Being labeled a “well-rounded” athlete doesn’t sound like a massive compliment. It implies that you’re soft around the edges — okay at some activities, but not a super-star in any one.
Yet for those of us who aren’t professional athletes, being well-rounded is one of the best accolades out there.
A well-rounded athlete can hold his or her own across a variety of sports. She can kick butt on a trail run, dominate a ski hill, and thrown down in a game of ultimate. A well-rounded athlete can also transition to a new activity—bike polo, anyone?—without fear of thrashing his body.
In short, the well-rounded athlete is ready for any physical challenge that might come at them.
The 49 tactics listed below are a collection of the standout insights from a career in helping people move better. They aren’t listed in any meaningful order. They also aren’t listed as a brain dump of every single strength or movement-related cue possible. Instead, think of them as a selection of targets to build you into a more robust, more capable athlete.
Wherever you are at in your athletic training, hopefully at least one or two of the tips will be useful. If you’ve been on the strength and conditioning grind for a long time, much of this will be a reminder. Some of it might be a little unique, if not controversial. Becoming a well-rounded athlete is process of improvement and innovation, so adjust as needed.
As Bruce Lee said: Absorb what is useful, disregard what is not, add what is uniquely your own.
- Commit to a mobility practice. Fight your body’s tendency to lose flexibility with age and settle in for 5 to 10 minutes of mobility each day.
- Have a comrade, better yet a team. Training with one or more athletes keeps you accountable, and it’ll push your harder than on a solo session.
- Schedule it. Mark your calendar with play dates and training days, and then let nothing keep you from them. Your physical and mental health depends on it.
- Be able to name and demonstrate at least two of your favorite yoga poses. My favorites are the pigeon and revolved lunge pose. Anything that opens your hips and strengthens the spine are excellent options. Experiment and find the duo that your body craves.
- Make your home into a den of strength. Set and setting are crucial to any good trip, and the athlete’s journey is no different. Give yourself ample opportunity to get stronger by outfitting your abode with a dedicated workout space.
- One foot, two foot, go. Sport rarely happens with both feet planted firmly on the ground. Be sure to train single and double leg movement variations.
- Know when to fold ‘em. Listen to your body and quit while you’re ahead. If you feel a tweak in your ankle or shoulder, back off your training to avoid a muscle tear or worse.
- Don’t over do it. High intensity is fun and all, but moderation is the path to movement enlightenment.
- Know when and how to advance your bodyweight skills. At some point your calisthenics are going to need an upgrade. Learn how to use leverage or added weight to your benefit.
- Play as much you train. Life is suffering to begin with, so why beat your self up in the gym all-of-the time? Get outside and have some fun!
- Don’t dog aerobic fitness. Jogging and other simple “cardio” activities have a powerful influence on mood and hormonal control. Disregard them at your own peril.
- Do get-ups. Everyone ends up on the floor at some point. Get back on your feet and build all-around strength with the Turkish get-up and other variations.
- Have a sexy plank. No one likes a saggy, wet noodle-looking plank. Add a little posterior pelvis tilt, and lock that puppy down.
- Support yourself off the ground. Be the life of the party with a commanding handstand, planche, and L-sit. Who knows where your shenanigans could lead?
- Take a strongman class. Don’t worry, you won’t be asked to pull a semi trailer by your teeth. Besides getting a killer workout, you’ll learn a handful lifting variations not found in other gym settings.
- Clean-up. It’s hard to think of a compound movement as functional as lifting something from the floor to your shoulder. Whether you choose a kettlebell, a sandbag, or barbell, lift that sucker UP!
- Hold your own in a street workout. Breakdancer you may be not. Yet, that shouldn’t stop you from having a little street credibility. Should you find yourself in the midst of a street workout, be familiar a handful of push-up and pull-up variations. Better yet, see if you can do them plyometrically. Bonus points if you can move in and out of front, back and side levers.
- Show me your hollow body position. A solid core needs no further explanation.
- Train loaded carries, like farmer carries, Zercher carries, and fireman carries. After all, you don’t want to get hurt lugging your adventure gear from the parking lot to the mountain, right?
- Stay supple. Sport breaks you down. To stay in the game for decades of action you need to know how to perform basic bodywork on yourself. Hat tip to Kelly Starrett for lighting the fire.
- Jump like you mean it. A well-rounded athlete shouldn’t have a weak jump. Train both box jumps and broad jumps, striving for full-body coordination, and max intensity.
- Learn a parkour climb-up. Muscle-ups are all the rage, but as a well-rounded athlete you should also be able get above a head-height wall in a smooth, synchronized movement.
- Build a bullet proof low back. Stay out of the doctor’s office and rehab clinic by supporting your back with an abundance of muscle. Next to the good old deadlift, supplement your training with Superman’s, and some time on a Roman chair.
- Be a movement omnivore. A well-balanced diet includes nutrients from a variety of food sources. Becoming a well-rounded athlete also demands a physical diet made up a many different types of movement.
- Poise like a dancer. Athletes can benefit tremendously by emulating the kinesthetic awareness of dancers. Strive for body awareness from the top of your head to the tip of your toes with everything that you do.
- Be only as strong as you need to be. Bulk up with enough muscle to support the demands of your favorite activities, but don’t over do it. More mass demands more effort to move around and a higher energy input to maintain.
- Keep a list of things NOT to do. As you get older and your cabinet of injuries fills up, record which movements your body hates. Meaning, it’s best to avoid a skill if history has shown it as a guaranteed way for you to get hurt. For me, a bulging cervical disk requires that I avoid activities with prolonged neck extension. Handstand races, I divorce you.
