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Train To Change | How To Become The Ultimate Athlete

By Tyler Woodward

Have you ever wondered what is the difference between you and your favorite athlete? What makes Usain Bolt so fast, Lebron James jump so high, Arnold look so big, or Ronnie Coleman so strong? In this guide we will cover everything you need to know to become the Ultimate Athlete.

Key Takeaways:

Physical Structure:

Anthropology

Depending on the type of athlete, strength, size, agility, or power, each tends to have pretty consistent structures which provide them with the ability to dominate in their respective sport. For example, the best swimmers have long arms and basketball players tend to have huge achilles tendons (attach the foot to their calves) with relatively tiny calves. As we address each type of athlete, we’ll also discuss the structural features these athletes tend to have associated with them. 

Stress And Adaptation:

Stress & Adaptation

If you want to make physical changes in your body that result in improved performance or aesthetics, stress is your friend. In the wise words of James Smith, “Without stimulus there is no growth”. These physical changes that occur in your body in response to a stress or stimulus are known as adaptations. We’ve all experienced some form of adaptation throughout our lives as we learned to walk and run, throw a ball, build immunity to a virus or infection, or become bigger and stronger. In order to create these changes or adaptations, our body must undergo some type of stress. As the old saying goes, “what doesn’t kill me makes me stronger,” if you want to create adaptations in your body, you need to push your body to its current limits so to speak, so that we can continually progress over time.

Here is a list of some of the physical adaptations that occur in our body and a comparison to how they would work in a racecar.

  • Increased Bone Density - Stronger frame, so it doesn’t break under pressure
  • Improved Coordination (Neurological Coordination) - Improved Driver
  • Increased Force Production (Myofibrillar hypertrophy) - Stronger, faster engine
  • Increased “Fuel” Storage (Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy) - Bigger gas tank
  • Increased “potential” (Myonuclear Hypertrophy) - Like having 2 engines (mitochondria) or a driver and a navigator (nuclei) that can share the work, instead of one
  • Increased Tendon Stiffness - The “Shocks” of the car absorb more force, so that small bumps do not affect it
  • Increased Blood Capillarization -  More connections between the gas tank, engine, and exhaust, allowing for a more efficient exchange of energy/ nutrients 

Depending on the type of adaptation, each will occur in different parts of the body including the nervous system/brain, individual muscles and tendons or various organs/organ systems. We can create specific adaptations in our body by choosing the stress that we place on our body. 

Read More: The Benefits Of Resistance Training

Stimulus + Recovery = Adaptation

This is the key equation to creating adaptations and you’ll notice one pivotal part has been added… recovery. We need to be able to recover from the stress that we are inducing on our body in order to be able to make these physical changes. If we overly tax our body, we end up with joint and tendon pains and potentially injuries down the line. The importance of recovery cannot be overemphasized. 

Force

Force:

The key underlying quality between the majority of athletic attributes is the ability to produce large amounts of force. Force can be defined as the amount of energy required to perform a movement. For example, in order to stand up from a chair, you must push your feet into the ground hard enough to generate enough force to propel your body upward. We can categorize force into two categories, relative force and total force. Relative force is the amount of force we can produce relative to our body weight, while total force is the maximum amount of force we can produce regardless of our body weight. To understand the difference between these two, let’s look at an example.

We have two people that can both squat 400 lbs for one rep. The first person weighs 250lbs, while the second person weighs 200lbs. Both people have the same total force production because they both have the same one-rep max on squats. But the person that is 200lbs has a much higher relative force production because they are able to lift the same weight, while being 50 lbs lighter. So relative to their body weight the 200lb person is much stronger than the 250lb person. 

Interestingly enough, as a species we are technically stronger than ever due to the invention of resistance training which has drastically increased the ability of those who practice it to lift weights. Think about it this way, it’s significantly easier to lift 500lbs with a barbell than it was for our ancestors to do so with a log or a rock. But according to Dr. Pat Davidson, as a species we have likely not progressed nearly as much in our abilities to produce elastic forces like sprinting, running, and jumping. This is because these types of movement are momentum dominant and more so rely on our ability to produce tendon stiffness to transfer energy from the ground through our body to propel ourselves or an object.  In fact, despite all the modern technology we have access to, the fastest pitchers of all-time are Nolan Ryan (1976) and Bob Feller  (1946). Modern interventions have greatly improved our ability to produce force like lifting weights or pushing off the blocks in a sprint, but our peak ability to transfer force has not changed all that much. 

High relative force production is necessary to sprint fast and jump high because their goal is to move their own body. This is why elite sprinters and jumpers tend to be very lean with very little body fat. Strongmen and powerlifters on the other hand just need to be able to lift the heaviest weight/load possible, so there is no downside of weighing more and they do not need to focus on relative force. 

