Exercises to Build an Athletic Physique


Who doesn’t want to look like an athlete? Most high-level athletes have physiques that make people envious. If you’re a former athlete who is no longer ultra-competitive you can still train, and look, like one.

That’s not even mentioning what training like an athlete can do for your pickup game; you can play better, longer, and just maybe dunk on someone again.

As a sports performance coach my job is to make athletes better at what they do and help prevent injury. Today, my job is to help you do the same.

Below are 8 exercises that will help you increase your athleticism, look like an athlete, and help prevent injury. Make sure you check out the video at the end of the article!

8 Exercises To Build An Athletic Physique And Improve Performance


If you want to jump higher and become more explosive, look no further than heavy squats paired with box jumps. Here we are going to take advantage of plyometrics and the stretch-shortening cycle – the shorter this cycle is, the quicker and more powerfully you can react.

How it’s done: Perform heavy barbell back squats to full depth. Immediately after you finish your last rep, rack the bar and step in front of a box that you have previously set up. Drive your hands explosively up, back behind you and then up again as you drive off of the ground and up onto the box. When you land be sure to land softly on the balls of your feet, with toes and knees pointed straight ahead. Keep your chest up and drop your butt down as you land, then step down off the box instead of jumping.

The Workout
Barbell Back Squat – 4 reps
Box Jumps 3 reps

Complete the above superset 4 times, resting 90 seconds between rounds.


Seated box jumps are an advanced power development tool that is used by many top athletes to increase lower body explosiveness. The concept is simple – jump from a seated position on a low box or bench up to a taller box. The lower the bench or box you are sitting on, the tougher it is.

How it’s done: Start by setting up a low box or bench about a foot away from a taller plyometric box. Take a seat on the lower box, making sure to keep your back flat. Sit up tall. To start the jump, explode your hands up to your cheeks, down to your hips, and finally back up to your cheeks again as you explode upwards off the box. Make sure to keep good mechanics when landing by avoiding any valgus knee movement (knees caving in), landing on the balls of the feet and absorbing the force of the landing by dipping down slightly as you land on the box.

Hit these after a squat session to really amp things up!

The Workout
5×4 jumps, rest 60 seconds between sets


The One-Arm Dumbbell Snatch is an explosive, power-developing exercise that utilizes triple extension, or powerful extension at the ankle, knee, and hip to take a dumbbell from the floor to and overhead position as fast as possible. This movement is safer and easier to learn when compared to the barbell snatch, which can take thousands and thousands of reps to truly master.

How it’s done: Grab a dumbbell and place it between your feet, with the ends of the dumbbell pointing towards your feet. Squat down and grab the bell with one hand, making sure you keep your chest up and are looking straight ahead. Explosively start the movement by coming up out of the squat and simultaneously bringing the dumbbell up and in front of your body until you reach shoulder level. Think of this as zipping up a coat – keep the bell as close to your body as you can.

The goal of the one-arm snatch is to hit triple extension, or extension of the ankle, knee, and hip at the exact same moment as when the bell reaches maximum height. Using this triple extension, flip the dumbbell up overhead. When done correctly the dumbbell will pop straight overhead with minimal effort in the shoulder. When the bell pops overhead dip down slightly to “catch the bell overhead.” To return the bell to the ground turn your hand so the bell is pointing straight ahead, lower it to the shoulder and set it on the ground under control.

The Workout
4×5 per side, alternating arms after each rep. Rest 90 seconds between rounds.

Note: Avoid doing one-arm dumbbell snatches after any heavy overhead work. Snatches should not be performed when the shoulders are extremely fatigued.


There are two lifts that are absolutely essential for improving athletic performance, the squat and the deadlift. We covered the squat above, so let’s talk about the other half of the super duo. Deadlifts train the posterior chain like no other lift; the main muscles the deadlift hits are the glutes, hamstrings, erector spinae, latissimus dorsi, and up into the trapezius. Those are just the main muscles being trained during a deadlift – were not even going to get into the countless synergists and stabilizers that are also activated during a pull.

How it’s done: Just like the one-arm dumbbell snatch above, a deadlift trains hip extension; if you increase power during hip extension you will see huge benefits on the field or court. Sprinting and jumping are products of powerful hip extension. Barbell conventional deadlifts have been proven to increase vertical jumping ability by roughly 7% in 10 weeks!1 To put that into perspective if you have a vertical jump height of 25 inches, a 7% increase would put take you up to 26.75 inches. An extra inch and three quarters on your vertical leaping ability can make the difference between catching the overthrown football and not even touching the ball. It is important to keep in mind that this particular study utilized untrained individuals so that doesn’t mean that every 10 weeks of deadlifting you should expect to see a one and three quarters increase of your vertical jump.


Overhead med ball slams are simple, yet they are a very effective way to build power. They are a great option for power development because of the easy learning curve when compared to other common but more complex power development exercises. And all you need is a medicine ball.