- Stay agile. Agility is the forgotten stepchild of the health and fitness world. Lace up those metaphorical dancing shoes, and let your twinkle toes shine. Aim to be light on your feet, and fast to change directions.
- Record yourself on video. Do it for Instagram, of course. But also do it to watch how you move. There’s nothing like immediate visual feedback to help correct a funky movement pattern.
- Swing heavy. I’m with Tim Ferris on this one—heavy kettlebell swings are one of the simplest tools for maintaining your fitness.
- Train 6 degrees of core strength. Work your midsection with trunk flexion, extension, side bending, rotation, diagonal patterns, and static bracing like planks and hollow holds.
- Develop your connective tissue strength. Building muscle is easy. Building the strength of your connective tissues is more challenging. Without a dedicated effort to strengthen your tendons and ligaments you risk becoming sidelined by an injury. Parkour Strength Training by Ryan Ford and me has some great ideas to get you started.
- When in doubt: Push, Pull, Legs. If you’re ever at a loss for how to design a gym session, you can’t go wrong with some form of upper body pulling, some form of upper body pushing, and some form of leg strengthening. Keep it simple.
- Practice imperfection. If you don’t periodically load your body in an imperfect manner you won’t be prepared for when things go awry. Be gentle, but be ready.
- Improve your balance. Adults rarely challenge their balance in the same way that kids do, and the results are scary. Dust off the balance beam and start practicing. Besides staving off a future fall, you might love with how it tickles you inner ear and cerebellum.
- Hinge like you give a damn. Your backside will thank you. Plus, you won’t break next time you need to dig your gear bag out of a car trunk. Deadlifts are the gold standard, but mix it up with swings, good mornings. and bench-supported hip thrusts.
- Teach others. You’ve got a stellar pistol squat? Great, show me how I can get there. A movement isn’t really yours until you can help others perform it.
- Land properly. Whether it’s from a broad jump or a height drop, very few things can make a coach cringe like watching a nasty landing. Learn to protect your knees with safe landing mechanics.
- Be more bodybuilder, less powerlifter. This isn’t to rag on powerlifters. And, it’s not meant to elevate bodybuilders either. It’s only to say that the well-rounded athlete is better served by focusing on balanced muscle development, than going down the rabbit hole of an ever-greater PR. The squat, deadlift, and bench press are crucial movements, but unless you are a competitive weightlifter they don’t need to be ground out ad nauseam.
- Incorporate partner-based exercises. Humans are social animals, and let’s face it; training solo can get a little stale. Keep things spicy with some good old-fashioned wheelbarrow races and med ball tosses.
- Nurture a body that lasts 100 years. Play a mind game with me. Let’s assume that advances in orthopedic surgery were set back to a pre-1900s era. Imagine what life would be like without the advent of arthroscopic surgeries or joint replacements. How would you approach your training and participation in sports? Without the possibility of surgical repair or replacement, you’d probably be a little gentler on your joints, right? Next time you’re contemplating anything with massive impact, ask yourself: What would my 100-year-old self think?
- Hang out. Bipedal locomotion? Yeah, everyone is doing that. Unless you’re comfortable hanging and swinging by your arms, you’re only halfway to becoming a well-rounded athlete. If you’re a total newbie, start with passive hangs under the monkey bars and work your way up.
- Fall without getting hurt. Athletes fall down. Heck, everybody falls down. Understand and practice the fundamentals of safe falling so that you don’t wreck yourself. Watch pro skateboarders or judo masters if you need a jumping off point.
- Train rotational movements. Where the head and shoulder go, the body follows. To be a well-rounded athlete you need to be comfortable adding some spin to your motion. Woodchop lifts, rotating lunges, and diagonal med ball slams are some standbys to employ.
- Recover. And, not just like one day off every two weeks. Be serious about that stuff. Sleep, eat quality food, hydrate, meditate (if you have the fancy), and then go for a walk. And then do it again. And again. Remember how it felt to be well slept, lazy, and carefree midsummer during high school or college? If you can harness 10% of that in your adult life, then you’re doing well.
- Meet me at the bar(bell). Building the muscle to be a well-rounded athlete demands moving some weight. And, as any strength and conditioning coach will tell you, the barbell is second to none as the go-to implement to scale your weight training. Load that guy up, and get down to business!
- Press it overhead. Use one hand or do it with two. Use a jerk or do it strict. Use a kettlebell or dumbbells. The details aren’t important, just be sure to program some type of shoulder pressing into your weekly training.
- Vary your load placement. Repeating a motion the same way day-in and day-out has the potential to lead to an overuse injury. It also doesn’t fully prepare you for the variability inherent in sport and life. Get in the habit of mixing up how you perform the big strength movements. For an example with squatting, switch between the back squat, front squat, and overhead squat.
- Be strong to be useful. If you’re looking for a guiding principle to your athletic development, this one is as good as it gets. Run through every situation where you may need to step into the role of hero. Maybe you’ll need to down-climb to assist an injured mountaineer. Maybe you’ll need to head out on an impromptu trail run to find a lost friend. Do some brainstorming, and then pursue those fitness activities that prepare you for maximal usefulness. Follow this one principle, and you’ll be well on your way to becoming a well-rounded athlete.
For more ideas on how to craft yourself into a well-rounded athlete, pick-up the 2nd edition of the Mad Skills Exercise Encyclopedia. The new release has over 1000 bodyweight and free weight movements to help you perform better, and build a body that lasts.
What additional tactics do you use in your training? Feel free to post your favorites so that we can all improve and keep playing longer!