Muscle for life

How to Build an Athletic Body That “Shows and Goes”

How to Build an Athletic Body That “Shows and Goes”

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 BenGreenfieldFitness.com. 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!


Ben Greenfield is an ex-bodybuilder, Ironman triathlete, Spartan racer, coach, speaker and author of the New York Times Bestseller “Beyond Training: Mastering Endurance, Health and Life” (http://www.BeyondTrainingBook.com).

In 2008, Ben was voted as NSCA’s Personal Trainer of the year and in 2013 was named by Greatist as one of the top 100 Most Influential People In Health And Fitness. Ben blogs and podcasts at http://www.BenGreenfieldFitness.com, and resides in Spokane, WA with his wife and twin boys.

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Leave a Comment!
  • Carmen Kless-Groom

    Thanks Ben! Now if you could just send an email with a workout each day that would be great….it’s the planning that I don’t like.

    • Ben Greenfield

      I do that via tinyurl.com/tpplans

  • Ripley Ahlborn

    Is it just me or do the workouts suggested seem to pack a little too much into one session? 3 to 4 sets of 6-10 reps for press, deadlift, pull-ups, row, squats, AND more? Most of those are lifts that I perform on individual days (i.e. deadlift on back day, squat on leg day, press on chest day, etc.), and those are also the exercises that I typically perform at the highest intensities. I feel if I included all of these high-intensity compound lifts on the same day I would very quickly reach exhaustion, and overall wouldn’t be able gain as much. Any thoughts Mike?

    • Michael Matthews

      Yes, that is a good point Ripley. I would tone it down a bit too.

  • Nick

    Really nice article but as a Britain, the football lingo made me cringe. 😛

  • Toni

    Great article…so true! I have seen some people that looked like they could bench press me but when push came to shove, they were pretty weak. Aesthetics is great but I think you will be more satisfied in the long run if you make gaining strength your primary goal.

    • Michael Matthews

      I agree!

  • Daniel Gay

    Hey Mike
    I love BLS and have made some great gains during my first year. However, I was getting worried when I realized that strength gains via heavy weights didn’t necessarily translate into athletic motion. This article made a lot of sense, I had thought before that calisthenics and similar exercises would be better for developing an athletic, practical strength. So my question is, can I incorporate this type of exercise in my heavy BLS workout? What would be the best way to do so? And how exactly will my gains be different?
    Great article, great books, great website
    Thanks so much

    • Michael Matthews

      Thanks Dan! I really appreciate it and am glad to hear you’re doing well.

      You can definitely turn pure strength into improved athletic performance, it just requires a different type of training.

      I wouldn’t incorporate this program into BLS. Instead, I would use BLS, and the program I will be releasing in the follow-up book, to achieve the type of physique you want, and THEN switch your training to a more athletic based program that allows you to also maintain your physique.

      What do you think?

      • Daniel Gay

        That sounds really reasonable, I’m looking forward to the new book and I’ll be sure to give that a try. When does it come out anyways?
        I’m strongly considering a career in the armed forces, so physical performance is more of a priority than aesthetics, and this sounds like the best way for me to get there.
        Conversely, I really enjoyed your article on the ratios for the ideal male body, and I’ll continue working towards that for now.
        Thanks again Mike!

        • Michael Matthews

          Cool! The new book will be out Q1 2014. January is what I’m shooting for.

          Definitely keep me posted on your progress! Do well!

          • Daniel Gay

            That sounds great! I’ll be getting that right away.
            Thanks again Mike!

          • Michael Matthews

            Thanks man! I appreciate it.

  • Chris

    Mike, would you mind commenting on how to retain the most muscle mass when playing a high-intensity sport once or twice per week? I’m currently on your lifting plan, but also play basketball and/or soccer once per week at a competitive level. I don’t like to play with much food in my system, so I usually snack lightly and sip some BCAAs before the game, and then finish at halftime. Any suggestions to help keep the mass I’ve built here but not lose the sports? Thanks.

    • Michael Matthews

      Good call on the BCAAs. I would do 10g BCAAs + carbs (I would drink a couple cups of rice milk) before, and protein and carbs after.

      What do you think?

  • Jeroen

    Hi Ben/ Mike,

    Great article! I’m always wondering what is the best combination if it comes to get a really good looking physic and a functional strong body!? For my soccer i train 3 times a week and play 1 match, i’d love to combine this with 3 times a week to the gym! I read your article about the ultimate workout for chest, back, arms and legs. But if i read this article, it confuse me a litlle bit. I was wondering what you recommend, continue the ultimate workout (chest, leg, arms and back) or combine my soccer training with this kind of training? Kind regards!

    • Michael Matthews

      Lifting 3 x per week would be a great idea and you could start with my chest, back, and legs workouts as they will also train your arms and shoulders. What do you think?

