Train Like An Athlete, Look Like A Bodybuilder

Train Like An Athlete, Look Like A Bodybuilder
Learn how to design a program that helps you train like an athlete while reaping the hypertrophy benefits of bodybuilding training.

Summer is coming up pretty quickly and that coveted 'jacked and tan' look is the goal for pretty much every male under the sun. But what good is the show without the go? Sure, you’ve got a set of arms that could rival Arnold in his prime, but if you can’t keep up with a game of beach volleyball while you’re on vacation then you’re in trouble.

But, you don't have the money for a qualified coach so you've decided to write your own program. Where do you start? Which exercises are best if you want the show with the go? How do you train like an athlete but also garner the hypertrophy benefits of training like a bodybuilder?

Well, it's a good thing you happened upon this article, I'm going lay it all out for you with some step-by-step guidelines. I'll even throw in a sample program at the end if you want to look like the Solution but move like Lebron.

All too often, I see guys get stuck on the non-essentials and overanalyze every aspect of their training; unfortunately, I'm also occasionally guilty of this as well. However, it's important to view training from an outsider's perspective from time to time. So then, what are the top priorities for every single training program?

1. Move Well Before You Move Often

There are no two ways about it, if you want to train like an athlete but grow like a bodybuilder, you need to progressively overload some sort of push, pull, squat, hinge, carry, and lunge variation. Does that mean you have to back squat or pull conventionally from the floor? Nope, some people might not be able to.

Let me clarify: "some people might not be able to with proper form because they lack the requisite mobility and/or stability to get into a safe and efficacious position to perform the lift." Sure, I see people squatting and deadlifting everyday but does that mean that they should? At the moment, probably not...

Athlete Training

"So then how do I know what variation is right for me?"

Ideally, you would want to work with a certified strength and conditioning coach or personal trainer who is well versed in movement variability and compensatory patterns. They would be able to help you adjust your programming and movement demands based upon your current skill level and injury history.

However, for the scope of this article and the program listed below, I'll utilize a progression scheme that adds range of motion over time as you improve your mobility and strength. Something along these lines:

Note: > and higher numbers indicate an increase in difficulty.


  1. Dumbbell Goblet Squat
  2. Double Kettlebell Front Squat
  3. Belt Squat
  4. Safety Bar Squat
  5. Front Squat
  6. Back Squat


  1. Step Up
  2. Split Squat > Front foot elevated
  3. Reverse Lunge > Front foot elevated
  4. Single Leg Squat to Bench
  5. Lateral Lunge
  6. Bulgarian/Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS)
  7. Single Leg Squat From Bench
  8. Walking Lunge
  9. Forward Lunge
  10. Single Leg Skater Squat
  11. Pistol Squat

Push (Horizontal)

  1. Band Assisted Pushup
  2. Eccentric Only Pushup
  3. Pushup
  4. Barbell Floor Press
  5. Dumbbell Floor Press
  6. Dumbbell Bench Press
  7. Barbell Bench Press

Push (Vertical)

  1. Forearm Wall Slide
  2. Half Kneeling Bottoms Up Kettlebell Press
  3. Tall Kneeling Bottoms Up Kettlebell Press
  4. Half Kneeling Landmine Press
  5. Split Stance Landmine Press
  6. Seated Dumbbell Press
  7. Standing 1 Arm DB Press
  8. Standing 2 Arm DB Press
  9. Behind the Neck Press
  10. Military Press
  11. Snatch Grip Behind the Neck Push Press
  12. Push Press

Pull (Horizontal)

  1. Inverted Row
  2. Incline Chest Supported Dumbbell Row
  3. Incline Chest Supported T-Bar Row
  4. 1 Arm Dumbbell Row
  5. Dumbbell Bent Over Row
  6. Barbell Bent Over Row

Pull (Vertical)

  1. Flexed Arm Hang (Jump up to a bar and hold yourself at the top of a chinup as long as possible)
  2. Band Assisted Chinup
  3. Eccentric Only Chinup
  4. Eccentric Only Pullup
  5. Chinup
  6. Pullup


  1. Hinge with PVC pipe: 3 points of contact (back of head, between shoulder blades, and tailbone)
  2. Cable Pullthrough
  3. Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift
  4. Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
  5. Trap Bar Deadlift
  6. Sumo Deadlift
  7. Conventional Deadlift


  1. Farmers Walk
  2. Single Arm Farmers Carry
  3. Racked Kettlebell Carry
  4. Kettlebell Crossover Walk
  5. Overhead Kettlebell Carry
  6. Overhead Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Walk
  7. Overhead Barbell Carry

Cutler Nutrition

Again, this is a very simplified version of potential exercise progressions and regressions; there are a million and one variations that could be built into any program. Also, the sequencing of difficulty is rather debatable as well, but that is another article for another time.

