Athleticism Part II: Get More & Make it Better


In the last post I discussed the big, powerful idea of athleticism and what it looks and smells like. Here are what I believe to be the essential pillars of athleticism and a few ideas on how to expand your own athletic base. In no way have I covered every angle of this vast concept, but I hope I’ve touched on a few useful ideas.

  • Full, pain-free range in the joints:
    • Full movement of our joints is a prerequisite for overall healthy movement. Improperly rehabbed injuries–an old ankle sprain for instance–can contribute to diminished athleticism. Our modern lifestyle (hunched sitting) is also an enemy of athleticism. Our time in cars, at desks and in front of TVs helps destroy hip mobility, thoracic spine mobility, shoulder mobility and the like.
  • Mobility in 3 planes of motion (sagittal, frontal, transverse):
    • This is related to the point above but it goes beyond single-joint movement. This pertains to large movement patterns like squatting, lunging and reaching which are conducted through several joints.
    • A lot of us are very good at moving in the sagittal (forward/backward) plane. Many of our gym exercises (especially machine-based exercises) are sagittal plane dominant.  Endurance athletes are particular specialists in moving  forward only. Start looking for competence in the frontal (side-to-side) plane and transverse (twisting) plane and you’ll often see problems. Ankles, hips and thoracic spine are frequently limited in the frontal and transverse planes.
  • Stability in 3 planes of motion (same 3 planes as above):
    • Mobility and stability are two sides of the same coin. Too much or not enough of either is a problem. Focusing your efforts on improving only one of them will lead to problems. A lack of mobility is a detriment to stability. Here are a few ways to check your tri-plane stability.
    • Watch the video below on half-kneeling and see if you can follow along. (Can you get into the position?  If not, there’s something worth working on.) What do you notice? Are you stable or not? Half-kneeling is a very useful window into 3-plane stability.

    • One leg balance is extremely important. Whether you consider yourself an athlete or not, you spend a lot of time on one leg (walking, running, stair climbing, getting out of a car).
    • Try standing on one leg. Can you do it? If so, for how long? How about a squat?  What happens when you try a one-leg squat? Can you perform a controlled squat or do things start to collapse?
  • Ability to manage forces through the core:
    • The core is everything from your skull to your pelvis.  Your arms and legs attach to your core through your shoulders and your hips. The core is analogous to the foundation of a house. If it’s strong then you’ve got great potential to operate from that foundation. If it’s weak, then everything you try and do from that base will be compromised.
    • If the core doesn’t function correctly then your spine is unstable–and that’s a bad thing.  Spinal stability is critical for both your health and your performance. If you can’t stabilize the spine against external forces (a suitcase, a bag over your shoulder, a shovel full of snow, a lawn mower, heavy door, an opponent and gravity at all times) then you will have many ongoing problems. By expanding your core stability skills in three planes then you’ll be much safer in general.  You’ll be stronger and potentially more powerful.  (BTW, don’t bother with crunches.  They do little and less for core strength.)
    • Dr. Stuart McGill’s work is a good place to start for core competency. His “Big 3” exercises address core stability in three planes.  Here’s a video


