Can you build an athletic body when you are a regular person who is not a professional athlete?
I’m the living proof that you can.
It’s rare to see regular people with athletic bodies for 2 reasons:
- Conventional diet and training wisdom are misleading. The fitness industry hides the truth because they don’t want to scare away the gullible masses who desperately want to believe that there must be a shortcut to get fit.
- Building an athletic body requires discipline. Something which regular people hate.
The way to get an athletic body isn’t complicated. An athletic body is essentially a muscular body with a low level of body fat percentage (8-12%). That’s all there is to it. If you aren’t already muscular and lean (which most people aren’t) you need to lose fat and build muscle.
You build muscle by training and burn fat by dieting. Since you can’t out-train a bad diet, training isn’t enough by itself to build an athletic body. In addition to your training, you must also follow a special diet that is conducive to building muscle and burning fat at the same time.
Although building muscle and burning fat are interconnected in the sense that achieving one of them will make it easier to achieve the other, their functions are still separate as the fundamental duty of training is to build muscle and that of dieting is to burn fat.
The good news is that building an athletic body doesn’t take too long as long as you stick to the principles outlined in this article. Your training sessions will be short and they will get even shorter as you progress. Depending on your starting condition, you can get an athletic body within a time period as short as 12 weeks by training only 3 hours a week on average.
The bad news is that the high-intensity training that’s required for building an athletic body is strenuous and also it’s not easy to maintain a fat-burning diet along with a rigorous training regimen.
Training Principles to Get an Athletic Body
1. Strength Training
Common terms used to define an athletic build are “toned’, “defined”, “not overly muscular” etc. A person with an athletic body possesses a considerable muscle mass along with a low level of body fat, but he/she isn’t as big as a bodybuilder.
You don’t need to build big muscles in order to get an athletic body but you still need to build a high-quality muscle mass. If you manage to lose fat but fail to build muscle (or worse: lose muscle) you will end up with a body of skin and bones.
Strength training is the best way to build muscle. Bodyweight training and weightlifting are the two types of strength training, both of which are capable of building an athletic body. If you are a beginner I recommend bodyweight training because it’s not only more than enough for building an athletic body but it’s also a great way to build your muscular foundation before you start lifting weights (to get bigger muscles, if that’s what you want).
You won’t get big with bodyweight training but you will build enough high-quality muscle mass for an athletic look.
I developed the athletic body with six-pack abs you see in the picture above solely by bodyweight training without even stepping foot inside a commercial gym.
2. Progressive overload
Progressive overload is the strategy of gradually increasing the stress on your muscles over sessions of training. It’s an essential principle of building muscle because if you aren’t progressing you aren’t giving your muscles a reason to grow.
Progressive overload is easier to achieve for beginners thanks to a phenomenon called newbie gains. It’s not uncommon for beginners to set PRs (personal records) for almost every training session but you will see that the PRs will be harder to come by as you grow stronger and get closer to your natural muscle-building potential.
Keep a training journal to record your reps and workout completion times so that you know whether you’re progressing or not. For example, if you did 200 push-ups in 10 minutes in today’s training, try to do 200 push-ups in less than 10 minutes in your next training session. It’s hard to remember how many reps of a particular exercise or a combination of exercises and the time it took to complete all your reps so it’s essential that you keep a training journal to be able to know what scores to beat on your next training session so that you achieve progressive overload.
If you don’t score a new PR with every training session especially after exhausting your newbie gains, don’t fret. Nobody scores a PR with each training including the finest athletes. Do your best, be honest with your training and you will eventually break through plateaus.
3. Full body training with compound exercises
There are two types of muscle building exercises:
- Isolation exercises
- Compound exercises
Isolation exercises train a single group of muscles. For example, if you are doing curls with a dumbbell you are only training your biceps muscles which makes the curl an isolation exercise.
Compound exercises train multiple groups of muscles at the same time. For example, when you are doing push-ups you are training your chest, shoulders, triceps, abs, and anterior muscles all at the same time, which makes the push-up a compound exercise.
Isolation exercises are utilized by professional bodybuilders who want to fine-tune their muscular look. If you are not a professional bodybuilder you have no business doing isolation exercises. You must first build a solid muscular foundation by compound exercises.
You must also train all the muscle groups in your body. For example, most people train only their arms believing that having strong arms will be enough to attain a muscular look, which is a mistake because your body is a unit composed of muscle groups that work together.
There’s not a single compound exercise that trains all the muscles in your body at the same time so you will have to do a combination of a few different compound exercises in order to train your whole body.
I built an athletic physique with only 8 compound bodyweight exercises although there are literally hundreds of bodyweight exercises to choose from. When you have an athletic body you have an athletic body. No one cares if you built your body by doing 98 complex exercises or 8 simple exercises.
I would argue that it’s impossible to build an athletic body if you are doing too many different exercises because progressive overload would be impossible to track and the lack of simplicity will make it harder to stick to your program. Nobody will give you a medal for doing complex exercises. Simple exercises are more than enough to build a great physique.