"You put barbell bench, back squats, and conventional deadlifts last, why would I want to do those other boring exercises when I can hit the best 'bang for your buck' lifts?"

Sure, you might not want to regress your movements by doing weighted pushups or RDLs but, like I said above, just because you're doing something right now doesn't mean you should be.

You may love deadlifting off the floor, but if your lumbar spine is so sore and tight the next day that you have a tough time getting out of your car, you should probably re-examine your motor patterns and try to look at training from a long-term perspective.

If you take a look at some of the best athletes in the world (sprinters, gymnasts, wrestlers, divers, etc.) what qualities do they all share? They are masters of their bodyweight in space. You must build the foundation and get strong with the basics before you think about progressing to the big, "sexy" exercises that everybody wants to do.

2. Programming is More Than Just Sets and Reps

The best program is the one that you enjoy, can maintain consistently, and keeps you healthy from a musculoskeletal and neural standpoint. However, if you look at most folks programming, they pledge their undying love to the bench press and cable flies but can't find time to hit chinups or inverted rows during the rest of their training session.

Most of the time, athletes train with a very balance approach, as they aren’t writing their own programming. However, bodybuilders on the other hand live or die by the 3x10 on everything and crush volume until they puke or collapse. We’ll address the hypertrophy component of periodization in the next point but here are a few basic prerequisites that should be included in every well-designed program:

  • 2:1 pull to push ratio (3:1 in folks with shoulder issues) - This is pretty much standard protocol among most strength coaches but it seems many tend to forget this rather easily. Given that most folks are fairly weak in their upper back coupled with the fact that they overdo vertical pulling and horizontal pushing (i.e. lat pulldowns and bench), it’s always a safe bet to do a bit more horizontal rowing.

Your upper back can handle quite a bit of volume but most neglect it due to poor programming. While we’re on the subject, here’s a short clip with a few “tips and tricks” to improve your Dumbell row technique:

  • Train the hamstrings in both a stretched and lengthened position - The hamstrings are a biarticular muscle, meaning that they cross 2 joints (the hip and knee) and can flex or extend each joint. Given this is the case, you need to train the hamstrings in positions of both hip and knee flexion or extension.

For example, if you incorporate RDLs (training hip extension in a position of knee extension), you would want to also include something like hip thrusts (training hip extension in a position of knee flexion). If you’re still not tracking with me, here’s another example to help illustrate my point - lets say you incessantly hammer seated leg curls (knee flexion couple with hip flexion), then you would also want to include something like glute ham raises (knee flexion coupled with hip extension) in order to optimally train the hamstrings.

  • Learn how to squat properly - Stop skipping them because they're hard or "take too long"; nothing demands more respect than a flawless deep squat with a couple plates on the bar. Find exercises you enjoy and also align with your goals. Not a powerlifter? Cool, you don't have to back squat but you should look into one of the variations I listed above.
  • Include single leg work - Hip stability is one of the key components that ensures proper leg swing mechanics during normal gait, jogging, or sprinting. Don’t care about sprinting? That’s cool, but maybe you’re one of those guys who always complains about “tight” hip flexors? Hit a bit of single leg work, build some glutes, and learn how to generate stability on one leg.

Also, this doesn’t mean you should just jump into lunges on day 1, start with split squats and work your way up (see lunge progressions listed above). Here’s an interesting variation to spice up your split squats:

  • Include pushups in your accessory work - I know, I know, you do flies, incline bench, and every Hammer Strength machine in the building. But, the truth is, you still might have a weak or underactive serratus anterior. 

The serratus is mainly responsible for protraction and upward rotation of the scapula. But, since most bench variations are typically open chain movements, the scapulae are coached to remain "down and back - tucked into your back pockets" to keep the shoulder in the most biomechanically friendly position. This is excellent for shoulder health but not so hot for serratus activation.

However, pushups offer the best of both worlds in that they're a closed chain exercise but also allow the scapulae to naturally protract around the ribcage as the lifter concentrically pushes the floor away. You don't have to use the same old, basic pushup like everyone else, mix it up with bands, chains, rep pyramids, tempo work, or isometric holds.