Next, we can categorize force by directions. Sprinters need to be able to produce large amounts of horizontal force, so they can push off the ground with as much force as possible to propel them forward. Jumpers need to be able to produce large amounts of vertical force, so they can push down into the ground with as much force as possible to propel them vertically.  

If you look at the pictures above, observe the angles that these athletes' shins make relative to the ground. The sprinter's shins are at about a 45 degree angle relative to the ground, pushing him forward, while the jumper’s shins are just slightly below 90 degrees as he prepares to launch himself up. 

Force Velocity Curve

The Force-Velocity Curve:

This graph above is the force-velocity curve. Basically, the graph shows that force and velocity (speed) are inversely related, meaning that the faster we go, the less force our muscles are capable of producing and the slower we move, the more force we are capable of producing. If you’ve ever seen a powerlifter or strongman attempt to set a personal record, you’ll see how long it takes for them to lift the weight. Now if you were to halve the weight they were lifting and told them to move it as fast as possible, they would be able to move that much faster because they do not need to produce as much force to move it. This has to do with how our muscles and muscle cells work, our muscles cannot contract very efficiently when moving fast. At this point, our tendons (attach muscles to bones) take over the brunt of the work and act almost like springs transmitting energy through the ground and propelling us forward (in a sprint) or upward (in a jump). 

Lastly, when we talk about velocity-based athletes, there are two types of movement we must address. 

  • Ballistics - Ballistics are a type of movement where we propel objects through space like throwing, kicking, or punching. Ballistics involve a stretch or a “cocking” of the throwing/kicking agonist muscles(the primary movers) and then a “break” by the antagonist muscles (the opposite of the agonists).
  • Stretch-Shortening Cycle - These are movements that similarly involve stretching of the primary movement muscles and breaking of the opposite muscles, but also have what is known as an amortization phase. The amortization phase is basically a pause in force production. This is like the brief moment you throw a ball up in the air and it stops moving upwards, but has yet to start moving downwards.  In the body, this occurs when the downwards momentum you have generated using gravity is transferred into the ground and “bounces” back up to propel you forward, upward, or more realistically somewhere in between the two.  This type of movement includes relatively high-speed sprinting and jumping. 

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Strength Athletes

Athlete Types:

Strength Athletes:

Structure - Generally, the strongest people are just absolutely massive individuals both in height, width, and weight. They are typically not very lean because the large amounts of fat they carry allows them to sport tons of lean tissue aka muscle. If they were to diet down to a relatively lean level, they would lose tons of muscle mass in the process. 

When it comes to weight-class based sports like powerlifting or olympic lifting, having certain proportions tend to help dominate in the sport. Arguably one of the greatest powerlifters of all time, Ed Coan, has been referred to as having the ideal powerlifting body. At 5’6”, 220lbs Coan was able to total 2,463lbs in the big 3 lifts (squat, bench & deadlift). The ideal powerlifting body (that which Coan resembled) is said to consist of relatively long arms, long femurs (upper leg bones) relative to shorter calves and a short, but thick torso.

I would also group bodyweight athletes like gymnasts into this category, the only difference being that they maintain much less body fat and less body fat, but are very strong relative to their body weight. 

Adaptations - In order to get stronger, there a few adaptations that we must focus on: 

  1. Myofibrillar Hypertrophy - Increased amounts of contractile protein in your muscles, allowing you to produce more force and thereby lift more weight
  2. Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy - A larger fuel reservoir in our muscles, allowing them to sustain a higher quantity and more intense contractions.
  3. Neurological (Skill) - To lift heavy loads, we need to be extremely efficient at contracting our muscles to maximize force production, in addition to being extremely skilled at the individual lifts themselves. 
  4. Bone Density - In order to lift superhuman like loads, your bones must increase in density over time to be able to withstand the forces that must be transmitted through them
  5. Stiffness - High-level strength athletes are often lacking lots of range of motion in their joints and are generally stiff as hell and for good reason. Strength athletes are master regulators of pressure, they are capable of locking in air and fluid (water, blood, ect,) into their body to maximize their force production. I like the analogy that Ben Yanes used comparing how hard it is to crush an open can of coke compared to a closed coke which is “pressurized”.  Strength athletes are like the closed coke can and the stronger the athlete, the harder that coke can is to crush.
    • Bodyweight athletes are likely not as stiff compared to other strength athletes, but are likely a lot more stiff than you would expect.

    Size Athletes: 

    Size Athletes

    Although it may not seem like it, size and strength athletes generally have a ton of overlap besides the amount of body fat they maintain. 