      • jeroen

        Okey, i will give it a try the next two months! thanks for your advice!

        • Michael Matthews

          Perfect! Talk soon!

  • Isaac

    Would it be okay to split these workouts into push/pull days 4 days a week? As in two different push workouts Monday and Thursday then two different pull workouts Tuesday and Friday with a rest day Wednesday? Also, I’ve heard for athletic goals it’s not preferable to do straight sets, but instead curcuit two or three exercises at a time to provide proper rest time for each muscle group. Thoughts?

    • Michael Matthews

      You COULD but you have to watch out or you’ll overtrain. Twice per week splits are tough…

  • Patrick Prestige Simoneau

    I read BLS and am currently following the routine you laid out in the book with 3-4 days of HIIT as I am cutting. My question is, to keep an athletic, explosive edge should I maybe do 3 days HIIT and 1 day of plyo/calisthenics, ie: box jump, medicine ball slams, jumping jacks etc. Perhaps in a circuit/HIIT fashion?

    • Michael Matthews

      Great! Yeah that’s totally fine.

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  • Scott

    This can help me be better at football? I play 5-a-side regularly, I can run all game no problem. But my acceleration can be a bit slow and I struggle to kick the ball far as my feet are quite weak. I also really struggle at 11-a-side on a full sized pitch.

    • Possibly. I’m going to be doing some writing on training for specific sports. Keep an eye out.

  • Lefteris

    Is there anything like protein we should take make my muscles grow faster?

  • Niall

    The type of body that i would be looking is the one out of the movie ‘Creed’. So if i follow and do these exercises you suggested would i be able to achieve this tyle of body?

  • Clint

    Do you have a work out plan for golf? I started about 3 years old. I quit lifting a lot when I was really trying to get good. Where I lifted for 15 years, all it takes is one session of lifting heavy and I bulk up. My swing gets out of wack. I can already bust it over 300 yard drives. I’d love to be able to incorporate some golf workouts within your current work out plan I started.

    • I don’t because I haven’t studied the biomechanics enough to have much of an opinion, BUT I guarantee it would include a lot of pressing, pulling, and squatting.

      The golf swing involves just about every muscle in the body and is primarily driven by the core and lower body, so those are the movements that would benefit it most.

  • Billy Roberts

    I’m a little confused/overwhelmed by this article. I like the message and would love to incorporate more “go” in my training, but many of the exercises listed are ones already prescribed in BLS so I’m already doing them. So:

    1. How can I incorporate more “go” without duplicating exercises from BLS?
    2. Is this going to negatively impact muscle gain?
    3. Should I keep doing HIIT? Many of the moves listed above are pretty cardio-intensive.

    • Hey Billy!

      Hmm what are your goals exactly?

      • Billy Roberts

        Well I don’t have any specific sports exactly, though I do hunt a lot in the backcountry in the Rocky Mountains. It seems like a good idea to NOT be like the bumbling muscle head described in the article. I’ve known guys like that myself. I guess I’m thinking some sort of all-purpose supplemental routine that might help me improve stamina, balance, just general athleticism. I just don’t want it to interfere negatively with my BLS goals.

        • Ah okay well honestly BLS isn’t going to turn you into a bumbling musclehead, haha.

          IMO, use BLS to build your foundation and strength and size and then start branching out?

          • Billy Roberts

            I’ll just start doing some of the exercises in the article as “extras” and see how it affects me. BTW, I have a small farm and yesterday I stacked a load of hay on my trailer. While doing so, I realized it seemed a LOT harder several months ago before I started BLS. So I’m definitely seeing the benefits beyond just the mirror. I ended up loading the trailer in about 1/3 of the time it normally takes. So thanks again.

          • That’s awesome! Love that. 🙂

          • Billy Roberts

            So here’s a question you may not get asked often: what if I want to get strong but don’t want to be “big.” That is, what if I just want to be lean and have nice muscles but don’t want to get the maximum size my genetics will allow?

          • It takes 10+ years to reach your genetic peak so I wouldn’t worry about that. 🙂

          • Billy Roberts

            Ok well then let me rephrase: if I’m happy with my size what’s the best way to just maintain that?

          • Ah okay! We just need to lower the workout volume. Check this out:


            LMK what you think!

          • Billy Roberts

            Sweet! Exactly what I was looking for!

          • Perfect!

  • P Mort

    I haven’t picked up BLS yet, but so far the best program I’ve worked with that seems to accommodate what this article is suggesting is the ones at EXOS (formerly Core Performance…offshoot of Athlete’s Performance, which helps train pro-athletes with similar movements). LOTS of moves that help focus on improving overall athleticism, energy, agility, etc. I use the program for their Football-Skill routine, and at 33 I feel quicker & more powerful than I did when I played in high school. I’m a fan, and one of my biggest concerns of bare-bones workout routines (not saying this about BLS at all, but towards bodybuilding routines in general) is losing that ability I like to have. Hopefully that makes sense.