  • Adequate strength for the task:
    • I compare strength to money in that rarely do we find ourselves having too much. A lot of people come to the gym but they never get stronger. Endurance athletes are classic examples. These good people often spend their time lifting very light weights for very high reps.
    • Many of us would benefit from training in the 1-5 rep range, using weight that is actually difficult to lift. Heavy lifting enables runners to put more force into the ground, helps cyclists put more force into the pedals and helps everyone perform their daily tasks in a safer, more effective fashion. Beyond making stronger muscles, heavy lifting enables us to recruit more muscle fiber plus makes the bones and connective tissue stronger.
    • Now, clearly the power lifter has different strength requirements than a triathlete. So beyond a certain point, training for more strength doesn’t yield more athleticism. For the endurance athlete, there is a point where very heavy lifting may impede endurance training. No need to go there! Just recognize that most of us will benefit from getting stronger.
  • Speed:
    • Lots of grown-ups left speed behind a long time ago.  We quit sprinting and jumping. We started plodding. Go to the “cardio” section of any gym today and you’ll see a zombie-like scenario in which the walking dead sort of lope and limp yet never go anywhere. This is the opposite of speed.
    • But why did anyone ever run in the first place?   To go fast of course!  Humans have had a need and a desire to move across the earth rapidly. We needed to evade predators like the evil older sibling and we needed to chase down prey like the annoying younger sibling. It’s in us and it needs to be done!
    • Many endurance enthusiasts believe they don’t need speed. Nonsense! All good endurance athletes work on speed. The vast majority of athletic endeavors are based on getting somewhere faster than an opponent, so speed is valuable to very nearly every athlete.
    • “But I’m not an athlete,”  you say. So? Ever have to catch a subway or bus or plane and you’re running late? Suddenly there’s no substitute for speed is there? How about in an emergency situation? Can you get yourself out of trouble quickly? How about getting a child out of trouble? Your being able to move fast could help save a life!
    • Speed work can do wonders for the physique. Moving a top speed can be a superb and possibly superior way to remove fat. You can sprint on your feet, on a bike (stationary or real) or a rower.
    • Research (here and here) suggests that high-intensity sprint-type work can is superior for improving the health of cardiovascular patients and it protects against cardiovascular disease.
    • HUGE MAJOR POINT: NEVER LET YOUR QUEST FOR SPEED OVERRIDE YOUR TECHNIQUE! Move perfectly first, then speed up. Don’t get sloppy or at some point you’ll probably get hurt.
  • Coordination/dexterity:
    • This piece is closely tied to the stability and mobility in three planes. Can you change directions quickly? Can you turn and run? Can you jump and land without destroying yourself? Can you catch and throw an object? Can you run, throw, catch, jump and land all in one fell swoop?
    • If you haven’t done this type of thing in a while it can be a lot of fun and can certainly provide a mental break from the same old routine.
    • This isn’t just for “athletes” by the way. Let’s say you’re stepping off a curb and–Whoa! Here comes a cyclist/bus/skateboarder/escaped zoo animal–you need to hop back on to the side walk. Can you get the job done? How about navigating an icy parking lot? Or nabbing your pet before it escapes out the front door? Better dexterity and an ability to move in unpredictable situations is a safety issue for sure.
    • How about getting down on to and up off of the ground? If you fall, can you get up? That’s a highly coordinated activity that demands core strength, mobility and stability. Again, as adults, we spend a lot of time avoiding the ground. It might be a good idea to get down there and so some stuff.
    • Appropriate exercises include: speed ladder drills, three dimensional hopping on one or two legs, throwing medicine balls, juggling kettlebells, battling ropes, shuttle runs, rolling, crawling, the Turkish get-up and tree or rock climbing.
    • Here’s a great video of several speed ladder drills.  Play around with some of them.

  • And here’s a helluva multi-directional jump matrix.  Think I’ll try this soon.

  • Here’s some more athleticism in the form of the Turkish Get-Up. This is a very good breakdown of an exercise that combines strength, mobility and stability in what may be the most complete exercise you can find:

