How to Develop the Athleticism You Need for the Activities You Love

We all know that one guy who’s naturally good at whatever sport he decides to try. Maybe he’s not the best—he’s not going to beat LeBron James the first time he steps on the basketball court or anything—but he’s pretty good without even really trying. (And if he put in effort, he just might catch up to LeBron).

He’s a natural athlete.

Some people are natural athletes. For the rest of us… we can still develop athleticism.

Is athleticism something you’re either born with… or not? If you’re not naturally gifted, does that mean you should give up any dreams of achieving a passable amount of athleticism?

I’ll level with you. You don’t become LeBron James without hitting the genetic jackpot (along with extremely hard work). Most of us do not have those natural athletic gifts, but then again, most of us also never need to reach that level of athleticism.

There is a level of athleticism, though, that is absolutely achievable with a smart approach, even if you’re just a recreational “sportser” or weekend warrior. Let’s look at how to develop that.

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The Pyramid of Preparedness

Everyone skips over the basics. This is just as true of sports and physical endeavors as it is of almost any other area of life (relationships, careers, other hobbies or pursuits).

We think that, to get good at the thing we’re trying to achieve, we have to skip ahead and try to do that thing at the most advanced or complex level we can, forgetting the old adage about not being able to build a strong house unless you’ve got a strong foundation.

Athleticism in any specific sport is built through a pyramid of preparedness:

At the bottom, the foundation of the “house” is General Physical Preparedness (GPP). This is the most important part of the structure, and even someone with a natural aptitude for athleticism will need to build this layer if he or she wants to become a top athlete in a particular sport. GPP is what everyone needs, regardless of athletic pursuits.

Next, is Specific Physical Preparedness (SPP). This level is essential for developing the attributes and movement patterns needed for your specific sport. Every athlete, recreational or otherwise, needs SPP.

Finally, at the top of the pyramid, we have Sport Specific Preparedness (SSP). This does not involve additional training beyond practicing your specific sport. For high level athletes, because they already have strong levels of GPP and SPP, this is probably where they need to be spending most of their time, under the guidance of a coach. If you’re a recreational sportser, you’ll still need to be spending most of your efforts on building up your GPP and SPP. And if you’re not training for any specific sport, SSP doesn’t need to be part of your training at all.

Let’s look at each of these layers in more detail.

General Physical Preparedness (GPP)

This foundational level is all about making your body healthy and functional for your day-to-day needs. You can’t start chasing athletic dreams without this basic level of function.

That’s not to say you need to “perfect” your GPP before moving on to the next level, and some people can mistakenly think that and take their GPP work too far. If you’re doing things right, you’ll build basic proficiency at this level, and keep coming back to it at every stage. You never “graduate” from the basics.

So, what’s involved in working on GPP? There are different approaches, of course, but in our view, in comes down to building these basic attributes:

Strength—You need to be strong enough for the things that matter to you. For some, this may mean absolute strength, for others it may mean strength endurance or conditioning. The type of strength may change depending on what kinds of activities you do, but everyone needs strength. Everyone. Flexibility/Mobility—If you have trouble getting into the positions you need to in your daily life or in your sport of choice, you need to be working on your flexibility. A functional exercise program that doesn’t involve some flexibility work for those who need it (and most of us do) is not very functional at all. This doesn’t mean that you have to stretch for hours every day. Control—This is the missing link in most programs, and it’s what allows you to have control over the strength and flexibility you’re building. Motor control isn’t just one thing; it encompasses other attributes like balance, speed, coordination, and precision. In an athletic context, motor control is what allows a gymnast to stick a landing, or a martial artist to spar safely with a training partner (without fear of injuring the other person). And in daily life, having a good level of motor control means you have a better chance of sprinting down the stairs to catch the subway without falling and hurting yourself, or being able to maneuver your body through the front door while carrying groceries in one hand and your screaming toddler in the other.

Building a foundation of these attributes is going to help you in whatever it is you want to do, whether that’s a particular sport or just getting through your day without too much trouble. Our Elements program focuses on building all three attributes together

Specific Physical Preparedness (SPP)

The next stage of preparedness is where you start getting more specific with the exercises and movements you’re focusing on, to be more geared toward the particular activity or sport you’re practicing.

One mistake people make at this stage is they think the goal is to take something from their sport and try to replicate that movement in the gym, making it more challenging or complex, in an effort to improve that movement. So, for instance:

A golfer might try to work on her swing with a weighted club.Or, a runner might attach a band to his waist to create resistance while sprinting.And, another great example is this BJJ practitioner replicating BJJ movements with resistance in the gym:

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These approaches would seem to make sense on the surface—of course, replicating those movements in the gym is going to make you better at those movements in your sport, right?

The problem is it doesn’t really work that way.

You can’t actually replicate those movements outside of the sport because there are so many other variables you can’t account for.

In the golf example, doing the swing with a weighted club completely changes the mechanics of the movement and will not translate into better golf performance. In the running example, adding that resistance actually puts the runner into bad form and will only hurt his performance. And in the BJJ example, without the unpredictability of a training partner’s resistance, these replications don’t actually make you any better at those movements when faced with a training partner.