3. Intensity First, Then Volume

When structuring your set and rep schemes, you must consider a few different variables if you want to build an impressive physique and subsequently improve your performance.

If you’re writing your own programming with the goal of looking like Ronnie Coleman but moving like Barry Sanders, you NEED to remember this: stick to higher intensity lifts at the beginning of your workout when you're fresh but transition into more of a "pump-oriented" bodybuilding style of training for the second half of your session. 

Why? If you've read any of Brad Schoenfeld’s work, you'll know that muscle hypertrophy can occur through 3 different mechanisms.1

  1. Mechanical Tension - This is KING in terms of producing muscular adaptations.
  2. Muscular Damage - Beneficial but adheres to the Bell Curve, meaning that there's an optimal range for most but it can be overdone (think Rhabdomyolysis) or underdone (think powerlifters). 
  3. Metabolic Stress - Accumulation of metabolic byproducts from specific energy systems that become active during weight training: hydrogen ions, lactate, phosphate, etc.

Schoenfeld also notes in his research that there appears to be a "maximum threshold for tension-induced hypertrophy, above which metabolic factors become more important than additional increases in load.

So what does that mean for you and me? After a lifter has accumulated volume at a high intensity (80%+) then the other 2 hypertrophic mechanisms (especially metabolic stress) become more important.

So, from a practical standpoint, you want to not only manipulate sets and reps, but also shorten rest periods and increase your training density (more work in less time). By shortening the rest periods, you will increase the amount of blood that can become trapped within a specific muscle due to the slight ischemic effect from repeated contractions. This contributes to a phenomenon known as cell swelling but bodybuilders refer to it as "the pump".

Studies have shown cell swelling actually induces a threat-based survival mechanism in cells due to the potential for rupture.2 Thus, anabolic signals are initiated and the cell strengthens the membrane to prevent destruction during future bouts of strenuous exercise.

Your body is always trying to adapt, for good or bad, manipulate rest periods, sets, and reps to make sure that you optimize each and every factor within your training. 

Athlete Training

Practical Takeaways for Every Lifter

  1. You must build the foundation and get strong with the basics before you think about progressing to the big, "sexy" exercises that everybody wants to do.
  2. The intricacies of programming go far beyond just sets and reps. In order to devise the best training plan possible, you have to take certain physiological and biomechanical factors into consideration.
  3. Stick to higher intensity lifts at the beginning of your workout when you're fresh but transition into more of a "pump-oriented" bodybuilding style of training for the second half of your session. 
  4. Your body is always trying to adapt, for good or bad, manipulate rest periods, sets, and reps to make sure that you optimize each and every factor in your training.

Sample Program

Day 1 - Lift A Sets Reps
A1: Front Squat 3,2 3,8
A2: Bench T-Spine Mobilization 5 4
B1: Romanian Deadlift 3 8-12
B2: Half Kneeling Pallof Press 3 6 (per side)
C1: Dumbbell High Step 3 3-10 (per leg)
C2: Chest Supported Row 3 10-12
C3: Dumbbell Crossbody Hammer Curl 3 12 (per arm)
Day 2 - Lift B Sets Reps
A1: Dumbbell Incline Bench 6 4
A2: Rack Lat Stretch 3 5 (per breaths/side)
B1: Dumbbell Row 4 8 (per arm)
B2: 3-D Band Pullapart 4 12
C1: Pushup w/Chains 3 8-10
C2: Banded Hip Thrust 3 12-15
D1: Paused Seated Leg Curl 3 15-20
D2: Dumbbell Farmers Carry 3 25yds.
Day 3 - Lift C Sets Reps
A1: Sumo Deadlift 8 2
A2: Lateral Adductor Mobilization 5 3 (per leg)
B1: Standing Overhead Press 3 6
B2: Glute-Ham Raise 3 8
C1: Dumbbell Reverse Lunge 3 12 (per leg)
C2: PhysioBall Rollouts 3 10-12
C3: Supine Dumbbell Tricep Extension 3 12-15

Cutler Nutrition

Simple and effective. This could also be catered to a 4-day/week plan as well, depending upon each individual's work capacity and recovery capabilities. If you’re not sure what some of those exercises look like, a quick search of my YouTube channel (see my bio below for a link) should eliminate any shadow of doubt. But, if you still have questions, drop a comment below or shoot me an email. Give it a shot and let me know what you think!