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Some of my favourite strength training exercises for athletic performance.

Before you begin reading this blog article I would like you to bear in mind two things, which come from my principles and philosophy as an athletic performance coach:


1. My point of view when it comes to athletic performance training can be greatly different to that of many strength and conditioning coaches. I believe when it comes to the performance success of an athlete, strength and conditioning training is not the number one priority (i.e. it is not what will ultimately make the difference between winning and losing). Instead, it is a multi-factorial framework of preparation (psychological, technical, tactical, environmental, nutritional, etc.) that dictates the outcomes of human performance. In this framework, physical preparation sits at the bottom of what I like to think as the ‘hierarchal pyramid of performance’ and the outcomes the s&c coach should be chasing are player health, competitive availability, physical robustness and peak / optimum condition for the athletes to get the best out of their technical and tactical (sport) training as well as their match play.


2. Equally, from my humble understanding, strength is just one of many equally valuable qualities of physical performance. Therefore, as a physical preparation coach I do not believe in chasing maximum strength as a primary objective. Instead, I put greater value and priority in exposing athletes to an equal balance of physical performance qualities (e.g. strength, power, mobility, stability, force absorption, max velocity, acceleration / deceleration, etc.) in a holistic approach to making a resilient performer and reduce the likelihood of the athlete being unable to cope with the dynamic, energetic and proprioceptive demands of competition. Nowadays, athletes are stronger than ever, and strength is commonly used as the key to everything (e.g. performance, rehab, return to play, active recovery). However, injury rates are equally at a peak. A common argument exists in that an imbalance in strength characteristics is a major contribution to injury incidence and burden. For example, imbalances in pushing vs pulling, force expression vs force absorption capabilities, stiffness vs articular range of motion, movement quality and technical mastery of skill vs maximum strength, to just name a few… I very much identify with this proposition.


As such, the purpose of this blog post is not necessarily to suggest one way is right or wrong, but instead to provide a comprehensive list of my favorite resistance training exercises for athletes. I will provide a brief rational for the implementation of each exercise in what I would say is a solid athletic performance training program. Each exercise will be categorized by movement pattern, followed by my personal rationale, three key benefits and a limitation. Each will also contain a video demonstration. I have purposely selected only exercises that I believe have benefits which outweigh any existing risk or limitation and have created the list in light of my experience coaching athletes. These are exercises that I would comfortably prescribe to any athlete; under the assumption that they are performed with technical proficiency.






Lower body training


Movement pattern: Bi-lateral (double-leg) knee dominant (flexion, extension)


Exercise: Goblet Squat

Why: I believe the goblet squat is the most appropriate squat choice for athletes of any level. Goblet position loading nicely challenges good posture and trunk integrity. I am a big fan of the front squat (see second video) for more advanced athletes due to the greater loading ability. However, the goblet squat increases the chances of any athlete performing the exercise with good technical output. The limited (if any) vertical compressive forces on the spine makes front-loaded squats most attractive for me.

Key benefits:

1. Strength of key leg muscles

2. Trunk posture

3. Low technical demands increase chances of good movement quality

Limitation:

Limited by maximum available dumbbell load and ability to hold the weight.





Movement pattern: Uni-lateral (single-leg) knee dominant (flexion, extension)


Exercise: Rear-foot elevated split squat (side-loaded)

Why: The side-loaded rear-foot elevated split squat has been at the heart of my s&c programming for a long time. It’s got pretty much everything when we think of bang for your buck. Importantly, the large recruitment of lower-limb muscles including agonists, and key stabilizers, as well as the challenge to trunk posture and the uni-lateral condition makes the rear-foot elevated split squat highly correspondent to athletic performance.

Key benefits:

1. Superior force production by isolating front leg (relative to bi-lateral alternatives)

2. Superior lower-limb muscle recruitment (e.g. knee stabilizers) and highly sport-specific (Note: I don’t usually like using that term)

3. No spine compression, but high core muscle involvement

Limitation:

Can be limited by grip strength if straps are unavailable.