  • Adequate endurance for the task:
    • Greetings very-strong people. Can you walk up a flight of stairs without turning purple? Can you go on a short hike without buzzards circling overhead the whole time? Can you walk 18 holes of golf? Can you go skiing and not spend 10 minutes at the end of every run getting your breath back?
    • A lot of us are endurance specialists but some of us are far from it. Various activities can be a lot more enjoyable if we have the heart and lung capacity to get through them. Being a tourist in Washington, DC during the summer is definitely an endurance activity. Any significant amount of gardening probably requires some endurance as does any sort of house work.
    • I remember in my scuba certification we were required to swim like 2-4 laps across a pool. This was by no means a full-length swim workout. One lady had to stop about halfway through. She was exhausted. She couldn’t complete the swim and she couldn’t muster any energy to complete the class. Her young daughter was OK to keep going. So in her case, a potential fun family activity was curtailed by a conspicuous lack of endurance.
    • Strong, skillful athletic teams are often limited by endurance. If an athlete doesn’t have the stamina to last an entire contest, then they will very likely be beaten by an opponent who can continue to execute their game plan to the end of the game.
    • None of the above are possible without it! Do you know if your pelvis is tilted? Do you know where your shoulder blades are? Is your neck protruding?
    • Do you have any idea how well you balance or how coordinated you are? When was the last time you tried to move fast? Are you conscious of how you lift heavy things off of the ground?
    • In other words, are you aware of any weaknesses or where along the athletic spectrum you may be lacking? Do you make an effort to try new things in your workout or have you been doing the same thing forever?
    • I often tell clients, “We’re going to find what you’re bad at and then do a lot of it!” We often discover something (or several somethings) that is particularly challenging–not painful–but difficult. (By using exercise, we expose a weakness.) Then we want to find a way to bring up this capacity whatever it may be. But first we must become aware of this weakness.
    • Sit and think for a moment. What do you NOT do? What’s always been difficult? What have you NOT done in a long time? In contrast, what do you do a lot of? What’s easy for you? See if you can turn this paradigm inside out. Can you think of a way to expand your athletic base?

Athleticism Part I: What is it?


The concept of athleticism is much on my mind, largely because of what I heard at the NSCA Endurance conference several weeks ago.  (Look here, here, here and here for my rundown of the conference.)  Coaches Jay Johnson and Tim Crowley specifically made statements to the effect that good endurance athletes are first good athletes.  Whatever type of training that’s needed is then added on top of that athletic foundation.

I’m a cyclist and I’ve taught Spin so I am in no way telling people that they shouldn’t ride bikes, but….  something I notice when I’m near a Spin studio is a lot of people exhibiting a stark lack of athleticism: hunched shoulders, protruding neck, externally rotated feet… I often also notice a hobbling gait, a general sense of stiff immobility and I often hear complains of back pain, knee pain and the like. Pedaling a bike for 45 minutes is maybe the one and only thing a lot of people in this scene can do.

When I go by the yoga studio I notice something similar but in this case, I see people who may be quite mobile (maybe too mobile) but they certainly don’t all look particularly strong or powerful. Go to the weight room and you can observe people moving in very restricted ranges of motion. Are they strong? Maybe but that strength is typically limited to the range of a poorly executed bicep curl, 1/2 squat, or hunched/shrugged lat pulldown. Mobility? Absent. Agility? Ha! Balance? Who needs it when you’re sitting on a weight machine? Rampant aches and pains? You bet!

The point here is for most of us, the slice of athletic pie we’ve cut for ourselves is very narrow, very limited, repetitious and does nothing to expand our general abilities as humans to navigate an unpredictable three-dimensional world. In other words, we lack athleticism. (BTW, I have been this person. Until lately, I specialized probably too much and haven’t spent a lot of time expanding my athletic abilities.  That is changing!)

But, what is athleticism?

This definition mentions physical skills or capabilities, as strength, agility, or stamina. Coach Vern Gambetta discusses athleticism here. I’ve thought about it and here’s my list of what comprises athleticism:

  • Full, pain-free range in the joints

  • Mobility in 3 planes of motion (sagital, frontal, transverse)

  • Stability in 3 planes of motion (same 3 planes as above)

  • Ability to manage forces through the core

  • Adequate strength for the task

  • Speed

  • Coordination/dexterity

  • Adequate endurance for the task.

  • AWARENESS!  None of the above are possible without it.

In the next post I’ll discuss my strategies at increasing my and my clients’ athleticism.