaction is important and differs from an exercise because the conditions are in flux. During a squat or snatch, gravity is the only deterrent, but team sports with an opponent requires a player to react to an opponent or their actions. Moving in space and navigating obstacles is part of the definition of “mobility” we used in FIT. Movement in sport or reality is not simply linear and could be in any direction, often requiring an individual to change their direction. This might be like a juke, or it could be flowing into a room properly to shoot bad guys.

Ultimately, these are components of athleticism that aren’t included in training programs. If a trainee wants to remain or become athletic, these components need to be a part of the program because simply doing CrossFit, weightlifting, or powerlifting isn’t enough.

As with all training variables, new drills or exercises should be very basic. Add in ladder drills, particularly things like the Icky shuffle and two feet in each hole while moving laterally. Use cone drills, like the 5-10-5-meter shuffle, lateral shuffles, the L drill, or the M drill. Things like the M drill allow the trainee to open their hips and move at a 45-degree angle forwards and backwards, which is often neglected in favor of lateral work. A reactionary component could be accomplished with a square of cones, the athlete in the center, and another person calling the number of a cone. The athlete quickly moves to touch the cone and moves back to the center. This could be done for consecutive reps for time, which will satisfy the competitive nature of CrossFit training partners. Another classic reaction drill is the “mirror drill” from basketball or soccer where one athlete mirrors the movement of another. The athlete being mirrored tries to fake out or lose the other.

Drills like the ones above can be implemented as conditioning or before lifting after a general warm-up. Unathletic people can improve their athletic capacity, athletic people can maintain or improve theirs, and, most importantly, all parties involved will improve their soft tissue to prevent injury. For example, if the lifter or CrossFitter plays flag football in which they catch a pass and turn up field to sprint, and they haven’t done any short sprinting and movement drills, it wouldn’t be surprising to tear a hammy. In fact, this dumb ass author did such a thing in 2012. And in 2010 he rolled his ankle at the first CrossFit Football seminar after months of solely lifting. Getting hurt doing something simple definitely makes one feel unathletic.

Most trainees choose to specify their training into a particular sport or competition, but the truth is only a small percentage of dominant competitors need to do so to continue to win. Furthermore, for the applied fitness or sport athlete, they need to focus on building or maintaining athleticism for both the sake of performance and preventing injury. Spending a phase in the training year on performance and/or including drills on a regular basis to maintain or improve athleticism will truly make a trainee capable over broad modal domains. Simply add agility and reaction drills as conditioning or as part of a warm-up, and you can be more than just fit or strong; you can be athletic.

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How To Make A Training Session

Recently both of my younger brothers asked me to help them with a training program. One of the first “lessons” I gave them was how to organize a training session for a program oriented towards getting stronger, building size, and leaning out. Here is a quick guide on how to do so.

  • Begin with a general warm-up. This can be light calisthenics, walking, jogging, rowing, or biking for 2 to 10 minutes.
  • Do some mobility work. Massage or roll first, then stretch. Rolling the soft tissue helps loosen it up before trying to stretch on it. I’m going to remake a video o this soon, but hit the upper back, lower back, hips, and quads at a minimum. Joint approximation should be done last. The point of mobility before training is to improve range of motion to facilitate good mechanics — especially if the correct ROM of the exercise is limited.
  • Warm-up with the main lift you’re doing that day. That means start with the bar for a set of five and then progressively add weight until you reach the first set. As your warm-up sets go up, titrate the reps down. For example, if my first set was 225×5, I could do warm-ups like this:
    • 45×5
    • 95×5
    • 135×5
    • 185×3
    • 205×2 or 1
    • First set of 225×5
  • Do all of the work sets for the main lift of that day. Bodybuilding programs like to add unnecessary super-sets; to get stronger and bigger, do the compound strength movement first. Do it for 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps.
  • Now it’s time for assistance exercises. Do compound exercises before isolation exercises. Do the strength related exercises first; do the hypertrophy (or muscle building) exercises last. Do them for 3-5 sets of 5-10 reps.
    • Compound assistance exercises include pull-ups, rows, lunges, and dips. You won’t need much more than this.
    • Isolation assistance exercises include curls or triceps extensions. Don’t bother with leg curls or leg extensions.
Werner Gunthor lifted, sprinted, and jumped his way into your heart.

Werner Gunthor lifted, sprinted, and jumped his way into your heart.

