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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