The Exercises Pro Athletes Do to Stay Lean and Ripped

By Shawn Donnelly

When it comes to fitness there are hard and fast rules like, in order to lose weight calories in must be less than calories out. And famous athletes always look amazing because they’re paid to. But I’ve interviewed many athletes and one thing I know to be true is that whatever a pro athlete or famous person does with their workouts and nutrition to get in great shape will also work for you. So let’s take a look at a few elite athletes and see what we can learn from them as far as what they’re doing in the gym to look lean and ripped. 

Michael Phelps

Who he is: 18-time Olympic gold medalist

What he does: Hanging Leg Raise

Why it’s great: Even if you hate the water, you’ll get a lot out of a movement that’s a staple of the most decorated Olympian of all time. (You can even see him performing an advanced version of it in this recent commercial.) Phelps uses the hanging leg raise to simulate his butterfly kick, but you can use it to engage your hip flexors and psoas, strengthen your scapula stabilizers and generally work your abdominal muscles to carve out a six-pack.

Here’s how to do it: Hang from a pull-up bar with both arms extended using either a wide grip or a medium grip. Raise your legs until the torso makes a 90-degree angle with the legs. Hold the contraction for a second and then go back to the starting position. Try to do five then progress until you can perform 10 or 15 at a time.

Note: If you want to make it even more challenging, stick a 10-pound medicine ball between your knees. You can even play “catch” with a partner.

Possible workout: Three sets of 10 with a 60-second rest between sets.

Russell Westbrook

Who he is: 5-time NBA All-Star

What he does: Single-Leg Dumbbell Curl-to-Press

Why it’s great: According to, this exercise is part of Westbrook’s explosive speed workout, and while it won’t make you as fast as the Oklahoma City point guard (who is?), it will work your biceps and shoulders while strengthening your core and improving your proprioception (aka, balance). Which is why Westbrook’s former high-scoring Thunder teammate Kevin Durant performs it as well.

Here’s how to do it: Stand on your right leg with your left leg bent and left foot off the ground. Hold dumbbells at your sides with palms facing in. While balancing on your right leg, curl the dumbbells to your chest, hammer curl-style, then press them overhead. Lower the dumbbells to your chest, then your sides. Repeat, then switch legs.

Note: Start with light dumbbells – 10 or 20 pounds – and gradually increase the weight as you improve. You can also perform the movement with a dumbbell in only the hand of the standing leg.

Possible workout: Three sets of eight reps (four on right leg, four on left leg), with a 30-second rest between sets.

John Cena

Who he is: 15-time WWE world champion, actor, TV show host

What he does: Olympic Squats

Why they’re great: “It’s the one lift that no one can do without,” John Cena once told me while I was working on a cover story on him for Muscle & Fitness, and he was not lying, because the Olympic squat is an incredibly beneficial move. The squat works practically the entire lower body, plus the lower back. It really works the quads, glutes and hamstrings, which are the three biggest muscle groups in your entire body. So it’s a great way to burn a ton of calories, spike your metabolism and gain a lot of strength and power, whether you’re wanting to bodyslam someone or just improve your explosiveness on the basketball court, flag football field, softball diamond or ice. It’s even a great way to chisel a six-pack because it’s such a good fat-burner.

Here’s how to do it: Using a squat rack, set the bar on the rack just above shoulder level and load it with weight. Step under the bar and place the back of your shoulders across it. Hold onto the bar with both arms and lift it off the rack by pushing with your legs. Step away from the rack and position your legs with a shoulder-width stance. Slowly lower the bar by bending the knees while maintaining a straight posture with the head up. Continue down until your hamstrings are parallel to the floor. Raise the bar by pushing the floor with the heel or middle of your feet as you straighten your legs to return to the starting position. Repeat.

Note: If you’re new to the movement, start with bodyweight squats. Then use dumbbells that you hold at your sides. Then progress to the barbell and squat rack if you want.

Possible workout: Three sets of eight reps, with 60 seconds between sets.

Misty Copeland

Who she is: Principal ballet dancer with the American Ballet Theatre

What she does: Pilates

Why it’s great: You probably don’t want the body of a typical ballerina, but Misty Copeland is no typical ballerina. She’s got a lot more muscle, strength and power. (Just check out this commercial to see for yourself.) She hones that muscle with Pilates. Its total-body moves really target your core and legs. It’s also a big-time stress reducer, and most people who try it find it fun. (It can even alleviate back pain.) Rather than go into much more detail about it, the best thing for you to do is to take a Pilates class and see if you like it. If you do, keep going with it. If you don’t, try something different yet similar, like yoga.

Cristiano Ronaldo

Who he is: World-class soccer player, underwear model

What he does: Box Jumps

Why they’re great: Ronaldo’s training emphasizes power, explosion and speed, and one of the go-to moves in that training is the box jump. It works the hamstrings hard, but it also hits the abductors, adductors, glutes, quads and calves. (So basically your whole lower body.) Not only will it improve your power and speed, it’ll also enhance your physique.

Here’s how to do them: Face the box or platform about an arm’s length away and take up a relaxed stance (arms at sides and legs slightly bent). Using your arms to aid in the initial explosion, jump up and forward, landing with feet simultaneously on top of the box or platform (try to land softly). Immediately drop or jump back down to the starting place. Repeat.

Note: Start with a box that’s about 20 inches high. Once you’ve mastered that, increase the height.

Possible workout: Three sets of 10 with 60 seconds rest between sets. (Box jumps also work great in a circuit set with other moves for explosion and speed, like the barbell squat, broad jump and jumping lunge.) And if you really want to get shredded like Ronaldo, you can try his other secret weapons: Lots of sprints in training, lots of rest at night and absolutely no alcohol. (Well, maybe on special occasions…)

About Shawn

Shawn Donnelly has written for,, MaximMen’s FitnessMen's HealthMuscle & Fitness and Boating, among others. A graduate of the University of Missouri, he lives in Brooklyn with his dog, Maclin.

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