What’s the Best Workout to Become a Better Athlete?

Get-Fit Guy has the top exercise tips to improve your sports performance. no matter which sport you're doing.

Ben Greenfield
5-minute read
Episode #121

What’s the Best Workout to Become a Better Athlete?

In the episode What Is the Best Workout for Fat Loss, you learn how to optimize your workout for weight loss. But what if your goals are more sport-specific and less focused on aesthetics? Can the best workout for fat loss also help you to become a better athlete?

While any form of exercise can potentially improve your sports performance, you’ll definitely need to change your workouts if you want optimize your body’s ability to move with strength, speed, and power. So in today’s episode, you’ll get the best workout to become a better athlete and top exercise tips to improve your sports performance.

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Why Sport-Specificity Is Important

When strength and conditioning coaches are evaluating how to design a workout that improves sports performance, we begin by simply watching the sport in question, and asking important questions, such as:

  • How long is the average play or length of exercise?

For example, the average play length in American football is 6-7 seconds, while the average play length in basketball is 13-15 seconds. The exercise time during the 100m dash is 10 seconds, while the exercise time during the 1500m run can be 5-8 minutes. Different time lengths will use different “energy systems” in the body – such as carbohydrates and fast twitch muscle, fats and slow twitch muscle, or a combination of both.

  • How long are the rest periods between plays?

Using the same example as above, a football player gets 25-35 seconds of active rest between plays, while a basketball player is constantly jogging or shuffling between explosive movements for 5-15 minutes. A 100m sprinter may only perform one set during a race, but must have muscular conditioning to perform 10-15 sprint sets during practice. A 1500m runner may also only perform one extended effort during a competition or practice, but must have a large amount of core and single leg stability for the repeated impact during that long run.

  • Which muscles are being used?

A football player uses a relatively large amount of upper pushing muscles, while a basketball player relies on hamstrings, glutes, and calves. Swimmers use their upper backs, runners use their feet, calves, and hips, tennis players use the shoulder internal and external rotators, and so on. You don’t want to necessarily use the same workout for each of those sports, but should instead choose a workout that is “sport-specific” to the muscles being used.

Which Exercises Should Be Used in a Sports-Specific Workout?

Once you know the energy systems and muscles being used for your sport, you can then create a workout that meets those demands. There are a variety of different movements that all sports use, but the most common movements that can be replicated in a gym or exercise setting include the following:

  • Jumps – Feet leaving the ground and jumping into the air, such as a rebound in basketball.

    • Exercises: Box jumps, bounds, skips, hurdles, side-to-side jumps

  • Slams – Throwing something towards the ground very hard, such as a tennis serve.

    • Exercises: Medicine ball slams, tire sledgehammer swings, elastic band fast pulls

  • Twists – Turning the body, such as a baseball swing.

    • Exercises: Medicine ball side throws, cable torso twists, side planks, carioca shuffles

  • Throws – Throwing an object overhand, such as an inbound throw in soccer.

    • Exercises: Medicine ball overhead throws, cable wood choppers

  • Tosses – Propelling an object underhand, such as a softball pitch.

    • Exercises: Underhand medicine ball toss, tire flip

  • Lifts – Lifting an object off the ground, such as a log throw.

    • Exercises: Deadlift, sumo deadlift, medicine ball “cannonball” throws

  • Changes of Direction – Faking and cutting in football.

    • Exercises: Cone drills, shuffles, mirror drills, ladder drills

  • Double Leg Strength - Pushing with both legs, such as a rugby scrum.

    • Exercises: Front, back, or overhead squats.

  • Single Leg Strength – Pushing with one leg, such as running, hiking, or a basketball layup.

    • Exercises: Single leg squat, split squat, step-ups, lunges

  • Vertical Pulling – Pulling from overhead, such as rock climbing, gymnastics, or swimming.

    • Exercises: Pull-ups or lat pull-downs

  • Horizontal Pulling – Pulling to the midline of the body, such as rowing.

    • Exercises: Bent barbell rows, seated rows, single arm dumbbell rows

  • Vertical Pushing – Pushing to overhead, such as swimming or throwing.

    • Exercises: Overhead dumbbell or barbell presses, handstand push-ups, dips

  • Horizontal Pushing – Pushing in front of the body, such as football blocking.

    • Exercises: Bench presses, incline presses, push-ups

  • Core Flexing – Flexing the abs, such as following through after a tennis serve.

    • Exercises: Hanging leg raises, crunch and sit-up variations, V-ups, rollouts, planks

  • Work – Moving the body, such as running, sprinting, rowing, or cycling.

    • Exercises: Treadmill, bike, row machine, elliptical, sled pushes, sled pulls

What Is the Best Workout to Become a Better Athlete?

Now that you know how to identify muscles and energy systems, and the best range of exercises to use, you can now put it all together to create the best workout to become a better athlete, no matter which sport you’re in.

While creating a specific workout for every single sport is beyond the scope of this episode, 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 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 (Don’t know what a dynamic warm-up is? Check out my episode on What Is the Best Way to Warm-Up?)

  • 3-4 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)

  • 3-4 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 exercises (also known as conditioning), which would 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 workout to improve sports performance is a bit more complex than a fat loss workout. But when implemented properly, it can not only help you run faster, jump higher, and push harder, but also keep you from getting injured.

In addition, the number of sets and reps you perform at any given time of year may change depending on whether you’re in the off-season, in the competition phase, or in the post-season conditioning phase. You can learn more about this in my two-part series on How to Train Like an Olympian.

If you have more questions about which workout can help you become a better athlete, questions about how to do any of these exercises, or have your own top exercise tips to improve sports performance, post them in Comments below or join the conversation at Facebook.com/GetFitGuy!

Football Player image from Shutterstock

All content here is for informational purposes only. This content does not replace the professional judgment of your own health provider. Please consult a licensed health professional for all individual questions and issues.

About the Author

Ben Greenfield

Ben Greenfield received bachelor’s and master’s degrees from University of Idaho in sports science and exercise physiology; personal training and strength and conditioning certifications from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA); a sports nutrition certification from the International Society of Sports Nutrition (ISSN), an advanced bicycle fitting certification from Serotta. He has over 11 years’ experience in coaching professional, collegiate, and recreational athletes from all sports, and as helped hundreds of clients achieve weight loss and fitness success.