Athletics Versus Aesthetics: What’s the Difference?


Hell, even the words themselves are eerily similar. When, in fact, the two couldn’t be more different. The strength culture that is booming right now needs a little time to sort out some basic science.

Herein lies 85% of the problems/misunderstandings for most coaches.

I’m writing this because I was that guy a long time ago, not only as a coach but as an athlete myself. A young person does not have the years of experience and a vast number of tools in their kit to have the necessary programming flexibility to suit their needs.

They all assume big is strong and powerful and fast.

And it’s just not the case. So, I’m hoping to clear up some thinking so that you can walk away from this with curiosity and the desire to investigate further.


I’m probably going to piss off many of my peers; I 100% don’t care.

Athleticism is not a singular quality. It is the marriage of several qualities that happen naturally in a person; Naturally, unconscious movement competence. I need you to understand that.

Our greatest athletes do things instinctively, without thinking.

Their gifts lie in the most optimal movement patterns to express:

The first and best way to sniff this out is to look at a person’s feet when they stand at rest.

  1. The more turned out the feet are (consistently), the more you probably have someone who would be on the unathletic spectrum.
  2. The more neutral or slightly pigeon-toed they consistently stand at rest, the more likely they’re naturally athletic.

To further melt your mind, two things sound counterintuitive in what I’m saying above.

  1. Pure athleticism does not automatically make you a good football player, a good baseballer, or a basketballer. A good athlete must then adopt an entire slew of sport-specific skills to be considered a good (or great) athlete. It is then, and only then, where the natural athleticism can be put on display.
  2. Athleticism is something that can indeed be trained. I’m sure many of my contemporaries are getting nosebleeds hearing me say this. If even the most unathletic person has a radical desire to improve, they can, with time and masterful coaching and continual drilling, develop a certain degree of athleticism.

It must be burnt into their nervous system, but it can be done. Check out some of the great work being done here at Mater Dei High School, at WeckMethod in San Diego, or GOATA in New Orleans.

These systems radically accelerate those qualities that we inherently see in someone we would say has great athleticism.

We have seen extraordinary results in both degrees of athleticism along with reducing injuries.

Training for Aesthetics

Who doesn’t want:

I’m staring 50 years old in the eyes, and the young man still alive and well in me would love one more shot at all of the above- Ahhhh, the good ole days.

Regardless of how old you are, much of the recipe to do these things is very clear cut, such as high volume sets, lots of sets per body part, isolation exercises, and a mix of free weights and machines.

The list goes on, and that list is effective for building muscle, etching in detail, and shaping form. Yes, it takes time, incredible discipline (not just in the gym), and a true willingness to suffer.

Add cardio of all sorts to the list of weight training exercises to lean out and resistance training to build and sculpt, and you have the perfect mix.

Whereas the conditioning work is to strip away as much body fat as possible to see the muscularity beneath.

The people who invest their time in creating programs to do this are true artists.

And the folks who choose to live their lives this way to carry elite conditioning 24/7 are some of the most masochistic folks on earth.

When I was a kid and growing up into my teenage years and young adulthood, all we had access to for training advice were muscle magazines. And since our entire culture can’t differentiate between muscle for looks and muscle for function, those of us coming up in the 80s and 90s (although well-intended) ended up training like bodybuilders for sport.

The result was some of the most gruesome athletic-related injuries you can imagine.

Training for Athletics

When I sit down to write a team program, dozens of factors come into play before putting pen to paper (or keyboard clicks to screen).

The first thing we must consider is the handful of repetitive motions that a given sport forces on an athlete, such as:

  • Throwing
  • Swinging an object
  • Heavy rotation
  • Sprint and/or change of direction/acceleration-deceleration dense
  • Range of motion dependent
  • Weight class focused

Once we have determined the qualities necessary for the sport, we lean into whether or not we have chronic use issues (because of those repetitive motions) and the most likely catastrophic injuries this sport sees.

It all becomes really complicated versions of math, trying desperately not to introduce something detrimental to the team while addressing the pre-hab type of programming without losing sight of what the head coach’s asks are.

I promise I’m not trying to make this more fantastic than it is for effect.

What I’m trying to do is give you a glimpse into the mind of a coach who is getting ready to write a program for 30 teenage girls who play water polo, and the demands of their sport are vastly different from that of my wrestlers, footballers or my hoops kids.

