The 11 Laws of Athletic Muscle

How To Look Good And Perform Even Better

Make the most of your gains by training like an athlete. Build muscle that performs as good as it looks. Here’s how.

Here’s what you need to know…

  1. Build a base of strength, then train speed, agility, and coordination using jumps and throws.
  2. Get comfortable being uncomfortable.
  3. Schedule exercises that are neurologically demanding at the beginning of your week and workouts. Do isolation work in 10-15 minute chunks of time.
  4. Use rest periods strategically to increase your lifts and make workouts more productive.
  5. Lack of recovery is what holds most people back from their goals.
  6. Toughen up. Have pride, passion, and perseverance.

1. Move Like an Athlete

The most relevant tip to improve performance and build muscle is to “get stronger.” But once you have your strength foundation, add exercises to improve coordination, speed, and movement.

When it comes to becoming more athletic, an overemphasis on building maximum strength is as dangerous as minimizing it.

Without a base of movement, it doesn’t matter how strong you are, inefficiencies in movement will hold back your high performance training.

Most sports are comprised of jumps, throws, sprints, cuts, hops, and reactive movement, not barbells and dumbbells. So for those of us who use dumbbells and barbells and don’t do much jumping, sprinting, etc., the prescription calls for sprinting, change of direction work, and/or including the jump rope into your training to improve rhythm, timing, foot speed, and coordination.

It’s smart to jump rope first instead of diving into sprints. High-speed movements like sprints – or anything that requires directional change – create massive stress on the joints, ligaments, and tendons. You wouldn’t jump into near-maximal lifting after taking a few years off, would you?

Use the jump rope to improve coordination and condition those tissues for impact before getting into sprints. Start with two or three 15-minute sessions of jumping rope per week and then gradually move into sprint work.

2. Include Jumps and Throws

Building athletic muscle is about being capable of handling what life throws at you. That’s where performance comes in – you must increase the capabilities of your muscles, joints, ligaments, and nervous system to work together as a high-performance machine.

Two or three times per week, add jumps or throws in after your dynamic warm-up. This helps increase the neuromuscular capabilities of your body and transfer your hard-earned strength to athleticism and power.

Plus, you’ll improve motor unit recruitment of the fast-twitch fibers most responsible for performance, strength improvements, and muscular gains for short and long-term training success.

Pick one upper body movement and one lower body movement and do 3 sets of 5 reps before your first lift two times per week.

Upper Body

Medicine Ball Slam

Bench Plyo Push-Up

Lower Body

Squat Jump

Broad Jump

3. Build a Base of Strength

Relative strength is the amount of strength relative to body size. This reflects a person’s ability to control or move his body through space.

Absolute strength is the maximum amount of force exerted regardless of muscle or body size. Greater amounts of absolute strength are generally seen in those with higher bodyweight. You can see a comparison of the two strength values here:

Bodyweight: 175

  • Deadlift Max: 505
  • Absolute Strength: 505
  • Relative Strength: 2.8 times bodyweight

Bodyweight: 275

  • Deadlift Max: 600
  • Absolute Strength: 600
  • Relative Strength: 2.1 times bodyweight

Building a bigger base of strength improves relative strength (when bodyweight is kept in check) and improves your ability to generate force relative to your size. That means moving your body through space becomes easier.

This matters because you want a body that performs as well as it looks. You need both absolute strength and relative strength to maximize performance in and out of the gym.

Drive up relative strength by improving absolute strength in your big exercises like cleans, deadlifts, squats, and presses.

Then, test relative strength with activities that require you to move your bodyweight, like vertical jump tests, broad jumps, chin-ups, and push-ups to keep relative strength high.

4. Use Progressive Overload

Squats, cleans, presses, and pulls are still the best movements for building lean muscle and strength. To maximize these exercises you must progressively overload the body.

That means adding weight, decreasing rest, or increasing training volume over time is essential to long-term success. Push your body beyond its abilities or you won’t grow, and use any of the hundreds of great training programs on this site to do so.

Too many lifters and athletes fall in love with the hottest gadget, newest method, or sexiest exercise. At the end of the day, track and improve your training over time. Getting comfortable being uncomfortable is imperative for long-term performance.

5. Move Isolation Exercises Into Timed Blocks

There’s overwhelming anecdotal evidence that isolation exercises help you build muscle.

While athletes shouldn’t make isolation exercises the main focus of their training, specific hypertrophy has its benefits.

Besides balancing out the un-balanced nature of sport and helping you look better naked, muscle cross-sectional area can improve force-generating capabilities and provide structural support for injury prevention.

That said, you won’t get much out of isolation work until you build significant strength. Forget the 20-pound biceps curls and instead strive to hang 50 pounds around your waist for chin-ups.

Get strong, then do isolation work at the end of your training session in 10-15 minute blocks.

Here’s an example of an isolation finisher for shoulders that builds cross-sectional area:

Exercise Sets Reps Rest
A1. Dumbbell Bent-Over Lateral Raise 3 12
A2. Standing Lateral Raise 3 12
A3. Dumbbell Front Raise 3 12 60-90 sec.

6. Do a Risk/Reward Analysis

Everything is a tool and requires a risk/reward analysis.

For example, the behind-the-neck press is a great muscle builder, but it can create shoulder impingement and dysfunction in certain individuals if they lack sufficient shoulder mobility.

Similarly, squatting ass to grass might activate muscles better, but compromising the lumbar spine can result in serious injury.

Is the trade-off worth it for someone focused on sports rather than adding 50 pounds to their powerlifting total? No. Each exercise is a tool, not the end-all-be-all to training.

