It’s been said that the best kind of exercise is the one you’ll stick with. So whatever you’re into, we won’t judge you (unless it’s prancercise). Rather, we want to help you do it to the best of your ability. We looked at the most popular methods guys use to get in shape, from weight training to pickup basketball, and drew up a plan to help you excel at them.
If your main source of exercise is regular pickup games with your buddies, we’re going to guess that basketball is the one you play most often, given its year-round accessibility. While the tips that follow are geared primarily for increased performance on the court, boosting speed and explosiveness will change any athlete’s game for the better. These skills begin with your vertical jump.
“Do box jumps once a week,” says Jason Ferruggia, a strength coach in Los Angeles who’s worked with more than 500 athletes. Find a stable box or platform that’s challenging to jump up onto and perform three to five sets of one to three reps. Rest up to two minutes between sets. Swing your arms back to begin each rep, dip your hips, and then reverse the motions quickly and use the momentum to help propel you onto the box. Land softly (try to make your landing quiet). If you already weight train, place the box jumps at the beginning of your lower-body workout. However, “if you’re playing basketball four times per week or more, don’t bother with them,” says Ferruggia—you’re getting plenty of practice jumping as it is, and may risk injury by doing more.
PLAY YOUR HEART OUT
To build court-specific speed, sprint from baseline to half-court and then rest two minutes. Repeat for 10 to 12 total sprints. “As far as conditioning goes,” says Ferruggia, “I’ve always been a believer in playing yourself into shape.” Competing in your sport two to three times per week for at least 30 minutes should be enough to build your endurance.
High-top sneakers that provide extra ankle support were popular in the ’80s and ’90s but are giving way to low-tops or midrange sneakers now. “When you essentially put a cast around your ankle, the stress of running and turning gets transferred elsewhere,” says Ferruggia. Namely, your knees, hips, and lower back. Less-supportive sneakers like a Converse Chuck Taylor allow your ankles to work at stabilizing themselves.
Tip: If you already play basketball three times a week, don’t bother doing separate cardio workouts.
REMEMBER THE CUES
When people stop running, it’s usually because of injury. The pounding of your joints along with repeated foot strikes will always pose risks, but maintaining good running form can keep you in the game a lot longer. “Think ‘high knees,’ ” says Lee Boyce, a trainer and track coach in Toronto. “You don’t want to shuffle along the ground. Run tall and ensure that your knees are always directing you.”
You must also avoid twisting your torso during a run. This will keep your core engaged and reduce the risk of injury to the hips and lower back. “And pay attention to your foot strike,” Boyce says. “Focus on landing on your midfoot. There should be very little friction,” as opposed to if you landed on your heel first. Finally, learn to relax. “Tension held in the face, arms, and neck is the enemy. Breathe deeply to avoid cramping.”
ATTACK YOUR WEAKNESSES
Running causes muscle tightness throughout the lower body, so you need to work on it regularly with a foam roller. Key areas to hit are the quads, hip flexors (the muscles at the top of your pelvis), and IT bands (along the sides of your thighs). Roll these parts with the foam and hold any particularly tender areas until you feel them begin to release—do this before and/or after runs.
You can also take preventive measures to protect your knees. The vastus medialis, the muscle on the inner side of your quads, acts as the main stabilizer for the knee joint. You can strengthen it with the Peterson stepup. Set up a small box or step that’s about eight inches off the floor and stand to the left of it. Bend your right knee and place the ball of your right foot on the step (heel raised). It’s OK for your knee to be in front of your toes. Extend your knee to step up onto the box as you lower your heel to the surface, but let your left foot dangle. Perform three sets of eight to 10 reps on each leg and work to raise the height of the step over time.
Lastly, run outside instead of on a treadmill whenever possible. Running on a moving belt pulls your legs behind you, doing the work that your posterior chain muscles should be taking on, and that leads to muscle imbalances, Boyce says. “Let the glutes and hams play their role.”
