Exercising is different from training. Going to the gym or going for a run is great; you’ll definitely get in better shape by doing those things, but without a definitive result in mind, you’re not really training. To reach your fitness goals, you’ll need to start a training plan, maximize movement efficiency, and make your life more conducive to overcoming any obstacles that may get in the way of achieving results.
“One of the biggest pitfalls I see a lot of people make is they think showing up counts, and that does not work,” says Tony Gentilcore, C.S.C.S. and co-founder of Cressey Sports Performance in Hudson, MA. “Having a purpose in training makes a profound effect on everyone’s programming.”
Follow Gentilcore’s eight tips for improving athletic performance and put an end to “just going through the motions” once and for all.
1. Set a goal, choose a plan, and stick with it
Your fitness goals are up to you. It’s your call whether you want to burn fat, build muscle, improve endurance, get better at a sport, or a combination of these. If you’re serious about reaching your fitness goals, you’ll need to do more than just make it to the gym.
“Set performance-based goals rather than just saying ‘My goal is to go to the gym four days a week,’” says Gentilcore. “Whether it’s a 2 x body-weight deadlift, 1.5 x body-weight bench press, or a certain number of chinups, setting goals can make a profound impact on everyone’s programming.”
Gentilcore suggests strength training will help prevent injury and improve performance in athletes across disciplines.
“I’ve worked with endurance athletes and having that strength component in their training improves their running economy—it helps them transfer more efficiently, and prevents them from breaking down sooner,” says Gentilcore. “People can’t exercise or lift if they’re constantly hurting themselves, and strength training prevents that from happening.”
2. Train in the transverse plane
Human movement takes place in three planes of motion: the frontal (vertical plane divides body into front and back portions), sagittal (vertical plane divides body into left and right portions), or transverse planes (horizontal plane divides the body into upper and lower portions). To increase overall athleticism and help with movement quality, Gentilcore suggests incorporating more exercises that make you move in the transverse plane, basically anything rotational.
“People tend to stay forward/backward and up/down with their training, doing walking lunges moving forward or squats, which is more of a linear exercise,” Gentilcore says. “Exercises such as rotational med ball tosses, shot put tosses, and cable woodchoops with a hip rotation will get people out of their comfort zones.”
3. Schedule two movement days every week
For novice to intermediate trainees, do one movement day per week. On this day, Gentilcore has his athletes do a 15-minute circuit of 8-10 mobility exercises such as glute bridges, quadruped extenstion rotations, and lying windmill repeated 3-5 times, followed by 15 minutes of sprint work. More advanced athletes do two movement days per week, one dedicated to the mobility circuit and sprinting, and the other purely to sprinting. Here is a sample sprint workout from Gentilcore.
Sprint workout (Movement day)
- 10-yard knee skips
- Duration: 3 rounds
- 10-yard pushup and go (get into pushup position, explode up, and run 10 yards)
- Duration: 4 to 8 rounds
- Rest: 30 seconds between rounds
- 20-yard sprints from two-point stance
- Duration: 4 to 8 rounds
- Rest: 30 seconds between rounds
Of course, a novice/intermediate will rotate the direction that their movement will take place in during their movement days. These days we’ll sub out sprinting for more lateral movements such as lateral touches, lateral skipping, and other lateral-agility drills. For the advanced athletes, one movement day can be linear and the other lateral.
4. Work in this order: Big lifts, fillers, then supersets
Gentilcore says to start weightlifting workouts with a compound barbell movement, such as a squat, bench press, or deadlift. This first compound movement will be paired with a “filler” exercise which will address something that’s a problematic area, for example, a hip-mobility, core-strength, or glute-activation exercise.
“I’ll usually pair the first compound movement with a filler exercise because, No. 1, we’re still working on something of value, and No. 2, it’s not going to impede the next set of that big movement,” Gentilcore explains.
Here are some of Gentilcore’s examples of filler exercises for the squat, bench, and deadlift.
THE TOP 3 ‘FILLER’ EXERCISES
Bench press filler: Band pull-apart
Purpose: Shoulder stability
Deadlift filler: Glute bridge or One-leg glute bridge
Purpose: Glute activation
Squat filler: Adductor mobilization
Purpose: Opening up hip joint
After the main lift/filler combination, Gentilcore programs exercises in supersets. A superset is a pair of exercises that activate opposing muscle groups (dumbbell bench press and lat pulldown) with no rest in between exercises. Supersets can increase muscular endurance, size, and forces people to work harder in a shorter amount of time compared to straight sets.
5. Hit the back
Between sitting at a desk all day and placing too much emphasis on the mirror muscles (chest and arms), our back muscles often get missed. To avoid muscle imbalances and get the most out of every lift, schedule a back exercise every workout.
“Include some kind of upper back work every training session to help with posture,” Gentilcore says. “Hitting some kind of upper back movement such as rows or face pulls will have a lot of carry over to deadlifting, squatting, and benching performance.”
6. Train unilaterally
Unilateral training occurs when you only load one side of your body in an effort to improve stability, balance, coordination, and athleticism. An often overlooked benefit of single-leg or single-arm work is the strengthening of the core since tension increases in this area with more instability.
“There’s not any sport where you’re on two legs the entire time; you’re on one leg and changing direction, so I think making sure you’re including single-leg work, or off-set loading is essential,” Gentilcore says. “Loaded carries/farmer’s walks, where you hold a dumbbell on one side and you walk, teaches you to remain completely upright, which is going to be more of a core challenge. It’s great for conditioning.”
7. Track your progress and test yourself often
For endurance training, watches and apps are helpful tools to track your distance and pace per session. For resistance training, the old-school approach of a training log is popular but there are also apps for tracking weights lifted such as the weighttraining.com app and Fitocracy.
A heart rate monitor, whether it be built into your headphones, watch, or the classic chest strap, will assist in tracking exertion levels in any athletic activity.
Even if you’re on a set strength and conditioning routine, it’s important to test yourself to see how your body is reacting and how you stack up in other areas of fitness. Here are some of Gentilcore’s fitness tests he would spontaneously give clients.
4 spontaneous fitness tests
1. Total number of chinups possible (as many sets as needed)
2. Inverted ladder challenge
- 20 Kettlebell swings
- 1 Goblet squat
- 19 Kettlebell swings
- 2 Goblet squats
- 18 Kettlebell swings
- 3 Goblet squats
Continue decreasing swings until 1 and increasing squats until 20.
Test once, then test randomly a few weeks/months later.
3. Increasing the weight lifted on compound barbell movements
4. A mile run: try to decrease your time