There are dozens of exercises that train the same muscles and movements. Pick the options that minimize injury risk and maximize your return on investment.

7. Periodize and De-Load Your Training

Not training hard is rarely the missing piece of a program. Instead, a lack of recovery is what holds most people back from their goals.

To deload, you need to understand adaptation and the response to stress.

The General Adaptation Syndrome (GAS) developed by Hans Seyle helps us analyze how changes in performance happen. GAS states that the body goes through a specific set of responses (short term) and adaptations (longer term) after being exposed to an external stressor.

The theory holds that the body goes through three stages, two that contribute to survival (alarm and resistance) and a third (exhaustion) that involves a failure to adapt to the stressor.

Deload frequency varies depending on your goals, training age, sport requirements, and number of workouts per week. Here’s a sample micro-cycle with a built-in deload:

Volumes and intensities are for a compound exercise, such as a power clean, deadlift, or squat for an intermediate trainee:

  • Week 1: High Intensity/Low-Moderate Volume 4x3, 85-92.5% 1RM
  • Week 2: Moderate Intensity/Moderate-High Volume 5x5, 75-85% 1RM
  • Week 3: Very High Intensity/Low Volume 4x3, then 2,2,1, 85-100% 1RM
  • Week 4: Low Intensity/Low-Moderate Volume 3x5, 50-60% 1RM

You don’t need to follow these parameters precisely, but for the sake of your performance and long-term training, learn to take breaks when they’re needed. Varying intensity and volume through workouts is necessary for optimal performance, but often neglected.

8. Balance Training Based on Neural Demands

Neural demands are the requirements placed on the nervous system for the ideal execution of an exercise. To perform well and reduce your chance of injury, program with neural demands in mind.

When setting up your training program, place more neurologically demanding exercises early in the week, and early in each session.

Athletes require high speed, technical, multi-joint movements like sprinting, jumping, and compound lifts as the primary driver of performance. So if you’re blasting cleans while excessively fatigued, the nervous system won’t send signals to the muscles fast enough to allow optimal technique execution.

Using this example, if you’re unable to maximally generate force, you’re reducing the effectiveness of your training while increasing the risk of injury due to technical changes.

Keep the intensive movements like sprints, jumps, and heavy lifts in the beginning, and then move onto higher rep, lower load exercises later on.

9. Increase Training Frequency

Would you be stronger performing squats in 52 workouts per year or 104 workouts per year?

Logic says to go with 104, but why?

Consistent exposure to stimuli is vital for learning new movement patterns, allowing you to become better at exercises faster.

While this doesn’t mean you should train every movement pattern daily, performing total body training routines with an emphasis on big movements will help you improve your technique and accelerate hypertrophy.

Back in 2000, a study compared one-day and three-days per week of equal-volume resistance training. Researchers randomly separated twenty-five experienced subjects into training groups.

Group one performed one day per week of strength training with 3 sets to failure, using rep ranges moving from 3-10 reps per set. Group two performed workouts three days per week with one set to failure per day while working in the same rep ranges.

Volume between the two groups stayed the same, yet group two had greater increases in both lean body mass and one-rep max strength. With total volume held constant, spreading the training frequency to three doses per week produced superior results in both strength and muscular hypertrophy.

Along the same lines, a 2010 study on anabolic processes in human skeletal muscle found that repeated phases of net protein balance, which can be a generated response to repeated bouts of resistance exercise and protein ingestion, reinforces muscle hypertrophy.

Bottom line, a higher training frequency is a no-brainer from an increased protein synthesis and skill acquisition standpoint. Train more often and adjust your daily volume and recovery as needed.

10. Toughen Up

Not sure what it means to toughen up? Think of these three words: pride, passion, and perseverance.

I remember my coach preaching these qualities over and over again. I used to think he was full of it, but in hindsight, he was right. These three terms are vital to your success on and off the field (or training floor).

Pride means you’ll put yourself out there and take a risk, regardless of what anyone else thinks. Passion means you’ll be relentless, and put in the time even when no one is watching. And perseverance means you’ll overcome the struggles that will inevitably occur.

Training this way is foundational to building toughness and athletic muscle. Knowing what to do is great, but it won’t get you results. Stop making excuses, do the work, and get better every day.

11. Be Smart About Rest Periods

The amount of time and rest between exercises has huge implications for the training response. The amount of time between sets will determine four things:

  1. Restoration of short-term energy substrates like creatine-phosphate.
  2. Central nervous system recovery for maximal power output and technical skill.
  3. Clearing metabolites from muscular contractions (good or bad, depending on the goal).
  4. Variations in heart rate. Full recovery is essential for certain training goals.

For maximal strength, rest periods must be long enough for the nervous system to recover for future high-intensity bouts. In most cases, rest periods of three to five minutes between heavy strength sets will suffice.

Shorter rest periods impair physical performance during subsequent sets and, over several weeks, attenuate strength increases compared to long rest periods. Anything less than what’s needed leaves weight on the bar and limits maximal strength gains.

Rest periods don’t need to be followed to the letter, but aim to be in the ballpark for your specific exercises and type of program.




  1. Spiering, BA, Kraemer, WJ, Anderson, JM, Armstrong, LE, Nindl, BC, Volek, JS, and Maresh, CM. Resistance exercise biology, manipulation of resistance exercise program variables determines the responses of cellular and molecular signaling pathways. Sports Med 38: 527-540, 2008.
  2. Rahimi, R, Boroujerdi, SS, Ghaeeni, S, and Noori, SR. The effect of different rest intervals between sets on the training volume of male athletes. Facta Univ Phys Educ Sport 5: 37-46, 2007.