Building an athletic body requires a bit more than picking heavy things up and putting them down. Here’s how it works.


Two days ago I was playing soccer with a group of guys. It was nothing serious – just a fun park pick-up game.

One of the dudes in the group was in seriously good shape. He was obviously more built, more ripped and more muscular than any of the rest of us – seriously impressive looking specimen.

But when it came to actually playing the game, he was an entirely different beast.

He could awkwardly run forwards, albeit a bit more slowly than the rest of us. Worse yet, he couldn’t move side-to-side to save his life. He could barely run backwards without nearly falling over his own bulky thighs. He couldn’t jump and couldn’t stop, pivot and kick, much less lift his arms to throw in an out-of-bounds pass.

In other words, he was all “show” and no “go”. He looked like an athlete, but certainly couldn’t perform like one.

And here’s the deal: when it comes to making your body look better by toning, curving and carving a killer physique, there’s a big problem with most fitness programs – they make you look good, but in the process you lose your speed, power, mobility and athleticism.

So you suck at sports, don’t move well, and even sacrifice looking good when doing things like clubbing, dancing, or moving gracefully.

But what if you could have the best of both worlds? What if you could look like an athlete, and perform like an athlete too?

Can a workout for show muscles also give you functional go muscles and help you to become a better athlete?

The answer is yes, and in today’s article, you’ll get the best workout to not only get a better body, but also to become a better athlete.

What Type of Workout Program Helps You Build an Athletic Body?

There are a variety of different muscles and movements that all sports generally use, and these are the perfect place to start when it comes to getting a functionally athletic body that “shows and goes.”

The the most common movements that can you can replicate in a gym or exercise setting include:

  • Jumps – Feet leaving the ground and jumping into the air, such as a rebound in basketball. Exercises include box jumps, bounds, skips, hurdles, side-to-side jumps
  • Slams – Throwing something towards the ground very hard, such as a tennis serve. Exercises include medicine ball slams, tire sledgehammer swings, elastic band fast pulls
  • Twists – Turning the body, such as a baseball swing. Exercises include medicine ball side throws, cable torso twists, side planks, carioca shuffles.
  • Throws – Throwing an object overhand, such as an inbound throw in soccer. Exercises include medicine ball overhead throws, cable wood choppers.
  • Tosses – Propelling an object underhand, such as a softball pitch. Exercises include underhand medicine ball toss, tire flip.
  • Lifts – Lifting an object off the ground, such as a log throw. Exercises include deadlift, sumo deadlift, medicine ball “cannonball” throws.
  • Changes of Direction – faking and cutting in football. Exercises include cone drills, shuffles, mirror drills, ladder drills.
  • Double Leg Strength – Pushing with both legs, such as a rugby scrum. Exercises include front, back, or overhead squats.
  • Single Leg Strength – Pushing with one leg, such as running, hiking, or a basketball layup. Exercises include single leg squat, split squat, step-ups, lunges.
  • Vertical Pulling – Pulling from overhead, such as rock climbing, gymnastics, or swimming. Exercises include pull-ups or lat pull-downs.
  • Horizontal Pulling – Pulling to the midline of the body, such as rowing. Exercises include barbell rows, seated rows, single arm dumbbell rows.
  • Vertical Pushing – Pushing to overhead, such as swimming or throwing. Exercises include overhead dumbbell or barbell presses, handstand push-ups, dips.
  • Horizontal Pushing – Pushing in front of the body, such as football blocking. Exercises include bench presses, incline presses, push-ups.
  • Core Flexing – Flexing the abs, such as following through after a tennis serve. Exercises include hanging leg raises, crunch and sit-up variations, V-ups, rollouts, planks.
  • Work – Moving the body, such as running, sprinting, rowing, or cycling. Exercises include treadmill, bike, row machine, elliptical, sled pushes, sled pulls.

What is the Best Workout Program for Building an Athletic Body?

Now that you know how to identify muscles and movement, and the best range of exercises to use, you can put it all together to create the best workout to build a better body and to become a better athlete, no matter which sport you’re wanted to participate in.

While creating a specific workout for every single sport is beyond the scope of this article, you can guarantee that you’ll be able to perform quite proficiently in just about any sport on the face of the planet if you can include each of the movements listed above in a few workouts a week.

For example, for a full body, three times per week workout using the exercises above, you could perform the following:

  • 5-10 minute dynamic warm-up with leg swings, arm swings, skips, bounds, hops, foam rolling, etc.
  • 1-2 sets of 6-10 reps of each of the following, performed as either a circuit, or with 60 seconds to 2 minutes recovery after each exercise:
    • Vertical Pulling (i.e. pull-up)
    • Vertical Pushing (i.e. overhead press)
    • Horizontal Pulling (i.e. seated row)
    • Horizontal Pushing (i.e. incline bench press)
    • Double or Single Leg Strength (i.e. squat)
    • Lift (i.e. deadlift)
  • 2-3 sets of 6-10 reps of any or all of the following, performed as either a circuit, or with 60 seconds to 2 minutes recovery after each exercise:
    • Slams (i.e. medicine ball slams)
    • Throws (i.e. medicine ball throws)
    • Tosses (i.e. medicine ball underhand throws)
    • Jumps (i.e. double leg box jumps)
  • 3 sets of 12-15 reps of each of the following:
    • Twists (i.e. cable torso twists)
    • Core flexion (i.e. hanging leg raises)
  • At a separate time of day, or on your “non-lifting” day, do your moving and conditioning exercises – which include treadmill or cycling intervals, rowing, swimming, sprint repeats etc., preferably with time lengths and rest intervals that are close to what you’ll experience while playing your sport.




As you can see, a functional workout to build an athletic body and to improve sports performance is a bit more complex than a basic, muscle gain, bodybuilding-style workout.
But when implemented properly, a functional workout routine can not only help you run faster, jump higher, and push harder, but also keep you from getting injured and from looking silly the next time you join into a pick-up basketball game, decide you want to pick up soccer, tennis or golf, or want to hit the dance floor.

chris walkerAuthor, ex-bodybuilder and Ironman triathlete Ben Greenfield blogs and podcasts about biohacking, muscle gain and fat loss at He has just written the book “Beyond Training”, which teaches you how to achieve amazing feats of physical performance without destroying your body or metabolism.

If you have more questions about how to build an athletic body that shows and goes, leave your comments below!