How it’s done: Lift the medicine ball overhead and slam it into the ground as hard as possible. Try to slam the ball so hard that it goes through the floor! Make sure to drop your butt down and keep your back straight as you slam, squeezing your abs as hard as possible to brace your torso. These are great to program in at the end of a workout or superset with a heavy barbell lift.

The Workout
4×30 seconds, as many slams as possible. Most people can use a 20-25 pound medicine ball.


So we know that a great athlete needs strength and power to succeed, but now let’s talk about conditioning. Conditioning is just another way to say endurance – the more endurance an athlete has, the longer they can produce maximal levels of power.

In the sports performance world we think of training an athlete like a pyramid. At the very bottom of the pyramid at the large base is General Physical Preparedness, or GPP. GPP is the base level of fitness that an athlete must build in order to move on to training specific to their sport and entering more complex training. If the base is weak, the entire pyramid is weak and conditioning is a very big part of building the strong base.

How it’s done: Airdyne sprints are one of the top ways to build the aerobic base that an athlete needs, they are short and very intense in order to produce the adaptation we need. All you need is a bike and a little bit of time and you can absolutely crush yourself and in no time you will be able to cut, jab step, and sprint on the field all game long.

The Workout
1×1 Minute balls to the wall, sprinting on the bike as hard as you possibly can, aim to hit as many calories burned as possible.

30 Calories = Respectable
40 Calories = Good
50 Calories = Great
60+ Calories = Amazing


If you are a weekend warrior, chances are you have injured an ankle at some point in time. Ankle injuries suck. They suck even more when you are no longer a kid just going to school and playing sports and you have to go to work the next day and live your normal day-to-day life. In order to counteract ankle injuries, do yourself a favor and take a few minutes 2-3 days a week to strengthen the muscles that cross the ankle joint. The stronger we can make the muscles surrounding the ankle the more stability you will have.

Dorsiflexion occurs at the ankle when the toes are flexed towards the lower leg, traditionally the muscles that act to dorsiflex the foot are not trained specifically yet the opposite action of plantarflexion is regularly trained. Again I cannot stress the importance of training ALL muscles crossing the ankle enough.

How it’s done: Loop a band around a solid object and take a seat on the ground. Hook the band around your toe and scoot back so the band pulls your toes out to put your foot in to a position pointing away from your lower leg (plantarflexion). Pull your toes in towards your lower leg as far as you can into dorsiflexion, release slowly and repeat.

The Workout
3×10 per side, 2-3 times per week


Chances are if you have injured your ankle it was a sprain that occurred with excess inversion, the human ankle joint has much more range of motion inverting than going the opposite way into eversion. Look down at your foot; now roll your ankle in toward the mid-line of the body, that inversion.

How it’s done

Loop a band around your foot just like this. Proceed to “roll” your ankle in towards the midline of your body against the resistance of the band, it won’t take long and these muscles will fatigue.

3×10 per side, 2-3 times per week


Eversion is the exact opposite of inversion, instead of “rolling” the Ankle inward, look down and try to “roll” the ankle out away from your body. Notice a difference? That’s because we have a very limited range of motion moving in eversion. Limited range of motion or not this is arguably the most important ankle exercise; the muscles that contract to evert the foot are the same muscles that will contract concentrically (shortening) to hopefully prevent an ankle injury due to excessive inversion of the ankle.

How it’s done: Loop a band around your foot in the same fashion as the ankle inversion exercise but this time evert your foot as far as you can. Again, these muscles will not take long to fatigue when trained directly.

The Workout
3×10 per side, 2-3 times per week


Sled sprints are awesome – that’s the best way to describe them. They are a strength exercise and metabolic conditioning exercise all rolled up into one, and the cherry on top is they don’t make you sore! Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness (DOMS) is associated with the eccentric contraction of a muscle fiber, or the active lengthening of a fiber like the lowering portion of the squat. Since a sled sprint is a concentric exercise there is minimal soreness that is later associated with them. Because of the lack of DOMS associated with sled sprints they are a favorite in the sports performance world with athletes being so active, recovery is the name of the game during hectic seasons and sled sprints are an answer to the puzzle.

How it’s done: Put a 35 or 45-pound plate on the sled. You’ll need about 30 yards of open space. You can apply them in your own weekend warrior workouts by implementing them on a lower-body strength workout or in a conditioning-based workout.

The Workout
1×30 yards, rest 30 seconds between sprints. Repeat until you reach 10 sprints total!

Remember, even though your true competition days in sports may be long gone you will always be an athlete. So now you know the exercise that will get you to perform better on the field or court and move you closer to that athletic body of your dreams!

John Papp

John Papp is an ACE-Certified Personal Trainer and Sports Performance Coach at Xceleration Sports (Auburn Hills, Mich.), where he works with high school and college athletes as well as adult clients. He is a senior at Oakland University, studying Exercise Science.

Website: JohnPappFitness.com

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