Here are these 8 simple compound bodyweight exercises and the muscles they work:
- Burpee (abs, triceps, obliques, shoulders, chest, quads, glutes, hamstrings, calves, the adonis belt)
- Pull-up (back, shoulders, biceps, forearms)
- Push-up (chest, shoulders, triceps, abs, anterior)
- Sit-up (abs, obliques, tensors, thighs)
- Squat (hamstrings, quadriceps, glutes, adductors, calves, abs)
- Leg raise (abs, thighs, obliques)
- Lunge (quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, calves, abs, back)
- Jump (quadriceps, hip flexors, hamstrings, calves)
Do these 8 simple exercises over and over, overload progressively, stick to the diet principles outlined in the following section and you will build an athletic body.
Compound exercises not only build you a great physique but also save you tremendous time. I trained for an average of just 3 hours a week when building my body and nowadays I only train about a total of 1 hour a week to maintain my physique. The beauty of bodyweight training is that the better you get, the shorter your total training time will be. For example, someone who can do 100 pushups in 2 minutes has a better body than someone else who can do 100 pushups in 10 minutes.
The simplicity of the exercises is also good news for beginners because simple exercises have almost zero learning curve. You won’t waste time learning how to do the exercises properly because they are natural, simple, and straightforward movements to perform. Complex exercises intimidate beginners so knowing that you can achieve a great physique by doing simple exercises enables you to catch on from the get-go.
Your muscles need recovery in order to grow. The best schedule for your muscles to recover is to have rest days which is automatically achieved if you train 4 times a week as the remaining 3 days will be your rest days.
The good old sleeping is the best thing you can do for recovery. If you don’t sleep enough you will have a hard time recovering from the strenuous training sessions which will hurt your training performance and make it harder for you to achieve progressive overload. Keep in mind that sleeping pills and alcohol hurt the efficiency of your sleep so try to avoid them as much as you can.
Also, don’t forget to stay hydrated. You don’t need to overthink this either. Just drink water when you’re thirsty and keep a bottle of water by your side when you’re training. Sports drinks are fine as long as you take into account the calories you consume.
Your muscles will get sore at the beginning, which is nothing to worry about. Unless you’re injured, you can resume your training as planned. Muscle soreness will subside within a few weeks. Also, don’t forget to warm up before you start to train in order to minimize the risk of injury.
Diet Principles to Get an Athletic Body
1. A caloric deficit is a must to burn fat
No matter how hard the fitness industry tries to convince you otherwise, calories matter for both gaining and losing weight. The first law of thermodynamics, also known as the Law of Conservation of Energy, states that energy cannot be created or destroyed in an isolated system. You can’t break the laws of nature.
If you eat more calories than you consume your body stores the extra calories as fat tissue. If you eat fewer calories than you consume your body burns body fat to make up for the calorie gap.
Unless you already have an unusually low level of body fat (8-12%) you will need to lose body fat in order to achieve the athletic look. If you are already leaner than 8% of body fat (which is rare) then you need to eat more calories than your maintenance calories in order to build muscle.
2. Protein is the most important macronutrient for building muscle and burning fat
The total calories you consume is the main determinant of your weight on the scale but when you’re trying to build an athletic body you aren’t merely trying to lose weight but you are also trying to build muscle. If you aren’t already at low levels of body fat you have to follow a diet conducive to both building muscle and burning fat.
Protein is the most important macronutrient for building muscle since it’s the building block of your muscles. Plant protein is lower in quality compared to animal protein so eat animal products in order to fully utilize the muscle-building benefits of protein.
Protein is also the most important nutrient for burning fat because it’s not only the most satiating nutrient but also helps prevent muscle loss when you are in a state of a caloric deficit. You will inevitably feel hungry during your diet. Protein consumption makes it easier to endure hunger since it satiates you better than other macronutrients (fat and carbs). You also don’t want to lose your muscles when you are losing weight. You want to burn fat, not muscle. Eating protein will help you preserve your muscle mass when you are in a state of a caloric deficit. If you stick to the above training principles you will not only avoid losing muscle during a diet but also build muscle when you are losing fat at the same time.
Eggs, egg whites, beef, lamb, pork, chicken, turkey, fish, squid, shrimp, cheese, yogurt, and milk are all excellent sources of protein.
After you consume your protein, you should eat your dietary fat because fat is an essential macronutrient as well.
Upon hearing that eating fat is healthy, most people assume that they can eat as much fat as they want because, after all, it’s healthy, right? Wrong. Fat being healthy doesn’t mean that you can eat all the fat you can. Far from that. Fat is the most calorie-dense macronutrient so you must meticulously measure your fat intake lest you exceed your calorie budget. You will inevitably eat some fat along with the animal products you consume and depending on your daily calorie budget you can add a few spoons of healthy fats such as olive oil, butter, coconut oil, or avocado to your diet and that’s it.
The third and the last macronutrient after protein and fat is carbohydrates. Technically carbs aren’t essential nutrients which means that you can survive without eating them. If you don’t eat carbs your body can keep surviving by producing ketones as a replacement for carbs. Just because your body devised a workaround for the lack of carbs in your diet doesn’t mean that you should abuse it. Many zero or low-carb advocates declared carbs as the primary cause of obesity but this is false.