See, my program can never be why we have a performance hiccup, an injury trend within a team, or the primary reason an athlete sustains a season-ending, non-contact related injury.

And what most of you readers will come to find out, we have more ability to manipulate things in either direction than you might understand.

And herein lies the most pressing reason for the difference between training for aesthetics versus athletics.

My exercise menu for sport is enormous. 25% is standard-issue stuff that you would find in both programs:

But where we start to see the most radical differences is, my facility has no machines. We are strictly free-weight-based and use all sorts of equipment that you would never find in a Planet Fitness, 24 Hour Fitness, or Golds.

The biggest reason for all of this is, I need performance, not sexiness.

Aesthetics Does Not Equal Athletic

My last statement in the previous section is the seed of this article.

Most coaches fall on their faces because they are so blindly loyal to how we’ve always done things that the exercises selected have no legitimate use to the athlete on the field.

Big for big sake is not a reason to program certain exercises. Yes, there are a few positions in a couple of sports where considerable body mass increases are part of the job. But, most of those situations are quite isolated and can still be executed in more sophisticated ways.

Part of the reason traditional bodybuilding type workouts are ineffective and somewhat dangerous is focusing on single-joint exercises.

Left to their own devices (and I know this because it was me many moons ago), an athlete will overemphasize those exercises that load the arms and upper body because they equate form with function.

And, let’s face it, they want to look swole to themselves in the mirror in the morning while brushing their teeth. This over-focus on things that truly don’t matter to athletics creates a tremendous amount of disharmony from segment to segment of the body.

The best way to frame this is with my own experience.

I was a great bench presser. Without drugs, in my sophomore year in college, I hit 485 lbs for a set of 5. If you run percentages, that is over a projected 525 lbs single.

During that time, I hit 42 repetitions on the 225 bench press test (the one they use at the NFL Combine). I was big and had triceps for days and was truly strong… except… at that exact time, I couldn’t do a single pull up—yup, all that anterior strength and literally nothing behind supporting it.

As a result of this, after my junior year, I got to lay on the surgeon’s table and have my shoulder put back together. I didn’t dislocate it or have a sudden football-related injury. I just wore the shoulder out due to a massive imbalance. I couldn’t use it anymore. When my surgeon got in there, my labrum and much of my rotator cuff had been frayed in several places.

That’s an easy, straight to the point example. When you look at lower-body injuries, what you end up seeing are soft tissue injuries in hamstrings, hip flexors, groins, and calves.

If the programming is bodybuilder-ish, and the athlete has some of my tendencies, you can see where an overemphasis on one area will subject the rest of the body to forces that can’t be managed.

Another example of this with my own experience is hamstring tears. My hamstrings were the cause of my athletic demise. Repetitive strains and poor rehab practices eventually led to a low back that absolutely derailed my career.

There wasn’t professional football in my future, but there were the last three games of my senior year that I watched from the sideline. Thirteen years of football… ended in a thud.

Most aesthetic lifting programs create significant imbalances front to back, top to bottom. This puts an athlete trying to move his/her entire body in one grand movement to achieve a task into real danger.

If you see many soft tissue injuries in your athletes, you need to look long and hard on either how you are:

  1. Programming
  2. Your exercise selection
  3. How you teach specific techniques

I’ve had to take those long lonely walks down the how did we get here road, only to discover that it was, in fact, something that I was teaching, emphasizing, or programming that led my athletes into a situation where they were more likely to have X injury.

As you sort through your programs, my best way to navigate these sometimes troubled waters is to ask, “What is your reason for that?”

I tell my coaches all the time; you can program however you want, but you better have a quick and satisfactory reason for writing the way you are. If you are programming ten sets of 60 seconds of the hula-hoop, great, tell me why.

And if you can’t give me a reason why it’s there, it must go—this one thing of asking their reasons why has been one of the most educational experiences for me. I think in a very streamlined way.

Yet, I give my coaches as much programming leash as they could ever want. Then, when interrogated why they put that there, more often than not, they are thinking about an exercise, rep range, or location of exercise (within the session of the lift) in a way I never thought of, and it’s brilliant.

As you sort through your programming, ask yourself why, and if your answer has to do more with how it makes that athlete look, then it’s time to rethink your prescription.

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