Too many athletes develop pet lifts and stick to them no matter what. I’ve run into guys who I’ve trained with ten years ago, and they’re still doing the same routine! While we need to rotate exercises constantly to avoid accommodation, we can’t just add any old exercise in to our regime and hope for the best.
Here are the top 11 movements for athletes. Add them to your rotation and work them hard.
1. Deadlifts: Deadlifts are the king makers. Before I go on, some of you may have heard that deadlifting is bad for the back or other such debauchery. This is plain ole BS. When done properly, the deadlift and its variations may be the single best builder of strength and speed known to man. If all you could do was deadlift, you’d be head and shoulders above the guys who bench and curl ad nauseam. It still sickens me when I hear from athletes who tell me that their coaches tell them not to deadlift.
Deadlifts are important for several reasons. They build tremendous starting strength. Many athletes are woefully lacking in the ability to get explosive and apply strength quickly. Deadlifts strengthen the posterior chain, building power and strength in the hamstrings, glutes, calves, and the entire back. Like squats, deadlifts build insane strength in the hips—the seat of power for all sports. They build slabs of muscle. Nothing will make you grow from your calves to your traps like heavy deadlifts. The deadlift can be extremely useful for injury prevention. Some believe that the moderate to high hamstring activity elicited during the deadlift may help to protect the anterior cruciate ligament during rehabilitation.
Deadlifts can be used as ME, DE, or moderate repetition exercises. The classic 5 X 5 protocol applied to the deadlift can put more muscle on your frame than most other exercises combined.
2. Box squats: Box squats and box front squats are essential for building tremendous leg strength and explosiveness while taking almost all stress off of the knees. Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell Club, whose club has done more to popularize box squats than anyone else in America, describes the benefits of box squatting in one of his articles—“Many trainers have found that a great deal of flexibility can be developed while box squatting by going lower than normally possible and by using a wider stance.”
You can isolate all the correct squatting muscles by sitting extremely far back on the box. By sitting back on the box to the extent that your shins are positioned past vertical, the glutes, hips, hamstrings, spinal erectors, and abs are totally pre-stretched and overloaded simultaneously, producing a tremendous stretch reflex. Box squats eliminate many of the problems encountered when doing traditional squats. Gone are the knee problems associated with the knees traveling way past the toes. You’re also limiting the stretch reflex so box squatting becomes much like a deadlift in its ability to build explosive strength.
Box squats also teach an athlete to stay tight and explode up using the hips, hams, and glutes. This is essential for any sport that requires running or jumping, which is pretty much all of them! Some other huge advantages of box squatting include less soreness than traditional squats, allowing you to recover faster and train more often, and there’s no guessing on depth. Set the box to where you want to go and simply sit back on it. Box squats can increase real world flexibility. If you widen the stance, push the knees out, and descend under control, you will develop excellent mobility and flexibility in the legs and hips. Use box squats for ME or DE movements. If using the box squat as a speed exercise, it’s best to use bands or chains.
3. Clean and jerk: A few years back, Olympic lifting only training programs were all the rage. Then they fell out of favor and along came the anti-Olympic lifting brigade. As usual, there was an overreaction in the short term and an under-reaction in the long term. The truth is that the Olympic lifts are still extremely helpful for athletes, and the undisputed king of the Olympic lifts for athletics is the clean and jerk. It’s a lift that builds toughness, identifies weaknesses, and requires strength, power, and determination—all the traits an athlete needs!
The clean and jerk is similar to the deadlift in its ability to point out weaknesses. Lifting a heavy bar from the ground to over your head requires strength in the entire posterior chain in addition to the abs, shoulders, and triceps. If any one of those areas is weak, you will miss the lift.
Some say that they are hard to teach, but I can get an athlete doing cleans in one session. Remember, the clean and jerk (and just about any other exercise) does not have to be done with a barbell alone. Using sandbags, barrels, dumbbells, kettlebells, a stone trainer, a thick bar, or a log are excellent ways to build real world athletic strength and get around the technique issue. This kind of lifting can be used to build brute strength and is also excellent for conditioning and mental toughness.
Grabbing a pair of dumbbells and doing high reps or timed sets of the clean and jerk is an excellent conditioning tool. I picked up this idea from an old Louie Simmion’s article, and it’s helped me and many of my athletes get in top shape, even when the weather prevents us from going outside. Plus, it really helps build focus and mental toughness. If you’re using the clean and jerk for strength, stick to singles and doubles. If you want conditioning, go with higher reps or time your sets.
4. Box front squats: Just as with the Olympic lifts, people went crazy with training the posterior chain. Yes, it’s supremely important, but many athletes and coaches went overboard, completely disregarding the front of the body. Athletes need strong quads for sprinting, jumping, and driving another human out of their way. Many feared that training the quads at all would lead them to overpowering the hamstrings. This can happen when the hams are undertrained, but we can’t allow the quads to become weak either. Any imbalance, either way, will lead to decreased performance and possible knee injuries.
I always loved front squats and believe they might be better than back squats for many athletes, especially football players. Having the load held at the front of the body will build tremendous strength in the core, and the entire motion is very similar to the motion of blocking. But, most guys I’ve seen can’t front squat to save their life. They have more bad habits than Artie Lange. They push the knees way over the toes, they don’t sit back, and they fall forward. Enter the box front squat. Using boxes at different heights and a soft box allows the athlete to sit back, stay fairly upright, and drive through the floor rather than just squat up and down. It does place some of the stress on the glutes and hams but leaves plenty of work for the quads as well.
