One of the most overlooked aspects of fitness comes in the gym. As we focus on fitness and yearn for a six-pack or less body fat or bigger biceps, it’s very easy to fall into the trap of aesthetic fitness — exercising in a way that will shape how you look, while ignoring your body’s need for mobility, strength and function.

Our concentration this week is on small steps you can take to ensure you’re training for a body that will not only look good, but perform, whether it’s in pick-up basketball games or just a casual hike. The body was designed for functional movement, so train it that way.

AGILITY

How easily you can move around without discomfort or stress is pretty much the name of the game with agility; many people think this aspect of fitness is unimportant simply because they are not competing athletically at a high level. Twists, turns, fast change of direction — why bother?

You don't have to be as agile as Barry Sanders in the hole — but being mobile enough to get in and out of the car without grunting is nice.

You don’t have to be as agile as Barry Sanders in the hole — but being mobile enough to get in and out of the car without grunting is nice.

Well, as we get older, this becomes more and more important. You don’t need to be able to possess amazing skills with a football like Ronaldinho or burn through the cone shuttle like Jamaal Charles. The simple act of getting in and out of a car without grunting (ask your dad if you don’t believe us) is valuable. Being able to enjoy a dance with your partner without crushing her poor toes is valuable. Feeling mobile, light and responsive — agility, again, is valuable.

So how do you get more agile? You pretty much have to move more, and do it in an athletic stance. We wish there was something more complex to it than that, but that’s the goal. Include lateral training into your gym sessions (when was the last time you did, or saw anyone doing, lateral movement at the gym?). Jump rope, do jumping jacks, do box squats and pronounce every movement explosively. Your body is not a machine, with creaky pistons and gears; slow, methodical, one-plane training has only limited benefits. There are responsive muscle fibers and joints and tendons in there that will get stronger as you work them. So work them.

A few examples of lateral training are below. Find the basketball court or get outside on a field somewhere.

Lateral Lunge (Strength)

  • Position yourself in an athletic stance (knees bent, low center of gravity).
  • Perform a lunge step to the side while keeping your lead thigh parallel to the ground as you descend.
  • Return to starting position and perform a lunge step to the opposite side.
  • Back and forth is one repetition.
  • Always remember to keep your body balanced and under control throughout the execution of this movement.
  • Rest up to 60 seconds between sets and perform 2-3 sets of 6-12 reps per leg.

Body Weight Lateral Speed Slide (Speed)

  • Position yourself in an athletic stance.
  • Mark out a distance of 5 to 10 yards away from your starting position.
  • Perform a lateral speed slide as fast as possible while staying under control to the marker, and back to your starting position.
  • Rest up to 60 seconds and repeat for desired reps.

Body Weight Lateral Crossover Step Drill (Speed)

  • Position yourself in an athletic stance.
  • Mark out a distance 10 yards away from your starting position.
  • Execute a lateral crossover step as quickly as possible to the marker, and immediately change direction and crossover step back to your starting position. Concentrate on staying low in your athletic stance and allowing your hands and arms to quickly move in front of you (think “wax on, wax off” movement) to keep your balance.
  • Rest up to 60 seconds and repeat for desired reps.

Strength

heavy-squat

Heavy lifting = strength. Period.

For example, one can get big muscles with very light weight, relatively speaking, and a high volume of reps. Only at the end of these long sets will strength truly be a challenge, as the longer, “slow-twitch” muscle fibers are recruited the entire time and the shorter fast-twitch ones (associated with explosive strength) typically do not come into play nearly as much. On the other end of the spectrum, powerlifters who focus on one or two reps at a time experience a much more powerful push, with more energy exerted from short muscle fibers to move heavy weight — but there is less cellular energy (ATP) in these fibers than their higher-capacity slow-twitch counterparts and it is more quickly exhausted in lifting like this.

All this is to say that, to some degree, the thought that a big muscle is a strong one, and vice versa, is not universally true. Those training aesthetically, to create bigger muscles with the goal of wearing a T-shirt better, might have a different approach than those training for the function of strength, especially in short rep ranges.

EXPLOSIVENESS

The difference between being strong and being explosive is subtle, but definite — a strong athlete can squat 300 pounds, or bench 1.5x his/her weight; an explosively strong athlete can move the bar faster, and maneuver his/her body faster through space. It’s a combination of fast-twitch strength and agility that makes the difference between sheer strength and athleticism.

This is all to say that, while we love strength training, explosiveness training deserves a place in your workout plans at some point. Plyometrics are fantastic for achieving fast-twitch strength, as the focus is, again, on moving the body or objects through space as quickly as possible. Many high-level athletic programs use a Tendo Unit, which is a device that actually measures the velocity of the weight being moved. You can train your favorite all-time lifts explosively, too — start with the weight at the “bottom” of the range (so, if you were benching, with the bar on your chest), and simply move it as fast as you can through the rep.

Plyo push-ups, with a clap mid-rep, are probably the most popular explosive training that’s easy to do. There are pull-up variations as well, and of course leg training offers myriad opportunities for speed and explosiveness training: box jumps, cleans and snatches, to name a few.