    • P Mort

      OK I just finished BLS this morning and I’m still struggling to figure out where to fit these kinds of moves in that routine. BLS sounds fantastic, but this area seems to be a shortcoming, and I don’t think HIIT alone will resolve this.

      After reading BLS, so far my plan is something like this:

      Sun: Off-Rest
      Mon: Weights AM, HIIT PM
      Tue: Weights AM, HIIT PM
      Wed: Weights AM
      Thur: HIIT or LISS AM
      Fri: Weights AM, HIIT PM
      Sat: Weights AM

      or alternately

      Sun: Off-Rest
      Mon: Weights AM, HIIT PM
      Tue: Weights AM, HIIT PM
      Wed: Weights AM
      Thur: Weights AM, HIIT PM
      Fri: Weights AM
      Sat: HIIT AM

      • Thanks for reading the book!

        How about something simple like 3 x lifting per week and then HIIT and agility stuff separately?

        • P Mort

          I wonder if one day/week might be enough. I don’t play sports, but do like to have that bit of mobility, and maybe I can include those Wednesday afternoons or something (or after/in-place of Saturday HIIT if I do that). I’m wary of sacrificing weight days. Right now I do weights & cardio in one session 5/week as it is, but I do a lot of superset stuff and I’m pretty sure that’s impeding any progress I might have.

          • Oh yeah let’s get you off the superset crap and get you into some heavier lifting. It’s tougher on the body though so you may need to drop to 4 x to accommodate what else you want to do…

          • P Mort

            I think I’m going to go all in BLS at first, and then after some time we’ll see how I’m feeling and how I want to adjust from there. Setting that foundation to getting lean is my number one priority. Probably the biggest limiting factor of the programs at Exos are the superset protocols for the strength training portions, and doing HIIT right after sucks too.

            Supersets seem so convenient, but with days like this morning I’m realizing how limiting they can be. Just exhausting myself and spinning my wheels lol. I should be benching 265 & squatting 315 minimum by now.

          • Sounds like a plan.

            Yep, let’s stick to the heavy, compound lifts with plenty of rest between sets and see how you do. 🙂

  • Brandon Porter

    Thank you for these helpful tips about how to build an athletic body. Hope, we will get many more high quality post by you. Here you find many traditional ideas about our bodies and minds http://www.gymhub.com/

  • Dan

    Hey, this looks a lot like Dos Remedios Power Training, all functional, periodized, etc. I was working that, but wanted to see better improvements in the main four lifts so have a program more focused on them. But interesting, might be good to switch back after a couple months… For the moment, I’m working these functional exercises in as assistance work for Wedler’s 5-3-1.

    • Smart move on switching to Wendler’s 5/3/1 if you want to focus on your main lifts. I’m a big fan of his program.

      Cool you’re working in the athletics moves as assistance work!

      LMK how it goes.

  • Adam Aldana

    Hi Mike, Can you do this workouts on Your Lifting days.

  • Adam Aldana

    Never mind I know now thank you so much. I have football this year and I want to be the running Back so I think this we help me thank you so much Mike and another thing Do you have anymore articles About this one or similar to this one ?

  • Ritchard

    Hey Mike,,
    I want your a dvise , i like to play soccer and in other side i want to increase my strength , so does this programe suitable with me??

  • Max

    Hi Mike.
    I really need your help. I have a very small frame. I am 5’7″ and weigh 62 kg. I want to put on some muscle but also want to stay agile. What program and diet do you suggest ?

  • Billy Roberts


    I’m ten months into BLS and have had the incredible, life-changing results so many of your fans rave about, and which I myself have raved about in reviewing your books on Amazon and in your forums on muscleforlife. I’m thinking now about starting martial arts training — specifically BJJ and/or kickboxing — but I don’t want to do anything to impede my BLS progress. Specifically I’m worried about a.) over training and b.) all the cardio that comes with martial arts training and whether it will hinder muscle and strength gains on BLS. I’m doing BLS 5x week in the morning and thinking about doing martial arts 5x week in the evening. Do you have any thoughts or advice?


  • Eric Richey

    Hey Mike, after a year using the Greek God Program, I know you’re friends with Greg, I wanted to experiment using a 5 Day Split, and I was wondering how I could use Leg Day to help me dunk. Would the workout you have here suit my needs. I’m also trying to build a lot of muscle so I believe the split will help me do so. https://www.muscleforlife.com/how-to-build-a-workout-routine/

  • Briscan Andrei

    Hi Mike & Co. , can I replace the barbell back squat with the barbell front squat and the flat barbell bench press with the incline version in the strength weeks on BLS ?

    • Hey Briscan! You can do that. The Strength Week is designed to work your main compound lifts, though.

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