What will translate into better performance, though, is drilling into the movement patterns that are specific to your sport and working on improving those (without trying to replicate movements from your sport).

As Ryan demonstrated in the video, the six most important movement patterns for most sports are:

Pushing—This includes exercises like push-ups, dips, or any other movements where you’re pressing forward or upward. The real life application is any time you need to push something heavy (say, your broken down car out of the street). In sports, this comes up a lot in martial arts where you may need to push your opponent, and in football (the American variety) where you need to tackle and push people forward. Pulling—Many people neglect exercises that emphasize pulling, like pull-ups, chin-ups, and the like, but these are super important for improving posterior strength (in the back side of your body). In real life, you need strength in your pulling muscles for lifting heavy things off of the ground or pulling your kid on a sled through the snow. Sports like rowing or climbing involve a lot of pulling strength.Squatting—If this list were in order of importance (it’s not), squatting would be right at the top. You need to squat throughout your day probably way more times than you even realize, and being stronger, more mobile, and more controlled in that position can only help you. My favorite story is of a client of ours who was a plumber and found that improving his squat had a huge impact on his ability to work comfortably. Obviously, in a sport like powerlifting, squatting is essential.Rolling/Rotation—For most people, rolling hasn’t really been a part of their routines since they were kids doing somersaults on the playground. But knowing how to roll properly can protect you if you ever fall, and it can improve your spatial awareness for all sorts of other daily activities. Parkour, gymnastics, and BJJ are probably the best applications of rolling in sport, but the spatial awareness built through rolling applies to pretty much any sport. Twisting—Movements that have you rotating your body to one direction or the other are essential for improving your control and coordination. Every time you have to rotate your body in the car to back out of your driveway, or quickly turn and run to catch up with your kid in the park, you need that control over rotation to be working well. In sports like golf or baseball, it’s all about that rotational force. Locomotion—It’s a bit inaccurate to call locomotion a “movement pattern” because it really encompasses all of the above in some way. Being able to crawl around on the ground comfortably, though, is a fundamental part of moving well in your day-to-day life (think about how many times you find yourself having to get down on the ground to reach something under your bed or the like). And because locomotion is so good for building the key attributes of strength, flexibility, and motor control all at once, there’s a pretty clear transfer to just about any sport.

Our Sequences develops your ability to move with confidence and intention in fast-moving athletic environments. You build balance. Spatial awareness. Strength at any angle. All culminating in fluid, agile movement across all your activities.

Sport Specific Preparedness (SSP)

The top of the pyramid is SSP. This is where you practice your actual sport, working on perfecting your technique for that sport. Often, this will be happening under the guidance of a coach or instructor.

For instance, coming back to that golf example, here’s what this might look like:

Once you’ve built a strong foundation of strength, flexibility, and control (and the other sub-attributes that are important for both your day-to-day life and your golf performance), you’ll keep coming back to that foundational work, but more in “maintenance mode” once you’re pretty proficient.You’ll add in work to address the movement patterns needed for your sport. For golf, that will be a lot of rotational work, along with some pushing and pulling.Now it’s time to take that out onto the green. You’ll probably practice your swing thousands of times, picking apart your technique so that you can work on better drive through the hips, rotation through the foot, power through the arms, etc. You may have a coach who helps you pick apart these different aspects of your technique, or you may just video yourself and work on those details yourself.

This is what most pro-athletes need to be spending the bulk of their time on. They need to be perfecting their technique as much as possible.

For the rest of us, the goal is to be able to do the sports or activities we love with ease, without fear of injury, and with a passable level of performance. We don’t need to be the best, just good enough to keep doing what we enjoy.

So, of course, we’ll still spend some time improving our technique in our sport, and you want to be spending most of your time doing your sport, but in terms of your training for your sport, you’ll get a lot more bang for your buck from the GPP and SPP work. That work will help you build up the attributes and movement patterns needed to be able to do your sport in the way that is most beneficial for you.

What Most People Need for Athletic Performance

For 99% of people reading this, you don’t need to try to master the ways of the pros. You probably don’t get paid to be the best at any sport, so what really matters is making sure your body is ready to handle the activities you love most (not to mention those you need to do for your day-to-day life).

You need a good base of strength, flexibility, and control for anything you do—that’s the base level any of us needs for general health and function.

Then, depending on what activities you’re into, you’ll need to spend a fair amount of time working on the movement patterns that are important for those activities. We designed our Elements program to help you build athleticism through most of the essential movement patterns for most sports or activities.

You’ll improve your strength and mobility in the squat and push patterns, and you’ll develop agility through the rolling, rotational, and locomotor patterns.

And then, you get to do what you really want to do: your sport of choice.

Build strength, flexibility, and control

With Elements, you’ll build a foundation of strength, flexibility, and control, setting yourself up for the kind of dynamic agility that leads to confident grace and seamless movement in virtually any environment.

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