Movement pattern: Bi-lateral (double-leg) hip dominant (flexion, extension)


Exercise: Trap-Bar deadlift

Why: The Trap-Bar deadlift is the main bi-lateral lift in all of my programs, and is applicable to most, if not all, athletes. One of the key benefits is that it forces the athlete to adopt a good starting position, which makes the chances of breaking movement quality slim relative to a conventional barbell deadlift; whilst still eliciting all the benefits. I especially like the idea of having the load around the athlete as opposed to in front of them. Particularly working with jumpers, the Trap-Bar deadlift provides great production of vertical force while safeguarding the lower back, making it very applicable and effective. One thing to bear in mind is that hip-starting position can vary across performers, which means that the exercise can become knee-dominant – here is where the coach’s input can be valuable.

Key benefits:

1. Total body strength development (neuromuscular and hormonal)

2. Great vertical ground reaction force production

3. Low technical demands increase chances of good movement quality

Limitation:

Can be limited by grip strength if straps are unavailable.





Movement pattern: Uni-lateral (single-leg) hip dominant (flexion, extension)


Exercise: Single-leg balance RDL

Why: When performed well, this exercise provides a range of benefits to athletes. The single-leg RDL challenges trunk stability, ankle and knee stability and recruits major muscles involved in athletic performance including the hamstrings and the gluteus medius. The proprioceptive component of this exercise makes it a great exercise for any sport involving single-leg stability, hip hinge patterns, running, and balance (i.e. pretty much every team sport). I am a big fan of emphasizing good control in the eccentric portion of the exercise, which needless to say provides a good load on the commonly injured hamstring muscles as well as encouraging an explosive hip extension in the concentric phase - a really effective way of getting a strength, balance and velocity stimulus in one exercise.

A good regression for this one is the rear-foot elevated RDL, particularly for athletes that struggle with the balance component of the SL balance RDL.

Key benefits:

1. Proprioception development

2. Challenges good posture (trunk integrity)

3. Recruitment of key muscles in athletic performance including the hamstrings, knee stabilizers and core stabilizers. The movement demands concentric, isometric and eccentric contractions and co-contractions making it a true bang for buck exercise.

Limitation:

I have found that it is easy for athletes to lose balance and good posture if progressed too rapidly, particularly when they focus too rapidly on increasing weight of the dumbbell.




Upper body training


Movement Pattern: Vertical pull


Exercise: Chin ups

Why: Chin ups ensure intensity, and when performed proficiently (i.e. full range, no kipping) will recruit a large amount of muscles important for shoulder health and trunk strength. I am a fan of the chin ups over the pull ups because I have found the exercise to be friendlier on the shoulder, possibly because it does not subject it to that abducted externally rotated position. However, I also think the pull ups are a great exercise. The exercise loads the big back muscles (especially the lats. Dorsi) really nicely which are heavily involved in many pulling actions of competitive athletic performance. On top of that, because it is such a functional exercise by nature, the chin ups arguably have an additional proprioceptive component in that it teaches the athlete trunk stiffness in an upper-body isolated condition.

Key benefits:

1. Shoulder health

2. Superior posterior chain strength

3. Functional and correspondent pulling action to athletic performance

Limitation:

Easy to cheat and can be very difficult for bigger athletes





Movement Pattern: Vertical push


Exercise: Standing dumbbell press

Why: As mentioned by many, multiple times before, upper body dumbbell and kettlebell exercises exert an additional stability challenge to the human body’s most unstable joint, the shoulder. This has multiple benefits, but I particularly like its strengthening effect on the scapular and gleno-humeral stabilizers. The standing dumbbell overhead press isolates the individual arms making each arm work harder than in a conventional barbell overhead press. With this exercise the athlete gets the strength stimulus, the stability stimulus and they also get the plus of having to carry and set up less shit around the gym! I really like playing around with different standing positions. Anecdotally, I just feel it helps isolate the upper body (assuming trunk stiffness and no lower-body dip) and helps to make the exercise more relatable to the athlete than having them sit down or even worse press a fixed machine.

