The 5 Pillars of Athletic Training
The world of strength and conditioning advice is full of impossible promises and complicated programs and methods. Every athlete presents a unique challenge and every coach will create their program with a different set of experiences, priorities, and biases. The differences are beautiful. They not only drive innovation in the world of athletic training, but also drive the world of competitive sports as every team and individual will train for their sport specific demands in a unique way.
While the differences in each training program address the specific needs of the trainee, there are undeniable pillars of an optimal training system. Every program should be built on these 5 immutable laws of strength and conditioning.
Pick Up Heavy Things Often
You must lift heavy things often to gain physical strength. High-level athleticism stands on a foundation of work capacity. Nothing trains overall work capacity like heavy loads. Heavy means truly heavy, near the peak of your physical abilities. There is a time and a place for studio-style fitness classes, but if 5lb dumbbells and 10lb kettlebells are the only weights you ever move, your training falls far short of providing a necessary stimulus for strength gain.
Set a goal to move something heavy every day. Lift, carry, push, or pull a load that makes you truly uncomfortable. Only when you push your strength limits do you stimulate an increase in bone density, connective tissue strength, and overall work capacity. You do not need to attempt a one-rep-max lift every day, but challenge your physical strength with heavy carries (farmer’s carries, suitcase carries, front rack, or overhead), lifting heavy objects like stones, sandbags, or logs, dragging or pushing heavy sleds, or the classic lifts such as squats and deadlifts.
Picking up something heavy every day does a lot more for your body than build muscle. [Photo credit: CrossFit]
Hip Hinge and Triple Extension
The hip hinge is the method that the human body uses to generate maximal power. If overall strength is the cup that athleticism fits in, speed and power are the main ingredients for creating a strong cocktail of athletic prowess. All athletic movements require power that originates from the core (and a strong hip hinge) that radiates out to the extremities.
Training the hip hinge and triple extension (a coordinated and fluid extension of the hips, knees, and ankles) with speed develops power. The kettlebell swing and the Olympic lifts offer the greatest training effect for the hip hinge. Focus on speed in these movements and engagement in your posterior chain, particularly your glutes.
Power in your hip hinge and an awareness and connection to your posterior chain are the two greatest assets you can develop as an athlete. Your posterior chain is the primary mover in nearly all athletic movement, yet our modern lifestyles leave us hopelessly out of touch with its true potential.
Sprint often and value your sprint training analogous to the “pick up heavy things” rule from the first pillar. Just as you need to challenge your work capacity near the peak of our abilities, you need to challenge your speed and turn over near your physical limits.
The sprinting pillar exists as a subset of training hip hinge and triple extension, but presents such a dramatic benefit in its own right to deserve a rule of its own. For this discussion, I consider maximal running and jumping as sprints. There is simply no substitute for sprinting and jumping. Kettlebell swings and power cleans are the best developmental tools for power, but the triple extensions required to run your fastest or jump your highest have no training equals.
Incorporate running sprints and maximal jumping efforts into your training often. The distance, heights, and relative amounts will vary by athlete but maintain a focus on maximal efforts. When running, focus on distances that you maintain your maximal turnover cadence. Running downhill or pulled by a faster partner will supercharge this stimulus by pushing you into ranges at the limits of your fast-twitch capabilities.
When jumping, focus on heights (for box jumps and vertical jumps) and distances (for long jumps and broad jumps) that require nearly maximal efforts to achieve. Always include ample rest between all efforts. Remember, your focus for this area of your training should remain on nearing (and expanding) your physical limits, not on overall work capacity.
Cycles of Tension and Relaxation
Athletic performance and vibrant health both depend on the ability to switch on and turn off effectively and at the right moment. This rule applies to a micro scale within the range of certain movements, but also to the macro scales of rest between sets and rest days between workouts.
Think of the requirements of hitting a baseball or returning a tennis serve. The athlete must go from a state of relaxation to full engagement in an instant. If they were too bound up and tense they would never be able to position themselves to connect or return volley effectively. Yet if they could not switch on completely and instantly, they stand no chance of offering an effective counter move. Soccer players must cycle back and forth between full sprinting efforts and complete relaxation or they would never remain effective for an entire 90-minute match.
Practice cycles of relaxation on every scale to develop your athletic abilities:
- Within a Movement: During a kettlebell swing, recognize and utilize the ability to release your body tension during the “float” phase to more effectively engage during the hinge phase.
- Between Sets: While resting between sets of movement, practice an active recovery strategy known as “fast and loose.” Actively rest and recover by walking to moderate your heart rate, jiggling limbs to release tension, and focus on deep, slow, belly breaths to encourage full body relaxation.
- Rest Days: Use active recovery and mindfulness strategies to optimize your rest and recovery days. Mellow jogs, swims, bike rides, or paddles offer a perfect combination of low impact and restorative movement with a moving meditation. Tai chi, qigong, and yoga present even better ways to mindfully connect with your body and movement. Use targeted mobility and flexibility work and myo-fascial release techniques (both self-applied and from practitioners) to aid in recovery.
All high-level movers - yogis or dancers, Olympic lifters or gymnasts - share one key characteristic: a deep connection and awareness to how they move and feel. No matter how you train, maintain a mindful awareness to how you move and the physical sensations that you experience. Seek a coach or training partner that can offer a keen eye to your movement. Always strive to improve efficiency in your movement quality and mastery of your body.
Learn the type of sensations that you should experience during a particular movement and use drills and props to develop them. Train sensations rather than movements. Maintain a mindfulness practice outside the gym to develop as an astute observer of your thoughts, emotions, and physical condition. If you truly want to move well, you need to develop an intimate relationship with your body.
Sweat the Details, But Remember the Pillars
We can so easily fixate on the specific details of our program. These details are the key for world-class athletes, yet a diligent focus on the fundamentals brings most of us far beyond the athleticism we desire. Have fun with the details of your program, but make sure that your training is built on the five pillars of strength development.
Once you understand the big concepts, the details take care of themselves: