5 Ways to Improve Performance and Stay Healthy for Athletes

5 Ways to Improve Performance and Stay Healthy for Athletes

Being strong is great.

But not at the expense of diminished athleticism and getting injured.

We’ve all seen the big guy who can bench the house yet gets gassed playing pickup football with a bunch of dudes from the office.

Or the middle-aged fella who pulls a hamstring when working up to a sprint on the track trying to show his kids Daddy’s still got it after all these years.

That ain’t athletic.

That’s sad.

And certainly not what we’re after.

Here are 5 ways for improving athleticism and staving off injuries for anyone involved in sports…

1) Jump

Every athlete should include some type of jumping in their training program.

Begin with easier variations such as box and vertical jumps, while also adding single-leg jumps like lateral bounds and hurdle hops in your workouts.

Over time you can move on to advanced movements like depth jumps.

The key with all jump exercises is to keep reps low and rest periods long enough for proper recovery.

power plyo hurdle

While certain exercise methodologies advocate pummeling yourself into oblivion with depth landings from 50″ boxes followed by 20 reps of box jumps, you need to be smarter than that if you want to train for increased power and stay healthy.

Do 3-6 sets of 3-5 reps per exercise, two or three times per week.

2) Sprint

Sprinting is great for getting faster and leaner.

It’s also a great way to get injured.

Huh – whadda ya mean?

Lemme explain…

Sprinting at full speed is a demanding physical activity that most people are not ready for on day 1.

Especially if the last time you ran sprints dates back to PE class in high school.

Starting your quest to get back in shape with 200 m dashes on the track at 100% will soon have you sidelined with an injury as the muscular stress will be too high.

Welcome groin and hamstring pulls. Goodbye getting faster and shedding body fat.

The solution?

Use shorter distances. With short distances, you’re spending considerably more time in the acceleration phase, which places less stress on lower body muscles and leads to less injuries as opposed to the max speed phase taking place after it.

For some of you that might mean starting with 10 meter sprints, then adding another 5-10 meters to it every two weeks or so. After a couple months, you’d be running 30-50 meters with significantly decreased injury risk as your body will be better prepared to handle the muscular stress caused by higher running speeds.

hill sprints

For longer distance sprinting, run hills. The incline of a hill forces you to run below your true maximal running speed (which is when the majority of injuries occur) and makes hamstring pulls a lot less likely.

Perform one flat ground and one hill sprint workout for a total of two weekly sprinting sessions.

3) Change Directions

Sports is random and chaotic by nature. The best athletes – whether we’re talking about football, hockey, tennis or basketball – go from moving in one direction to exploding the other way as a new play develops in the blink of an eye.

Sprinting only in a straight line will not cut it if you want to gain the quickness and agility to dominate the opposition on the pitch or in the rink.

You need to add some exercises with braking and cutting into your training for that.


These can be as simple as setting up two cones anywhere between 5-10 meters apart and sprinting from one to the other a few times.

Or you can perform more advanced variations with forward, backward, lateral and diagonal direction changes. The possibilities are only limited by your imagination.

Include some sort of short change-of-direction drill in every warm-up before sports practice and train them more extensively once or twice per week.

4) Load Single-Leg Exercises

Single-leg exercises have long been an undervalued part of strength training – but they’re extremely important for athletes in improving performance and staying healthy.

Not everyone can handle the wear and tear accumulated over years of subjecting your joints and tendons to heavy bilateral squatting and deadlifting.

Incidences of low back and knee pain increase the longer you’ve been in the Iron Game.

However, few people will display those same problems when we squat or deadlift on one leg at a time.

Many gym-goers regard single-leg training as an afterthought, something you can throw in at the end of a workout for high reps with light weight – if performed at all.

I’m telling you to work those unilateral lower body movements just like you would heavy squats and deads from now on. Get stronger in the 3-8 rep range on dumbbell and barbell split squats, reverse lunges and rear-foot elevated split squats.

You can still keep the heavy bilateral lifts in your program if they don’t beat you up. Though also including some single-leg stuff certainly wouldn’t hurt.

A decent number to shoot for on any of those single-leg squat variations mentioned above is 1.5x BW of external load for 5 reps. If you could bump that up to 2x BW for 5 over the next few years, you’d be an extremely strong individual.

Add at least two heavy single-leg exercises – one a squat, the other a deadlift pattern – in your training program each week.

5) Master Your Bodyweight

Male gymnasts possess unparalleled mastery in moving their own bodyweight through space, which is a great way to build upper body strength and overall athleticism.

Think about it… how many fat, out of shape people can perform loaded chin-ups? What about ring push-ups? Or climbing rope?

Practically none.

That’s because demonstrating any level of decent athleticism and being able to handle your own bodyweight go hand in hand.

When you see a fella at the park, kicking and flailing to climb the invisible ladder in front of his 10-year-old son to show Junior how to do chin-ups, you may think “man, what a dope”.

But when you come across a guy at the gym chinning effortlessly with a pile of plates attached to his waist?

Now that is dope.

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Yunus Barisik

Yunus Barisik, CSCS, is the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach for an elite junior hockey organization based in Espoo, Finland. He has trained hundreds of hockey players at the junior, college and pro levels, including NHL Draft picks and World Champions. An accomplished author, Yunus has had articles published on top fitness and performance sites, including STACK and Muscle & Strength. He also wrote Next Level Hockey Training, a comprehensive resource for ice hockey players on building athletic strength, size and power, while staying injury-free.