Running is progressed by reaching a total weekly mileage. This should include runs done at different tempos, or paces. Day 1 can be a slower-paced jog for a longer distance—around five miles. The next day can be faster, where you look to complete your distance—say 2½ miles—in a shorter time. This combo wins races.
Tip: Keep your knees high, body relaxed, and focus forward when running.
GET YOUR FORM DOWN
Strength gains are mainly sabotaged by poor lifting form, according to Ben Bruno, a strength coach in North Andover, MA. The simplest way to get feedback on your form if you don’t have a qualified coach or workout partner is to film it.
Use your phone or get a video camera. You can set it up on a bench to record yourself during a set or have an onlooker hold it. “While you may think you’re doing an exercise correctly,” says Bruno, “the camera will always provide objective feedback. It’s how I originally taught myself to lift.” If you still aren’t sure if you’re doing it right, show the video to a trainer.
TAKE A BREATHER
With the increasing popularity of high-intensity workouts, like CrossFit and P90X, some have come to think of rest between sets as laziness. Nothing could be further from the truth. Rest is necessary for the body to recover ATP, the fuel source for muscle cells, and for the nervous system to recruit all the muscle fibers needed to perform the next set. Forgoing it to push yourself harder will ultimately limit your muscle gains and hurt your performance.
According to the Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning, the main text of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, rest intervals between two and five minutes are necessary for maximal gains in strength. To build muscle size, 30- to 90-second rests are better. Demanding lifts like the squat and bench press should be done with longer rests between sets, whereas accessory work, such as lateral raises, curls, and other isolation movements, require shorter breaks.
Most commercial gyms offer slick barbells with poor knurling (the rough patches on the bar that you grip), making them hard to hold on to when using heavy weights. Gyms also tend to frown on using chalk—which keeps your hands dry—compounding the problem. “A chalk sock can help you get a better grip without creating a mess,” Bruno says.
Found in outdoor adventure stores that cater to rock climbers, a chalk sock is a permeable pouch you fill with magnesium carbonate and squeeze in your hand to apply chalk.
Tip: Strength gains are mainly sabotaged by poor lifting form.
MASTER THE SQUAT
All of CrossFit’s cornerstone exercises are built on the basic body-weight squat—or “air squat.” “Too often, people jump into CrossFit and want to snatch their faces off,” says Jason Schroeder, co-owner of Brazen Athletics, a CrossFit gym in Passaic, NJ. “But if they focus on perfecting the air squat, it translates to success in every move.”
Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly out. Sit back until the crease of your hips is below your knees, which should be aligned with your toes and your lower back in its natural arch. Schroeder recommends practicing these facing a wall so that you learn to sit back properly. (If you don’t, your knees will bump the wall before you’re in the bottom position.) Do 10 sets of five reps like this.
LIFT LIKE AN OLYMPIAN
Schroeder prefers to use the Olympic lifts to build coordination, agility, and power in his clients. “Snatching and jerking your body weight will teach you to maneuver your feet.”
Proper form will help you progress, so when you’re not doing them in your CrossFit WODs, practice the exercises at home with a five-foot PVC pipe. The pipe—or any light bar—simulates a barbell, so you can ingrain good technique.
The snatch drop begins in a standing position with your feet about hip-width apart and the bar held behind your head, as in a squat, although with a wide snatch grip. Immediately jump your feet out to your squat stance and drop into a full squat while pressing the bar up explosively. You’ll finish in the bottom of a full snatch. The snatch balance works the same way but you’ll get momentum from the knees first. Dip your knees and explosively extend them to power the bar up.
SCHROEDER’S SNATCH AND JERK WOD:
|Snatch Drop||10||1 min|
|Snatch Balance||10||1 min|
|Split Jerk||10||1 min|
Athletes with backgrounds in aerobic exercise generally have trouble acclimating to the conditioning demands of WODs. That’s because the endurance component in CrossFit is more anaerobic in nature.
SCHROEDER’S STAMINA-BUILDING CIRCUIT:
|400-meter Sprint||4||1 min|
|40-meter Sprint||10||10 sec|
|250-meter Row||4||1 min|
|30 Jump-rope Double Unders||10||30 sec|