Learn How to Train Like Cristiano Ronaldo with Sports Science

Ross Edgley@@rossedgleyFeatured ColumnistFebruary 18, 2015

Cristiano Ronaldo
Cristiano RonaldoPaulo Duarte/Associated Press

Cristiano Ronaldo is a footballing phenom and a physical specimen.

Granted, the man had a lucky draw from the gene pool and has been gifted with natural ability, but his impressive, custom-built physique is also the result of years of practice and no doubt a meticulously planned fitness regime.

To quote research published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine: "The authors conclude that...deliberate training and other environmental factors are critical for elite performance...and training can be defined as the process by which genetic potential is realized."

But what can the rest of the world learn from Ronaldo's gym schedule? Will we become equipped with lightning speed, chiseled abs and bulletproof pecs should we follow his blueprint? Maybe not, but sports science shows us we'll certainly see a dramatic improvement in our health and fitness should we take only a few little gems from his daily routine.

Train Hard and Fast

A FIFA-commissioned study, published in Spanish newspaper Mundo Deportivo (Spanish), reveals Ronaldo can reach speeds of up to 33.6 kilometres per hour during a match. To put things into perspective, that's only marginally behind Usain Bolt at 37.6 km/h, who has the luxury of running on a track in a straight line while wearing a pair of spikes.

Therefore, it would be fair to say Ronaldo competes and trains at a high intensity. Which, interestingly, is what scientists from Laval University in Quebec, Canada, could attribute to his incredibly low body-fat percentage.

Scientists wanted to analyse the difference high-intensity training had on body-fat levels and metabolism compared to low-intensity training. Following muscle biopsies and body-fat measurements, their results revealed that high-intensity sprint programmes resulted in greater fat loss and an increased metabolism:

In conclusion, these results reinforce the notion that for a given level of energy expenditure, vigorous exercise favors negative energy and lipid (fat) balance to a greater extent than exercise of low to moderate intensity. Moreover, the metabolic adaptations taking place in the skeletal muscle in response to the high intensity program appears to favor the process of lipid oxidation (fat burning).

Six-Pack Abs

In many ways, a Ronaldo goal celebration just isn't complete unless there's the ritualistic tensing of the abs and removing of the shirt. But how exactly has his training chiseled one of the most recognisable stomachs in sport?

Is it the result of millions of sit-ups and an "ab roller" he keeps in his house? Researchers from the Department of Kinesiology at Pennsylvania State University, USA, believe probably not (h/t PubMed.gov). Based on their study, it seems his torso has very little to do with conventional sit-ups and more to do with his agility and the compound and complex movement required for football.

By using surface electromyography (EMG) electrodes, sports scientists discovered that the balancing, twisting, agile movements performed during a match and training actually recruit more muscle fibres in the core than your conventional "abdominal crunch."

For this reason: "When completing the core strength guidelines, an integrated routine that incorporates the activation of distal trunk musculature would be optimal in terms of maximizing strength, improving endurance, enhancing stability, reducing injury, and maintaining mobility."

So what does this mean for your daily gym visit? Simply don't rely too heavily on the small, isolated nature of the sit-ups and instead incorporate planks, lateral sprints and large, complex, compound movements into your workout. It seems your abs will thank you for it.

Powerful Movements  

One final point to consider is that Ronaldo stands 6'0" and weighs over 79 kilograms, per ESPN. This means he's clearly no stranger to the weights room, as he performs fast, powerful movements designed to make him a stronger and more explosive player. 

One of the best examples of this is a video in which all of his team-mates perform conventional press-ups while he proceeds to bust out 15 "clap" (plyometric) press-ups.

Was he doing this to show off for the camera? Sports science teaches us probably not; he was simply adding a greater degree of difficulty to one of the most used calisthenic exercises in strength and conditioning.

So what can we learn from Ronaldo's display of physical strength? Well, aside from looking impressive, research published in the European Journal of Physiology (h/t PubMed.gov) found that explosive, strong athletes have a higher proportion of fast-twitch muscle fibres compared to long distance, endurance runners, who have more slow-twitch muscle fibres. A pleasant byproduct of having more fast-twitch muscle fibres is a thicker, more muscular physique.

This is because fast-twitch fibres have a faster-contractile speed and a much larger cross-sectional area. You basically want more of these if you require explosive strength to bypass defenders or just want to look better on the beach.  

So how do you get more of them to emulate Ronaldo's physique? The honest answer is quite complex and requires an understanding of modern biomechanics, physiology and even a grasp of plyometric principles pioneered in the Soviet Union era during the 1970s by great strength-and-conditioning coaches like Professor Yuri Verkhoshansky.

But a simple answer—and one we can take from this article when limited by the word count—is to hit the weights room and try to work at around 65 per cent-75 per cent of your one-repetition maximum on most exercises. This is a weight that's 65 per cent-75 per cent of the maximum weight you can lift once, and ideally you should be able to complete between eight and 12 repetitions with this, depending on the exercise.

It's this basic weight-and-repetition range that the Lundberg Laboratory for Human Muscle Function and Movement Analysis at Goteborg University, Sweden, found elicited the best results for muscle hypertrophy when studying "dose-response relationships for the development of muscle hypertrophy...induced by varying levels of frequency, intensity and volume" (h/t PubMed.gov).

This is not to say lifting maximal loads and other training protocols are without merit—Ronaldo clearly does these as well—but this form of sub-maximal, strength-promoting training will likely form the basis for his strength and conditioning, and probably should for yours, too.

So there you have it. The science behind one of the best physiques ever produced in the world of football. Should you take a few pearls of wisdom from it, you should find yourself bypassing defenders with a little more ease.

Or, at the very least, filling the team kit a little better.