Key benefits:

1. Shoulder health and stability

2. Vertical pressing strength stimulus maximized in single arm movement

3. Challenges trunk stiffness (anti-lateral flexion and anti-extension)

Limitation:

Some athletes can overarch their back to get the latter reps, this can defeat movement quality and interfere with the targeted upper body strength stimulus

Note: I do not like “Arnold presses” where the dumbbell rotates as it goes up; personally, I think that is asking too much of the shoulder (in regard to the rotational motion of the humeral head inside the socket) and can result in more instability than stability. I don’t think the added reward of rotating the dumbbell is that much greater than a normal dumbbell press and even though the risk can be minute for some, I prefer being conservative – especially with athletes that have had previous shoulder sub-luxations or dislocations.





Movement pattern: Horizontal pull


Exercise: TRX or Ring Inverted row

Why: Horizontal pull actions are at the heart of athletic performance, particularly in contact sports but also a very important loading for shoulder and upper back health. Way too much emphasis is placed on the horizontal push action (e.g. bench press) relative to that of the horizontal pull (i.e. ‘real men’ want to bench). However, we know that a contributor to the rising injury rates in athletes is an imbalance in or a disproportional strength. For the vast majority of athletes their bench press will be greater than their bench pull, and I struggle to believe that that has to do more with muscle size than to an adaptation to disproportional training. The Ring inverted row provides a really nice load to the scapular retractors, elbow flexors as well as reaping benefits to grip strength, proprioception and trunk stability. I am a huge fan of adding a weight plate (weight does not matter too much) to this exercise by placing it near the inferior end of the athlete’s sternum. This challenges trunk stability by forcing the athlete to ‘keep their hips up high’ – it is a good feedback tool.

Key benefits:

1. Shoulder health and stability

2. Strength development of scapular retraction

3. Trunk stability

Limitation:

Requires a pretty significant amount of pre-existing strength to be performed proficiently





Movement pattern: Horizontal push


Exercise: Loaded push up

Why: The exercise ensures intensity, athletes can work with a max strength stimulus on every repetition simply by getting a partner to resist every rep. Before using a partner to resist the push up however, the athlete should be able to easily bang out 10 repetitions with the heaviest weight plate on their back (i.e. 25 kg). Also, when resisting, partners must understand what is meant with a good trunk position; i.e. if the hips are falling because the partner is resisting too much then the purpose of the exercise is defeated. Because the whole body is involved in the movement, every rep can be performed with maximum effort and trunk integrity is challenged, I believe the loaded push up is a superior exercise to the conventional barbell bench press. This exercise makes athletes work hard, fire each other up (in a team setting) and most importantly it is enjoyable for them. It also gets rid of the common bounce in the barbell bench press.

Key benefits:

1. Ensures intensity

2. Whole-body involvement and challenges trunk stability

3. Eliminates momentum (i.e. bouncing)

Limitation:

Because it is a double-arm movement there is not as much of a shoulder stability stimulus in this exercise as there would be in a dumbbell bench press. A mixture of both exercises would be most appropriate.





Power training


I like to divide weight-room power training into three movement categories:

1. Throws – any high-velocity action exerted on an external object with the purpose of achieving maximum speed and/or distance travelled of the object


2. Jumps – your traditional plyometric movement definition (i.e. includes an eccentric force absorption phase and/or an amortization phase and/or a concentric force development phase)


3. Olympic-lift derivatives or loaded power – never a full snatch never a full clean and jerk


For the purpose of this blog article (the person reading this article is probably bored by now) I will not cover throws in all planes of motions, jumps including all dynamic forces, or all Olympic-lifting derivatives that I like to use with the athletes I work with. Instead, I will detail one of each that I advocate for because the benefits of using them are very clear to me.


Movement category: Throw


Exercise: Medball Viking throw

Why: The Viking throw is an exercise I was introduced to by a mentor of mine in England and later on saw it used a lot in Australia. I am a big fan of this exercise for many reasons. It seems to have a motivational effect on the athlete every rep attempting to go higher and higher up. When performed well the athlete performs an explosive triple extension and due to the very simple nature of the movement, movement quality is very rarely a problem. When I think of rate of force development I think of the Viking throw – it is quite simply the practical exhibition of it. Another reason I really like this exercise is because it encourages the athlete to jump, it is a very nice accessory to pair up with a Trap-Bar deadlift. Finally, it is fun to perform as well as to watch which means athletes always will have some banter around the exercise.