You must eat your carbs especially when you are training hard for building muscle. Carbs fuel your training by providing instant energy for your intense workouts something which ketones fail to do. If you don’t eat carbs your training performance will suffer. You will quickly get exhausted. Also, your brain uses carbs to function. Your brain will keep functioning in the case of a lack of carbs thanks to ketones but since ketones are an inferior replacement for carbs you will get brain fog.
Fruits, vegetables, potatoes, rice, pasta, wheat, and oats are all good sources of carbs which you can eat all you want as long as you eat your protein and fat first and you don’t exceed your daily calorie budget.
You can also add low-calorie fibrous vegetables to your diet. Although they are inferior sources of carbs since your digestive system isn’t fully capable of deconstructing fiber, eating low-calorie fibrous vegetables will help you endure hunger without consuming too many calories. Some examples of low-calorie fibrous vegetables are asparagus, cabbage, spinach, lettuce, cucumber, eggplant, and radish.
Frequently Asked Questions about Diet and Training to Get an Athletic Body
Is it possible to build muscle and burn fat at the same time?
Yes. If you eat enough protein and train hard, your body is capable of building muscle and burning fat at the same time. It’s not only possible to build muscle and burn fat at the same time but it’s also the way I recommend since almost nobody has athlete level low body fat and it’s torture to first lose the fat and then try to build muscle. It’s a better and faster strategy to do both at the same time.
Aren’t abs made in the kitchen?
Abs muscles are still muscles. If you want to grow them you need to train them just like you do it with the other muscles in your body. Abs are made in the kitchen is a lie by the fitness industry to sell diet products to the gullible masses who desperately want to believe that they secretly have six-pack abs under their belly fat. If you never trained your ab muscles then you don’t have six-pack abs under your belly fat.
Do I need supplements/protein powder?
Supplements don’t make it easier to build an athletic body. People want to believe that only if they find the right kind of supplement they will have the body they want since popping a pill is easier than putting in the work. Hard work can’t be substituted. There are no shortcuts. Don’t obsess over supplements because they will have a marginal effect at best, if at all.
Protein powder is a type of animal protein (whey or casein) in powder form. You can utilize it if you find it hard to get enough protein by eating whole foods. Otherwise, you don’t need it.
Do I need equipment?
Among the 8 bodyweight exercises mentioned above, only pull-ups require equipment. A $5 pull-up bar that you can set up in your home will be enough to perform all the exercises that you need for building an athletic body. No other equipment is needed.
How long does it take to get six-pack abs? Does it really take years to build an athletic body?
I want to build an athletic body but I have a busy work schedule, can I still do it?
Yes. I had a full-time job when I built my six-pack abs and I was also working on side projects as well. My total weekly training time was about 3 hours on average. Furthermore, your training time will get shorter as you improve.
I am a beginner and I have no idea about strength training. I have no athletic skills. Do I stand a chance to build an athletic body?
Yes. I recommend simple exercises because they not only give you the most bang for your buck but they’re also easy to learn. Nobody was born with an athlete’s body. Everybody who has an athletic body started from nothing and trained hard until they got the body they wanted. You are no exception.
Am I too old to build an athletic body?
I built my body after the age of 37. I’m currently 44 years old and I’m in better shape than I was at 37. As long as you have functioning muscles and joints you can build an athletic body at any age.
I travel a lot. Can I still build an athletic body?
Bodyweight training requires no equipment other than a pull-up bar so you can train anywhere you want. I travel a lot too and I trained everywhere including parks and hotel rooms. So yes, you can still build an athletic body even when you travel a lot.
I am too skinny and I can’t gain weight no matter how much I eat. What do you recommend me to do?
I know some extremely skinny people who claim that they are unable to gain weight no matter how much they eat. Eating more calories than you burn and not gaining fat is against the laws of thermodynamics so you are either overestimating how much you are eating or you have a thyroid issue in which case you should see a doctor.
Count your calories to see how much you are actually eating compared to your daily calorie expenditure. You will probably see that you aren’t eating enough calories.
How Much Should I Train?
I found that it’s best to train 4 times a week. Training more than 4 times a week is overkill as you will train hard and will need rest days for your muscles to recuperate. Training less than 4 times a week is a little bit lazy as you will have more rest days than training days.
You also have to be consistent with your training as taking weeks off your training will set you back. You should train for at least 12 consecutive weeks before you start looking like an athlete. The fatter you are when you start the longer it will take you to get the athletic body you want.
If you train 4 times a week you’ll inevitably have 2 consecutive days of training. You can overcome the lack of time for your muscles to recuperate by training different muscle groups on consecutive training days. For example one day you can train your upper body and the next day you can train your lower body and vice versa.
P.S. The best and the fastest way to get an athletic body is to follow the Ripped with Bodyweight program which shows you in detail how to exactly follow all the principles mentioned in this article.