| | | Coaching Around Aesthetics in Sports

Author / John

“I don’t look in the mirror and think “slim”; I look in the mirror and I’m like, “Whoa, beast!” It’s just crazy how much the body changes. Looking in the mirror I get surprised like every other week. It’s like I’m Wonder Woman.” – Chantae McMillian

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The human body is an amazing work of art.  As the success of ESPN: The Body Issue shows us, the elite athlete’s body comes in many forms, all to be admired.  Compared to the confusing and contradictory messages from the media, parents, or peers (been to a mall lately?), this issue is healthy for youth and athletes at the developmental levels. Similarly, a Power Coach must connect with athletes and deliver a clear message of aesthetics and body image.

I’ve never worked with a team that lacked athletes staying after practice to get in some extra credit.  More often than not, this consisted of abs, bi’s, and extra bench press.  It’s hard to get mad at moving extra dirt, but they also need to understand the programs’s big picture view and limiting factors that hurt on field performance.  For example, we’ve found that certain ab work limits an athlete’s rotation.  The coach not only builds a strength program around the athlete’s sport, but also informs them of the purpose behind each component.  Help them explore more prudent ways to accomplish the desired aesthetics.

Being a coach is not just sets and reps.  What separates a trainer from a Power Coach?  The Power Coach instills confidence in every aspect of an athlete’s performance, including owning the beast staring back at them in the mirror.  This article will focus on incorporating aesthetics into training for a sport, the practical application, and how to gain buy in from athletes to a performance based strength and conditioning program.

Good aesthetics are sexy, but you know what’s even sexier? Winning.


Buff is Not Enough – Movement control > Magazine covers

“Having a 6 pack doesn’t mean you have strong abs, it just means you have a good diet.” – Louie Simmons

Big chest, a six pack, and bulging quads may look like an athlete per GQ’s perspective, but what happens when they lace up and step into the arena?  We are all familiar with the phrase, “looks like Tarzan, plays like Jane.”  While these athletes may be appealing to the masses, we at Power Athlete know better.  Never judge an athlete by their cover.  Appearances can lie, movement cannot.

We are looking for an athlete’s ability to seamless and effortlessly combine Primal movements through multiple planes of motion to complete known and novel tasks. Why is ballet so aesthetically pleasing? It’s the movement, not the appearance.

What Are You Training For? Form Follows Function

We are not discounting an athlete’s appearance in the least, there are some amazing athletes that look like models and move with ease.  We are simply shifting our perspective towards performance, and not relying on appearance.  In fact, our understanding of physiology allows us to take the guesswork out of strength and conditioning that plagues many aesthetic-centric coaches.

An athlete’s technique in many exercises will determine the training effect, subsequently, the muscles’ functional capacity and appearance.  Lock that up first.

After that, reps, sets, speed, frequency, and load will affect the body in different, but predictable ways.  Recall the rep scheme chart and reverse engineering walk through from Cali’s article Strength 101 linked below:

Rep Range           Training Effect

  • 1-3                        CNS (power)
  • 4-7                        Hypertrophy – Myofibrillar – Higher Force Producing
  • 8-12                      Hypertrophy – Sarcoplasmic – Size: “The pump”
  • 12+                       Muscle Endurance

Reverse Engineering Theory

  1. I am training for A.
  2. A requires B as a physiological adaptation.
  3. To achieve B I need X number of reps at % intensity.
  4. An effective training day will require around Z repetitions.
  5. Therefore, I will complete Y sets of X repetitions to achieve Z.

The performance kicker here is movement, i.e. technique. Each specific adaptation listed above has their place in a training program, but implementation depends specifically on the demands of the sport.  No matter the application, the execution under RM load will determine the effectiveness.  A load that causes the athlete to reach their boiling point, but not their breaking point is what drives the specific adaptation.

Coaches must identify the demands of their athlete’s sport and target those in which the athletes are deficient.  This is harder than it sounds, and goes well beyond a simple number on athlete’s lifting card.


Use Desire To Light That Fire – Get Swole To Hit The Goal

I am a performance based coach.  I apply tests like the vertical jump, 5-10-5, and 40 yard dash to measure progress.  I attend my athlete’s games to measure the programming’s success and identify new limiting factors.  To me, winning is sexy.  To quote Welbourn, “did you win or did you lose? Everything else is just fluff.”

What I also understand is that it takes more than a performance or injury prevention approach to motivate athlete buy-in.  Aesthetics, on the other hand, has great initial appeal and is a VERY powerful motivator, not only to look a certain way, but also to NOT look a certain way.

This is an ad. Please consider our shameless self promotion.

There are two methods of appealing to athletes, Deep Meaning and superficial.  The Deep Meaning approach emphasizes physiological adaptations, performance, and injury prevention.  Pretty much, this is a coach’s perspective.  A superficial appeal uses common ground between the coach and athlete that will not only connect the two, but more importantly, will them to attack the training to drive the desired adaptation.

Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy in the upper body may not appeal to some female athletes from an aesthetics perspective, but if it could potentially improve performance and prevent injuries, it belongs in the strength program.  A superficial appeal for this athlete could be better posture, long-term height maintenance, and avoiding the old woman hunch.

Male athletes may want to overload the bar and do crazy shit on the bench press just to get the bar up.  This is will not improve performance, drive any adaptation, and it is fucking dangerous.  To connect with this athlete, a superficial appeal could be to reference a badass like JJ Watt (or whoever they respect aesthetically), and ask, “did you watch Hard Knocks? Did Watt do that shit on the bench press? Doing what you just did will not help you to make an impact on the game like he has.”  If you can scream this in Samuel L. Jackson voice, even better.