Key benefits:

1. Rapid rate of force development

2. Very low technical demands

3. Fun

Limitation:

As with most throws, the Viking throw is limited by the level of intent the athlete decides to put in. If the movement is performed with anything less than max intent, it loses its purpose.





Movement category: Jump (eccentric force absorption)


Exercise: Tall-to-shorts

Why: I know this is not a true plyometric… The reason I included this exercise is because it is a baseline exercise that I want all athletes that I work with to be able to perform proficiently and consistently. Tall-to-shorts (a.k.a. snap downs) teach good landing mechanics and the progression from bi-lateral to uni-lateral is relatively straight forward compared to other jump/plyometric exercises. They will form part of the force absorption base that will allow more complex movements and physical skills to be developed safely. These are easy to integrate in any warm up or as an accessory and have a great proprioceptive component. I really like the idea of enforcing and reinforcing a good motor pattern (i.e. making technically proficient landing mechanics automatic) as a form of developing a robust and resilient athlete and reducing the chances of any unwanted awkward landings that can result in injury. Tall-to-shorts are my “go to” when establishing and maintaining a good foundation of eccentric force absorption capability.

Key benefits:

1. Development of rapid eccentric force absorption capacity and good landing (foundation before plyometric progressions)

2. Proprioception, body-limb awareness and movement control (hopefully feeding into injury prevention)

3. Easy to implement

Limitation:

Because it looks simple and easy, it may be taken for granted by some athletes and they may pay less attention to landing position – here the coach’s input is of value.




Movement category: Jump (true plyometric)


Exercise: Drop Jump (and its technical progressions)

Why: The drop jump is a highly technical movement. I particularly like that the drop jump is a whole-body power expression with a minimal amortization phase, making it highly specific to any sport involving jumping, landing and even changing direction. There is the argument that it can be strenuous on certain joints. This is where a gradual approach into teaching good landing, eccentric to concentric force transfer and limb awareness is very important.

Key benefits:

1. Rapid (+ reactive) rate of force development

2. Optimum use of stretch shortening cycle and elastic properties of musculoskeletal tissues (i.e. short amortization phase)

3. Whole body power expression

Limitation:

High technical demands





Movement category: Olympic-derivative


Exercise: Hang Clean

Why: I would go as far as to say that the hang clean (performed with technical proficiency) is the most complete power exercise for athletic development. The hang clean ticks a lot of boxes, including concentric rate of force development (explosive triple extension), shoulder, ankle and hip mobility, lower limb stability, eccentric force absorption, concentric knee and hip extensors strength, and postural (trunk) integrity. The hang clean also involves a power shrug, a jump, a reactive triple flexion and a contact with a fast-moving bar making it a very specific exercise to athletic performance. The reason I prefer the clean from the hang than from the ground or from boxes is because it eliminates any limb/mobility constraints related to performing the lift from the ground. Chances are that weightlifting is not the sport of the athlete I will be training, so I can use other means of working on mobility while still targeting the benefits of training power with a clean derivative (the greatest rates of force development are after the second pull anyways).

Key benefits:

1. Eccentric force (power) absorption

2. Rapid concentric power production

3. Very athletic movement

Limitation:

High technical and mobility demands




Core training


We know from specialists like Dr. Stuart McGill, Pt. Gray Cook and Coach Mike Boyle that the core muscles are primarily stabilizers that act isometrically to resist external forces in different planes of motion. Their role is to prevent movement more than to produce movement. A primary objective in training the core is always to prevent any energy leaks (i.e. unwanted movement creating energy loss) and to make motion as efficient as possible; this is the reason why I personally use terms such as trunk stiffness, trunk stability, trunk integrity, etc. interchangeably and as a positive trait. I will now select a number of my favorite exercises that act to resist / stabilize motion across different planes.