  • Finish the session with high intensity conditioning. Conditioning should be something short and hard, just like your pecker. 30 seconds of running fast, 30 seconds of rest on a treadmill. Or 30 second bike sprint and then 30 seconds of easy pace. 50 to 150 burpees for time. 400m sprints. Some of the old benchmark CrossFit workouts like “Cindy” (you can cap the time at 10 minutes) and “Helen” are pretty good. Push a sled. Sprint up a hill. Running has a bad rap because it’s the worst fucking thing ever, but athletes need to sprint. You can’t look like an athlete without training like one. So, sprint.

There’s nothing flashy or sexy about how to organize a training session. Do something that looks like this three or four times a week consistently, sleep eight hours a night, and pay attention to not eating like shit, and any beginner will make progress.

If you’re interested in beginning diet information, read “Garbage In; Garbage Out” or “Improving Diet“.

No Secrets

I’ve been away for a bit, and when I look around at the realm of strength and conditioning,  I see the good and bad.

The good? The training population swells with eager trainees aiming for a bigger deadlift, a beautiful snatch, or a better metabolic engine. We have awesome lifters in USAW, raw powerlifting is surging, and thousands of people train instead of fiddling around with exercise. This is good.

The bad? Everybody’s an expert. Strength and conditioning is interesting because if a guy is good at doing it, he is not automatically good at teaching it. Athlete X accomplishes Y and then opens up shop for consultations and seminars. I’m not saying there isn’t room in the market, but a lack of knowledge in physiology, anatomy, metabolism, programming, etc. results in a disservice to the student and customer. This is bad.

It’s rare that any of the new information is profound. Organizing performance training isn’t complicated and there are no secrets. Consider the following:

– Perform large compound strength movements like squat, press, bench, deadlift, row, and pull-ups on a regular basis.

– Address mobility and muscular imbalance/weakness issues.

– Don’t do a stupid amount of volume and avoid most aesthetic-focused programs.

– Understand “met-con” or “high intensity conditioning” does not mean “consisting of retarded shit all the time.”

– Organize the training week to apply stress and give subsequent rest.

– First, specify to your needs, then your wants.

These are the tenets of performance training. Stick to these concepts and you won’t really need a glistening six pack telling you “IF IT FITS YOUR MACROS.” I understand the “How and why?” are your limiting factor. Now that I’ve knocked some rust off, I’m here to help. If I can’t stream the content out, I’ll at least be a bubbling brook.

Hybrid Weightlifting Programs

Everyone wants it all. CrossFit. Powerlifting. Weightlifting. All of it. Well, unfortunately the body doesn’t work like that. The more performance metrics you aim for, the more you limit the development of one of them; this is the concept of specificity in training.

Sometimes you have weightlifters who want to get stronger, jacked. Some times you have lifters wanting to dabble in weightlifting. Sometimes they just want it all. Well, here are a few resources for hybrid weightlifting programs.

I couldn't find out who this is, but it's a sweet pic

I couldn’t find out who this is, but it’s a sweet pic

Pendlay’s Super Total Program

This is Glenn Pendlay’s answer to how he would structure training for both powerlifting and weightlifting. I like the template. It allows for decent squat work, benching, overhead work, and still leaves room for two weightlifting days. The first weightlifting day is lighter and technique oriented while the latter is a heavier day.

70’s Big – Transitioning to Olympic Weightlifting

I wrote this a long time ago for myself and some of my lifters. It’s similar to Pendlay’s program above, but the weightlifting day comes before the strength day. This allows the lifter to be fresh for the quick lifts at the expense of the squatting and pressing. Also, the set/rep scheme for the Olympic lifts is a bit different. The weightlifting sessions are set up where one of the lifts is done with light to medium weight while the other lift is heavy. There are all kinds of different set/rep schemes, including the newer ones from The 70’s Big LP that could be dropped in.

Another note about this template — it’s what I always recommend to strength athletes who are getting into weightlifting. Without fail, they will jump into a program where they snatch and CJ three or more times a week only to run into some kind of joint issue. Whether it’s sore knees, hips, elbows, or shoulders, I see it every time regardless if they are weak or strong. Do yourself a favor and use the “progressive overload” concept of programming and ease into new training.

Another 70’s Big Transition Program — 3x/week

This is just a 3x/week adaptation of the previous 4x/week program.

What are some other hybrid weightlifting programs you’ve used? Have any others to add to the list?