Coaching Strategies

Use aesthetics to your advantage.  While acknowledging what some athletes are after, you can still maintain the purpose of your strength program.

Connect: Intent VS Impact

A coach can create the perfect program and flawlessly explain its perfect balance, flow, and expected physiological response, but if the athlete just goes through the motions, what good is that program?  For those not driven by Deep Meaning, leverage aesthetic commonplaces.  Find the best of the best in their sports, or athlete’s they admire, and use them as a connection.  Power Athlete will provide you with the Deep Meaning Appeals, but the superficial will depend on your target audience.

For those wondering, my arm swing go-to is  Tom Cruise in The Firm/Minority Report/Ghost Protocol/Rouge Nation!

Find a Better Way: Accelerated Buy-In

Observe what aesthetically charged athletes are after, and find a better way to accomplish it.  I guarantee they’re either pulling these movements off of some health magazine.

Drop a knowledge bomb on them.  Connect with the purpose of accelerated adaptation, Deep Meaning, “More, faster”, or the superficial, “get that 6 pack by Christmas for ski-season.”  Then pull a tool from the Power Athlete Movement Demo Library that not only targets their desired muscles, but also shows them how un-athletic/weak/ill-informed they are.  From there, you will have earned their trust as they ping you for more extra credit, which then accelerates full buy-in into the program.

And trust me, more Dead Bugs are the fastest way to a 6 pack…and bigger biceps…and getting really, really ridiculously good looking.


Dangle The Carrot: A Week of Work Earns A Trip to Swole City

Make Friday’s sexy with some JohnnieBOD, the opportunity to crush some classic bodybuilding as a reward for the week’s effort.  Leverage this armor-building approach to gain buy-in.  Whether it’s 5 minutes at the end of training to crush some hammer curls, or a full Sexy Friday session, let the athletes know you’re listening to them and are keeping their aesthetics in mind.  Just structure these days so they do not affect the athlete’s on field performance.


Empower Your Performance: Winning Looks Great On You

Louis Sullivan coined the phrase “form follows function” in reference to architecture, but this is remarkably applicable to the human body.  Whether ESPN realized it or not, their Body Issue is proves this.

There is nothing sexier than winning, but this is a RESULT of earning an athlete’s buy-in to performance-based programming.  While aesthetics in sports can attract buy-in, it must not be the focus, so tread carefully.  Used in balance, it can draw athletes in, which will only benefit their well being, in and outside of the sporting arena.

Related Content 

PODCAST: Power Athlete Radio Ep. 286 w/ Stan Efferding
BLOG: Here’s How To Select a Training Program – Tex McQuilkin
BLOG: Strength 101: Reverse Engineering with Prilepin’s Chart by Cali Hinzman
BLOG: Occlusion Training 101 by Carl Case

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John Welbourn is CEO of Power Athlete and Fuse Move. He is also creator of the online training phenomena, Johnnie WOD. He is a 9 year veteran of the NFL. John was drafted with the 97th pick in 1999 NFL Draft and went on to be a starter for the Philadelphia Eagles from 1999-2003, appearing in 3 NFC Championship games, and for starter for the Kansas City Chiefs from 2004-2007. In 2008, he played with the New England Patriots until an injury ended his season early with him retiring in 2009. Over the course of his career, John has started over 100 games and has 10 play-off appearances. He was a four year lettermen while playing football at the University of California at Berkeley. He graduated with a bachelor's degree in Rhetoric in 1998. John has worked with the MLB, NFL, NHL, Olympic athletes and Military. He travels the world lecturing on performance and nutrition for Power Athlete. You can catch up with John as his personal blog on training, food and life, Talk To Me Johnnie and at Power Athlete.


  1. Ingo "Joey Swole" B on October 7, 2015 at 4:31 pm
  2. Steve (a.k.a. Prof. Booty) Platek on October 8, 2015 at 5:58 am

    Good stuff @mcquilkin
    I once wrote a short piece for the CF Journal about the form follows function idea, but particularly when the form is functional, athletic, and meaningful.

    I always tell my people: if you train to be awesome at you’ll look great! I often also emphasize that low BF% like in BB, is not healthy. I refer them to the J Meadows podcast where he says something (paraphrase): “…at competition I am 4% bodyfat and the furthest thing from ‘healthy'”

    • Tex McQuilkin on October 8, 2015 at 7:29 am

      Thanks bro. I’ve been catching kids do extra aesthetic work for a long time and used to approach it as, “was this on the card? No. Do what is.” But, they would do it anyways. Now I try to use this to my advantage and always ask, “what are trying to get from [movement]?”. Then I show them a better way that fits in the system. They get their looks and I gain connection, investment, and a mobile/stable/strong athlete.

      Fight now is for bodyfat. College athletes don’t value health or protection, and I can’t exactly punch them in the gut to immediately show value. Trying some different things here (energy, sleep, libido) and will follow up.

  3. slezak on November 2, 2015 at 8:23 pm

    Just got around to reading this. Great article my man. Based off of this I hope things are coming around for you at the school! I love how you’re looking at developing a connection. That was one of the big things we covered at our Parisi training, the importance of developing a connection and finding passion. At the very least, connect and create the desire to live a healthy lifestyle after sports. Rock on man.

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