It’s especially helpful to do your box front squat with bands or chains. This will help build amazing driving ability and the power to simply run through people. Football is not the only contact sport. In soccer, basketball, and hockey, your ability to get the enemy out of your way en route to the goal is essential.
Keep the repetitions low when front squatting. Use multiple sets of 1–4 reps, or use it as your max effort movement and work up to a heavy single.
5. Romanian deadlift: Romanian deadlifts are an excellent assistance exercise for deadlifts and squats. They build muscle and power in the hamstrings and glutes and also hit the lower back quite well. The Romanian deadlift is great for athletes because it’s performed in the stance very similar to the “ready position” used in so many sports (hips down, knees bent, flat back…think a linebacker or the position of the body pre-jump).
For many athletes, the Romanian deadlift is a far superior exercise to the straight leg deadlift. For anyone with a long torso, the straight leg deadlift can become a lower back exercise and damn near neglect the hamstrings. But, because of the hip position (traveling backward) and the intense pre-stretch of the hamstrings, the Romanian deadlift is much better for working the posterior chain.
Romanian deadlifts can be done as your max effort movement, especially if you do them in the rack. But their main strength lies in using them as an assistance exercise for squats and deadlifts. If using them as an assistance movement, go for 3–5 sets of 3–8 reps.
6. Rows: Too many athletes and lifters focus way too much on the pressing exercises and neglect the muscles of the back. This will lead to injuries like rotator cuff tears, pec tears, and shoulder impingements. Worst than that it will also lead to a crappy bench press.
There are about a billion row variations so pick two or three and put them in your training program. You can go heavy, for reps, or both. If you’ve been neglecting your back, you should start off by doing twice as much back work as chest/pressing work!
7. Side lunges: Most of us simply don’t do enough training on lateral movements, which I find odd because so many sports are played while moving from side to side. There are several reasons why most athletes avoid movements like side lunges. One reason is ego. You use much less weight (much less) with these, especially at first. And you’ll never be able to slap on endless 45-lb plates with this movement. Most people just avoid the hit to their pride. There’s also the pain factor. Side lunges, even with light weight, have the potential to leave you with damn near injury like soreness, especially if you aren’t used to doing them.
8. Dumbbell inclines: People hate me for saying this, but I believe that the dumbbell incline is a much better movement for athletes than the bench. Obviously, the bench press is a great exercise, but when it comes to athletes—not powerlifters—the incline rules.
The dumbbell incline much more closely mimics the path taken by the arms in many athletic movements such as blocking and punching and in many wrestling moves. The incline is also much better at developing the all important shoulder girdle. It’s a nice compromise between the overhead press and the bench, allowing an athlete to hammer the shoulders, pecs, and triceps. For those with shoulder problems, the incline can be a lifesaver. When I had rotator cuff problems, benching even super light weights felt like I was being stabbed in the front delt! However, I was able to continue doing inclines as heavy as I could handle. When I fixed my shoulder problems, I returned to the bench and was practically still where I had left off.
The dumbbell incline is also incredibly versatile. You can use it for timed sets, high reps, or moderate reps. Or you can go super heavy and treat it as a submaximal movement. If you’d really like a challenge, try doing a one-arm dumbbell incline. Now, that’s real “core” training!
9. Sandbags: Lifting and carrying sandbags are excellent ways to “bridge” the gap between the weight room and the playing field. Sandbags are excellent strength and conditioning tools for wrestlers, football players, and fighters. They will also help with just about any other sport that requires strength, speed, and stamina.
Sandbags shift and fight you every inch of the way. They never relent. Picking up and carrying or shouldering a sandbag feels a lot like wrestling a live opponent. While all the work in the weight room helps build max strength and speed, using sandbags will be an excellent compliment to your heavy training. There are many great resources on sandbag training, but I recommend that you check out Josh Henkin’s sandbag training course.
10. Prowler: The Prowler owns all when it comes to conditioning for sports. It can be pushed and pulled for time, distance, or speed. It can be loaded with heavy weight or with light weight. See where I’m going with this? The Prowler is also great because you can use it laterally, which as I said earlier, most athletes ignore. Most sports are played moving laterally, yet athletes neglect to train that way.
Use the Prowler as a finishing movement or on a non-lifting day as a way to condition. Because of the lack of eccentric movement, the Prowler won’t cause much soreness, which is a huge advantage for athletes. One of the biggest issues when designing a training program for an athlete is how to give strength, speed, and conditioning their proper due without compromising any of the elements.
Using the Prowler is simple. Go light for time for recovery and GPP work. Go a little heavier for sprints and go heavy for strength work.
11. Snatch grip deadlift: Here’s another great movement borrowed from the Olympic lifting world. I got an email the other day asking why I advocate using the snatch grip deadlift so much and not other variations. Well, there are several reasons. However, all variations of deadlifting should be used.
Why the snatch grip? Snatch grip deadlifts just force you into a lower position, thus forcing the hamstrings and glutes to work harder. Plus, the movement benefits the entire back. Whenever you can involve the hamstrings more, the better off you are for building leg strength and speed! If your hamstrings are weak, forget being fast.
Pulling from a platform is similar but different. Pulling from a platform or blocks is great for building starting strength. And, again, you’re pulling from a much lower position so the hamstrings are being hit hard.
I recommend using straps on a snatch grip deadlift because of the wide grip. But don’t go crazy wide. I’m six feet, one inch tall, and my index fingers are about an inch outside of the outer rings on a York bar. I know you’ve probably seen Olympic lifters use the collar to collar grip, but even when I competed in Olympic lifting, I didn’t go out this far.
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