    Structure - The best bodybuilders today are surprisingly relatively short, usually about 5’9”. This is because their shorter limb length literally allows them to put on more muscle over a smaller distance (arm). It’s worth noting that there are exceptions, as Arnold was 6’2” and the most recent Olympia winner Chris Bumstead is also 6’2”. Also, unless you want to become a professional bodybuilder, who cares? Lastly, the best bodybuilders also have huge muscle bellies with really short joints.  

    Adaptations - The adaptations present in size athletes are virtually identical to those of strength athletes, so it’s not even worth going over. The biggest athletes are always capable of lifting heavy weights, the difference really resides in how much fat mass they have. This also is part of the reason bodybuilder’s have a strong association with steroids and testosterone injections.  These supramaximal levels of testosterone they have by using steroids allow them to build and maintain a level of muscle mass that their body would not normally allow. 

    Speed & Jump Athletes:

    Speed & Jump Athletes

    Structure - Speed athletes tend to be relatively tall at or above 6’ and the limbs they use tend to be extremely long. Sprinters and cyclists have long legs while swimmers have long arms. Not including throwing-based athletes, speed athletes are usually pretty ripped for the most part. They don’t carry a ton of muscle mass, but have a decent amount of muscle relative to a small amount of fat. These athletes also frequently distribute more of their weight to the limbs that they primarily use in their sport (swimmers are more top heavy compared to sprinters and cyclists). They tend to have relatively short muscle bellies and really long joints, which aids them in the ability to transfer large amounts of force/momentum through their body. 

    Adaptations - As stated previously, it might be easier to think of speed athletes as projectiles launching themselves or objects through space. This mainly requires a large transfer of energy and force through the ground to propel the object (or person) forward.

    • Tendon Stiffness -  The main adaptation necessary to produce this is tendon stiffness that allows for maximal transfer of energy. Tendons act like springs either compressing and absorbing large amounts or resisting this compression and expelling it back out (like a cannon). Though it may not seem like it, speed-based athletes tend to be pretty stiff, like other strength and size athletes, and also frequently experience injuries. They have more stiffness locally, in the muscles and tendons they use in their respective sport, compared to the body as a whole like in strength and size athletes. 
      •  An easier way of thinking about this might be to compare a big off-roading truck (regular people) to a sports car (speed athletes). When the truck hits a pothole or a bump it goes right through it. The truck's massive shocks or springs compress under the pressure, so you barely feel anything. The sport cars shocks are designed to not compress under load/force. So even when you hit the tiniest of potholes it feels like you're being launched in comparison to the truck.. 
    • Neurological "Brain" Coordination - To be able to perform high-velocity movements, you must have extremely high levels of coordination to be able to move your body with maximal efficiency. Speed athletes have over time developed a nervous system that is able to almost flawlessly coordinate the use of their muscles. Most elite level speed athletes will move in a similar manner, but they will also find the way that best suits their structure. This is where the differences between athletes begin to pile up. 

    Endurance Athletes:

    Endurance

    Structure - Endurance athletes will generally be very lightweight relative to their size and pretty lanky, having proportionally long limbs. They maintain a relatively lean physique, but do not have much muscle mass nor fat. 

    Adaptations - 

    • Higher Red blood Cell Count -  The increase in red blood cells allows for a more rapid exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide in our body 
    • Heart Hypertrophy - Over time the heart will increase in size in order to pump more blood per heart beat. This allows the heart to not have to work as hard to supply the body with sufficient blood and oxygen during exercise
    • Increased Blood Capillary Density - More capillaries means there is a greater exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide between the cells, allowing for an increased supply of fuel to the cells
    • Increased Mitochondria Count - Mitochondria are like the engine of the cell and are responsible for converting glucose or fatty acids into energy, typically as ATP. The more mitochondria present the more energy the cell is capable of producing at a more rapid rate. 

    Specialists:

    I think it's really worth noting how many of these training adaptations overlap in some form or another across the board with athletes. With the exception of maybe endurance athletes, all of these athletes over time become very stiff as a whole or in respective areas to maximize their force production. Additionally, virtually all of these adaptations are present in every type of athlete just to different degrees, each athlete specializing or maximizing a few types of adaptations. 

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    Conclusion:

    My goal in writing this article, as always, is to provide you with logically-based principles that you can use to form your own conclusions regarding any information you may come across within this subject. I really hope you found this article interesting and if you have anything to add to this article, or any comments or criticism, feel free to reach out to me on our facebook groups (The Thermo Diet Community Group, The UMZU Community Group) or on Instagram @tylerwoodward_fit. Also, please feel free to share this article with anyone that might be interested.

    Thanks for reading!

    Until next time… be good

    ~Tyler Woodward
    B.S. Physiology and Neurobiology