Key statements to bear in mind


1. Core muscles are functionally trunk stabilizers not hip or thoracic flexors


2. Having a visible 6-pack does not mean having a strong and efficient core


3. Core strength and stability is at the heart of injury prevention and has a preventative role in lower back pain


4. Isometric core training, in my opinion, is as specific as you will get when training the core for athletic performance


5. Exercises are categorized based on the movement they act against (prevent), not produce


Movement category: Anti-flexion


Exercise name: GHR prone hold

Why: The GHR prone-hold is one of my favorite trunk exercises – it forces the athlete to prevent from falling into trunk flexion. Simply put, it challenges trunk stability, results in pretty high posterior chain muscle recruitment and ensures intensity regardless of athlete state (it is very relative in terms of loading). The GHR prone-hold provides a good exercise for technical progressions were athletes can work on overhead stability too and even partner up to challenge each other with pushes.

Key benefits:

1. Challenge to trunk stability, which ensures intensity

2. Posterior chain activation

3. Easy to progress (e.g. add perturbations, add overhead load, or both)

Limitation:

Progressing to loading the exercise, whilst maintaining good posture may take time which athletes can find boring / discouraging





Movement category: Anti-extension


Exercise: Banded anti-extension press

Why: I was introduced to this exercise last year by an intern that was helping me out with a team I was working at the time – since then I loved the exercise and continue to use it. It forces the athlete to maintain trunk integrity and act against an excessive (hyper) extension of the trunk. It can be a great posture corrective exercise and will make sure even the strongest of athletes work hard.

Key benefits:

1. Ensures intensity for even the strongest athletes

2. All you need is a band

3. Helps as an intrinsic teaching tool to correct posture + overhead stability

Limitation:

Athletes with a history of shoulder instability may find this one too hard to begin with






Movement category: Anti-lateral flexion


Exercise: GHR side-hold

Why: The GHR side-hold is also one of my favorite trunk exercises – it forces the athlete to prevent from falling into lateral flexion, which we know is a key energy leak in athletic performance. The exercise challenges trunk stability, provides significant load to the oblique and deep abdominal muscles and ensures intensity. The GHR side-hold provides a good exercise for technical progressions were athletes can work on overhead stability too and to add perturbations in the sagittal plane.

Key benefits:

1. Very appropriate to the role of the core in athletic performance

2. Ensures intensity for all athletes

3. Loading progressions and postural positions are easy to coach

Limitation:

Requires a significant amount of prior strength to be performed proficiently




Movement pattern: Anti-rotation


Exercise name: Palloff press (and all its progressions)

Why: The Palloff press is my favorite trunk exercise for athletes – it forces the athlete to resist rotation from an external force, which we know is a key energy leak in athletic performance. The exercise challenges trunk stiffness, provides significant load to the all abdominal muscles, which are forced to act in synergy and ensures intensity even for the strongest of athletes. The Palloff press and its progressions provides a good exercise were athletes can work on overhead stability too and to add perturbations in all plane of motion. I am particularly a fan of performing the Palloff press with bands as opposed to cables as it is easier for the athlete to modulate the intensity they are working on – also it is cheaper and more practical.

Key benefits:

1. Highly appropriate to the role of the core in athletic performance

2. Intensity can be self-modulated by the athlete

3. Provides an array of technical progressions

Limitation

Intensity can be self-modulated by the athlete (same as benefit # 2) – here the coach’s supervision becomes of great value.




Conclusion


I hope any reader who actually got to the end of this blog article found it useful. I probably did not introduce anything new to your knowledge, but I hope to have provided an additional perspective on movements and exercises for athletes that we might all take for granted. The purpose of this post was to provide a menu-type exercise list with a rationale for each movement. As I said before, I believe the benefits of all the exercises detailed above outweigh any potential drawback or risk given technical proficiency and movement quality. I hope you enjoyed this read, I really did enjoy writing it up and exploring my thoughts deeper on all these exercises and targeted adaptations. Hopefully, this list and most importantly this rationale that movement quality, efficiency and mastery will always trump max strength in athletic performance, can become an extra asset for your toolbox and foster further thinking!



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