10 Ways to Train Like a Professional Athlete

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Take your fitness to the next level with these 10 ways to dominate on the field and in the gym.

Two top professional sports trainers share how to build muscle, gain speed, and increase agility so you can quickly improve athletic performance—no matter what your sport is.

1. Relax & release

Myofascial release is deep-tissue work that deactivates painful muscle knots and adds suppleness to your body. You can do this yourself by using a foam roller, lacrosse ball, softball, golf ball, or massage stick. “Make smooth passes and if you happen to feel a knot or tightness, roll out that point for a little to get that specific area to relax,” says Joe Kenn, C.S.C.S., head strength and conditioning coach for the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. “That muscle group is going to fire when you’re doing your movement.” Having tight glutes will hinder your ability to squat, bend, and jump,” Kenn adds. Do tissue work before workouts to prepare for action and post-workout for recovery.

2. Activate your muscles

Bands do wonders for your body. Muscles contract and react to the band’s resistance, which gives you the ability to stabilize joints. Kenn suggests a vertical pull to activate muscles after self-myofascial release. “Stand on a band, grab it with two hands, do a front raise all the way up over your head, then drop the arms to midlevel to form a T. Raise your arms back up overhead, do an overhead shrug, go back to mid-level, and repeat.”

3. Turn the lights out

When you sleep you slip into an anabolic (muscle-building) state that’s optimal for growth. “Your ultimate goal would be a quality night’s sleep between seven and nine hours,” says Kenn. “If you have a full work day ahead of you before you go to the gym, I would highly recommend a minimum of seven hours of sleep,” he adds. Whether you train in the morning, at night, or both, be sure to get some quality zzz’s.

4. Focus on compound movements

Compound movements such as power cleans, squats, overhead presses, and deadlifts use multiple joints at once—more muscles are used, so more muscle can be gained. Kenn recommends ground-based movements. As the name suggests, these are moves that have your feet on the ground for majority of the time; your body learns to absorb and apply force through the ground. “In terms of squatting, I would rank the front squat as No. 1 because it puts you in a more upright posture which is more conducive to the position that you’ll get in for most starting stances [in sports].” Get low and perform the moves with correct technique for full-body strength gains.

5. Get jumping

To improve performance in your sport or in the gym, you have to do exercises that make your movements more explosive. “Jumping will transfer into sports with a vertical component,” says Kenn. “If you work on your jumping and landing mechanics, that will have a high carryover if you’re a basketball or volleyball player.” Kenn suggests squat jumps, box jumps, and quick vertical jumps (least amount of time on the ground possible) to improve athleticism.

6. Buddy up

Training with a partner or in a group creates a competitive environment and facilities a “get it done” attitude. “It makes you accountable to someone besides yourself, as well as the inherent competition that takes place when you train with a partner,” says Joe DeFranco, C.P.P.S. “A trainer should be the one designing and implementing the program to ensure that the athletes aren’t just training hard—they’re training smart, as well.” Consult a certified personal trainer about your workouts and train with other athletes to be your best.

7. Get more H2O

Drinking enough water is critical for your muscles to function optimally during exercise and sports. “Fascia is aqueous and largely comprised of water, so if an athlete lets himself get dehydrated, it can have huge implications on his performance,” says DeFranco. “When we’re dehydrated, the sliding surfaces between the fascia and other structures become glued down.” For high-performance athletes, DeFranco recommends multiplying your body weight times 0.6 to get the number of ounces you should drink each day.

8. Time Your Rest

“Paying attention to rest intervals and allowing full recovery will improves maximal outputs, which enables them (athletes) to operate at a higher level,” says DeFranco. “Maximal output is defined as the maximal force that you’re able to produce when conditions are optimal. And rest periods must be complete to ensure quality,” he adds. Let the speed and quality of your athletic performance determine how long you should rest between movements.

9. Get an Active Recovery

“The worst thing for stiff, sore muscles is to do nothing at all, and one of the best ways to speed up the recovery process is through brief, low-intensity “extra” workouts,” says DeFranco. “You can do things as simple as going for a walk, a 15-minute dynamic warmup, or upper- and lower-body sled dragging variations.” These extra workouts increase blood flow without the soreness associated with eccentric contractions. Put in a little extra work to prepare your body for what’s next.

10. Gear Up

Pack your gym bag with the right training equipment before you lift or prior to traveling so you’re always prepared. DeFranco suggests keeping a lacrosse ball, foam roller, bands, and gymnastic rings. “Gym bag essentials will enable you to stay on track, regardless of where you have to train,” he adds.  

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