5 Ways to be a Bigger, Better Athlete

Posted by Jason Ferruggia

It’s almost impossible to imagine it today, but there was a time, many years ago, when athletes avoided strength training like the plague for fear that it would make them slow and “muscle bound.”

Fortunately we have long since discovered that that was a myth and nowadays just about every athlete on the planet, from tennis players and golfers to football players and wrestlers, participates in some type of strength training program. This is frequently talked about by the announcers and highlighted in pregame videos.

How the sporting world has changed over the years…

Strength training making you slow and “muscle bound…”

What a joke, huh? Those numbskulls back in the 50’s and 60’s really had no clue. Talk about ignorant. Imagine how much better they all could have been.

Pretty sad, right?



Except for the fact that it’s true. They were right.


Yup, strength training, the way many people practice it, can absolutely, positively turn you into a big, slow, “muscle bound,” good-for-nothing, dummy.

I can not tell a lie.

Listen, many athletes want and need to get bigger. So building muscle is an important focus of the off season training program. But the one thing you absolutely can not do is use any type of bodybuilding method. That is a surefire way to ruin your athleticism.

What exactly do I mean by that? Like I said, athletes are not bodybuilders. The training is not even remotely related. If you use bodybuilding methods with an athlete the chances are he will move more like Jay Cutler the Mr. Olympia competitor and less like Jay Cutler the NFL quarterback.  And I can’t imagine that being a good thing.

That’s because bodybuilding training increases your body’s ability to store glycogen locally in the muscles. This extra fluid storage can not contract or produce force. Therefore it is utterly useless. All it will do is slow you down and gas you out.

Ever notice how a lot of the biggest, most jacked up, muscular fighters seem to gas out rapidly? You always hear the announcers talking about how “those big muscles blow up.”

Guys who train with bodybuilding methods get massive pumps just doing some light yard work or scrambling a few eggs.

Sure, that’s great if your only athletic endeavor is applying Pro Tan or hitting double bicep shots at the beach. But if you actually want to be able to run a few plays or fight for more than a few seconds without blowing up and gassing out you need to steer clear of that type of tissue. For the athlete it’s as useless as extra bodyfat.

Athletes need to focus on myofibrillar hypertrophy without the increased ability to store glycogen. In laymens terms myofibrillar hypertrophy simply means real, dense contractile muscle tissue. This type of muscle can produce force. Therefore it is not actually just weighing you down. The other stuff is just like putting slabs of Play Dough on you and will turn you into a big loser on the playing field.

Now, I know some people will want to get into semantics here and argue that any hypertrophy will lead to strength gains and that is true. But IN THE WEIGHT ROOM. Strength gains in the weight room are different from performance gains on the field and are not always directly related.

Read on for five ways to build muscle without actually taking away from your athletic ability in the process.

1.    Don’t use slow tempos- For a strength coach to recommend slow tempo training to an athlete is almost criminal. To become explosive and powerful you need to exploit the stretch reflex, not negate it. That means lowering the weight quickly and rapidly reversing direction, exploding through the lifting portion of the exercise.

2.    Don’t allow your sets to last longer than 20 seconds, on average- Years ago I used to think power athletes should never do more than six reps per set. And while there is nothing inherently wrong with following this rule, I’ve found that for some people the lack of variety can become a bit boring. So I now allow athletes to go as high as ten reps per set (sticking to six to eight is probably better in most cases, however), on  a small amount of assistance work, as long as the total duration of the set doesn’t last more than twenty seconds. That means each of the reps has to be fast and explosive.

Keeping the time under tension short requires you to avoid failure like the plague and stay away from those slow grinding reps that so many people are so fond of.

Maximal strength work will always be done for 1-5 reps, but some assistance work can be done in the range of 6-10 with explosive execution as long as the set doesn’t last more than 20 seconds, total.

3.    Don’t do straight sets- Arnold, Flex Wheeler, Ronnie Coleman; they all do straight sets of an exercise before moving on to the next one. So they will do four straight sets of an incline dumbbell press before moving on to the next exercise of the day. Then do four more straight sets. This type of training is great for accumulating fatigue and, again, improving your body’ s ability to store glycogen in the muscles. I recommend that athletes alternate sets and go from one exercise to the next and possibly even to a third exercise. This will give you a longer rest period for specific muscle groups which allows for a higher quality performance on each set. It also negates many of the factors that contribute to that bloated tissue that can’t contract.

For example, after your maximal strength work on say standing military presses, you might rotate through chins, dips and glute ham raises for a few sets of 6-8 reps with 45-60 seconds rest between each set.

4.    Don’t use maximal voluntary contractions (MVC), constant tension, drop sets, super sets or any other bodybuilding techniques- Sometimes bodybuilders will tell you to squeeze the muscle as hard as you can throughout the set. Other times they will tell you never to lock out the reps so as to keep constant tension on the muscle.

Both of these things are all well and good. I would even recommend them to older or beat up lifters just trying to look good and stay healthy. But if you want to be explosive and powerful you need to ignore all of this advice. Forget about squeezing the muscle and maximizing the pump. Just be explosive and get stronger week to week. That’s all that’s important. And locking out your reps is not a bad thing. It allows you to use more weight and get some oxygen to the muscle between reps. But if you do lockout, remember to keep the sets under twenty seconds.

As for super sets and drop sets, see number one on this list.

5.    Use a full range of motion- If your goal is just to build size it’s often advantageous to use a limited range of motion on certain exercises. As an athlete, however, you can not take this risk. You need to train the muscle through its full range of motion so that you develop strength and flexibility simultaneously (flexibility without strength in that range is useless) and don’t become tight and “muscle bound.”

So there you have it; five ways to build muscle without ruining your athleticism and becoming a big, silly, bloated dummy in the process.

For more info on how to become a dominant gridiron warrior check out my newly released Renegade Strength & Conditioning For Football. It’s only available til this Saturday then I’m pulling it til next spring.

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