Building the High-Performance Physique From the Ground Up

building a high performance physique from the ground up

Freddy Ortiz sporting the classic high-performance, bodybuilder look.

Back when I worked in big box gyms, before opening Relentless, one of the biggest non-working activities I would engage in was people watching.  While it was usually in NASCAR-mode (ie not really paying attention but waiting for a crash), I did keep my observation sharp enough to get used to seeing some regular scenarios play out.

One that always stood out in particular was the “fit guy and struggling buddy” scene.  This normally went down by involving a pretty fit, jacked guy who’d been in the gym for a long time bringing in his less-fit buddy in to “start lifting with him”.  That sounds like a great idea but what usually happens is that the buddy either turns into a hype man for the good lifter or he basically serves as a glorified plate loader while getting so smashed that he never makes progress or quits.

The reason that the buddy doesn’t get the results of the fit guy when following the same program is that he never set up the foundation to build the high-performance physique he is looking for before jumping into a more advanced program.

I don’t want that to happen to you.  So, if we’re going to build a high-performance physique the most important thing is to develop a base in three key qualities:  Mobility, Aerobic Conditioning, and Basic Strength.  Everything else you’re looking to do will build off of these.

But wait!  I’m a former athlete!  I never had to do this type of shit before, so why now?

The issue is that a lot of these qualities are built as youth through the playing of sports.  So if you’re coming from a pretty recent sports career you’ll probably have a lot of this foundation covered and not even realize that it’s a thing.  For those who’ve been away from fitness and sports and instead been in the chair and on the couch for a while, you’ll be surprised at how eroded these qualities can become.  Jumping back in at full steam is at best going to compromise your results and set you up for some bad habits while at worst exposing you to a pretty substantial injury risk.

Step 1.  You need to become mobile enough to keep your body safe and efficient as you move to different positions.  

This doesn’t mean lots of sitting around and doing lame-ass static stretching, although that can have its place.  Static stretching focuses mostly on building flexibility, which is merely a joint’s ability to passively move through ranges of motion.  Mobility, which is what we’re after, is the ability to achieve various positions in an effective and efficient manner while actively moving.

Mobility needs are going to be pretty individualistic, but in general most adults are going to be in need of a little work in the hip/glute area and in the shoulder/upper back area.

So grab your foam roller and lacrosse ball, because we’re going to get going on a little loosening up.  Let’s target three key areas:

Glutes/Hips:  Lots of sitting will tighten and weaken the glutes and hips.  If this region isn’t working and flowing well then you’ll end up with a weak hip hinge, which is important for deadlifting, sprinting, and most anything athletic, and a sore lower back because it will have to compensate for the weak glutes and do things it isn’t supposed to do.  Simply sit on the foam roller, lean to one side, cross the leg on that side over to get a little stretch on, and roll slowly back and forth along the glute muscles.

Traps/Rear Delts:  The trap and rear delt area can get bound up in a hurry with all of the sitting, driving, and typing on the computer and phone that we do.  This keeps the shoulder blades from moving around like they should and eventually can result in bunching up the shoulder when you try to press something overhead.  This lack of movement of the shoulder blade turns into a shoulder impingement and messed up rotator cuffs.

Luckily, starting to loosen this area up doesn’t get much more simple:  Find a good spot of wall, put your lacrosse or tennis ball between your target area and the wall, and roll around until you find the tight spots.  Spend some extra attention on the ouchy areas.

Thoracic Spine:  The T-Spine, or basically your mid-back, should be the most mobile part of your spine.  For many people, like the trap and rear delt area, it tends to get bound up from our adult lifestyle.  This forces the cervical spine (neck area) and lumbar spine (lower back area) to do way more bending then they should be doing and thus exposing them to injury risk and reduced performance.

To start working on your T-Spine, simply grab a foam roller and lay back on it.  Start by crossing your arms and relaxing around the roller.  As you get more comfortable open your arms and really work through the area like I am showing here.

Step 2:  Have the wind to train hard without needing an inhaler or a Life-Alert necklace.

If you grew up playing sports each season followed by an active summer job like I and most of my classmates did then you really didn’t think all that much about building an aerobic base of fitness.  I mean, there was a transition from “football shape” to “wrestling shape” with the change of the seasons, but a couple of weeks of pre-season and we were good to go.  Not that I knew any of this at the time, but the reason we were able to adapt and “peak” to the new sport so smoothly was because we all had very strong and well-adapted aerobic systems from playing sports and throwing hay all year-round.

Fast forward to adulthood and several years of sitting on the couch and a great deal of that aerobic machinery has broken down.  Now, when you start doing a basic workout it feels like you’re going to have a heart attack and die.  You’re finding yourself asking how did it get to the point where lifting a few weights would get you huffing and puffing?

If this is you, then it’s time to get back on the aerobic train.

With a stronger aerobic system you’ll be able to train harder and recover faster.  Thus you’ll actually be able to get bigger and stronger if you’re in better endurance shape, contrary to what the aerobic haters love to say.  Unless you’re literally training for high-level endurance activities and not much else then you won’t have to worry about a few walks, runs, or bike rides “stealing your gains”.

For most people who are just starting out again I recommend 2-4 cardiac output (a fancy name for low-key, steady-state cardio) sessions per week for the first few weeks.  Keep your heart rate in the neighborhood of 60-70% of your max heart rate.  This will probably be slower than you think.

Here’s how you calculate that:  Your (theoretical) max heart rate is 220-Your Age.  So if you’re 30, you’re looking at 190.  60-70% of that would be a range of 114-133, so you’d regulate your speed and intensity to keep it there and just chug along.

After a couple of weeks of nothing but cardiac output I like to introduce Tempo Intervals by swapping out 1-2 of the cardiac output sessions.  This is a fancy name for simply going pretty hard and then pretty easy.  Warm-up well and then hit 8-15 rounds of going hard at like 80-85% for 30 seconds or so and then low-key for 30-60 seconds.  The goal isn’t to smash yourself on the hard intervals but they should definitely get your heart rate up there.

3.  Develop strength by mastering the big, basic techniques and getting strong before you get pretty.

Early on in your strength training career is where you have the best chance to learn good habits, set in strong motor patterns, and fast-track your strength.  This is going to be best learned with good, old-fashioned strength work with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and/or your bodyweight as opposed to every fancy, super-cool looking method under the sun.  While there are all kinds of basic training methods out there that work, here’s three principles that any program you hop on should cover:

1.  Follow the core aspect of a powerlifting program, in that you should train for technique and strength before worrying about size or physique.  At first, you’ll gain size and physique improvements simply by lifting at all.  Focusing on your strength early will give you more leverage down the road when you make the transition to higher performance or physique training as the additional strength will allow you to move bigger weights (more muscle) or perform better tricks.

2.  Develop the muscles that “go”, which are your pulling/backside muscles such as your grip, lats, glutes, and hamstrings.  These muscles are responsible for a lot of your power and performance.  Even though they don’t show up in the mirror, they’ll be the ones to carry you to higher performance.

3.  Don’t neglect your midsection work.  It’s popular to do a lot of “ab work”, which basically means some sort of crunch or sit-up variation, in hopes of showing off the six-pack muscles.  However, for most athletes doing flexion work like that is the least important part of training the “core” and the part that translates the least into success.

Instead focus on doing rotation exercises, such as rotational throws and wood chops, anti-rotation exercises, such as Paloff Presses and Loaded Carry variations, and Lower Back work such as Hyperextensions.  Not only will you build that six-pack, but you’ll also build a strong, sturdy, and functional midsection that you can use as a strong launchpad to build the rest of your performance physique.

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