Improving athletic performance is a specific art that is designed to improve weaknesses and to teach how to activate muscles for power, strength, endurance and agility. Everyone is different, every sport is different. Just because a professional athlete does a certain workout, does not mean you should do it too. As humans, we are all different! What may be somebody’s weakness, may be somebody else’s strengths. The problem with people who are not athletic performance professionals, they think that more is better or you have to have a brutal workout program to improve performance. A great quote by Dr. John Mullen is “if you want to have a brutal workout, go run up a mountain”.
As athletes, it is key to remember strength training, especially in highly technical sports, complements the sport. Too many strength coaches and personal trainers don’t get this. In fact, I seem many get frustrated if they get an athlete who doesn’t love the weight room. In all honesty, this used to bother me, since I love strength training. However, after working with thousands of technical athletes and even power athletes, it is key to remember strength training is supplementary. This doesn’t belittle or devalue the essential aspect of strength training, but it requires a different mindset and focus for the strength coach and the athlete. In the weight training world, you need to push 100% with strength training. Pushing 100% increases risk of failure on a lift and potential injury. Sure, an injury isn’t common and certainly doesn’t always happen. However, if an athlete is already fatigued from practice, then comes to strength training and is pushed to 100 – 110% (past their physical limit) they are at a higher risk of injury, a risk I don’t deem necessary in most cases for athletes.
Therefore, if you aren’t pushing the athlete’s strength 100% at each workout, you may wonder what is strength training going to work on? Before designing a program, there are a few steps you need to take care of:
1. Checking and Improving Posture
This is in my opinion the #1 goal before we even start a program. I will not even go into goals or performance training until I fix your posture. Does your athlete have a history of injuries? If so, why is this happening? Can they stabilize their shoulder blades, activate their core and squeeze their glutes during exercise? This needs to be accomplished before ever starting a program.
If they have front shoulder pain, is this due to rounded shoulders, over active chest and front delt muscles and weak or inactive shoulder blade muscles. Do they have a history of back pain? This can be due to a weak core, glutes and hamstrings causing the low back to be overactive. Do they have knee or hip pain? This can also be caused by overactive quads and low back. Can they walk, squat, lunge or jump without their knees collapsing? If your athlete has any of these problems, then they need to be fix.
2. Find all of their strengths and/or weaknesses.
Do you know what helps improve performance fast? Improving weaknesses. Do they need to improve strength, power, endurance or speed? Do they understand what it feels like to activate and fire the right muscles during exercise? In my opinion, having the athlete really understand what it is like to feel the muscles that you are trying to activate, will help them figure out what they are doing in and out of their sport. This will help them improve their abilities on their own.
3. What are the other life stressors?
Are they a high school athlete with 5 AP classes? Are they a professional athlete with their income and life depending on performance? Are they a triathlete with a newborn at home limiting sleep to 6 hours a night? Understanding the sporting and life stressors is key for managing and modulating strength training programming.
4. Current Training and peak times
What is their current sports and strength training. It is key to understand what they have done and what they are doing in and out of their sport. If an athlete is 3 years from their main competition, you can push their physical limits more with maximal strength work than if they are 3 weeks from the Olympics. Risk vs. reward drives a lot of training, remember the great coaches don’t include the magic sauce, they remove the poison. Also, knowing what training they’ve done previously gives us an idea of what things they’ve tried, liked, and perhaps succeeded with. Remember, don’t reinvent the wheel when all you need to do it add some air to the tire. Lastly, it gives you an idea about training age and stress. You can have two 25 year old elite athletes with varying strength training experience. One could have 15 years of strength training experience where one has 5 years. Do you think these two have the same bodily stress over the years? Knowing this helps modulate and monitor programming.
5. Figure out what their goals are
You can not go into a gym or sport without a goal. What is the point of being an athlete without a goal? Once we have figured out a long term (year or more) and a short term (1 week to 1 year) and then get to work. Discussing goals also gives an idea of mindset and enjoyment of strength training. These areas help a trainer understand what types of cueing and motivation to utilize during training.
When creating a plan, remember that sports are not in one plane of motion or direction. The athlete is doing front and back, side to side and directional movements. Too many times I hear programs are only working on the same exercises. Everybody loves their push ups, pull ups, squats and deadlifts, but that only works one plane of motion. How about combining multiple exercises in one that use multiple planes of motion. This is how you can improve many weaknesses at once.
5 Compound Movement Multiplanar Exercises for an Elite Level Athlete
1. Squat with Lateral Step Up
How to do it:
1. Grab a bench or box
2. Stand on the side of the step or box and take a medium step back
3. Stand with feet shoulder width apart
4. Start by squatting down by pushing your hips back and get down to where you feel a good stretch in your hamstrings.
5. Your ankles, shins and knees should be in a straight line
6. Push yourself up from the squat
7. As soon as you reach to the top, take a diagonal step up on to the box with the foot that is closest to the box.
8. Push yourself up through your heel with knee, shin and ankle in a straight line.
9. Once you have reached the top, step down in a diagonal down and back.
10. Repeat with the other foot.
11. Perform 4 sets of 10 on each side.
2. Towel Reverse Lunge with Lateral Lunge
How to do it:
1. Grab a towel, piece of paper or take your shoe off and use your sock.
2. Start with one foot on the towel, paper or sock.
3. With the foot that is on the towel, slide it straight back while take a big step
4. Bend your back knee down (your front knee and back knee should look the same)
5. Make sure your knee, shin and ankle should be in a straight line.
6. Slide the towel forward by pushing through your front heel and return to the starting position.
7. Now you are going to take that same foot that is on the towel and slide it to the side of your body.
8. As soon as you start to slide it out, push your hips back until you feel a good stretch in your hamstrings while keeping your weight on the foot that is not on the towel.
9. The foot that is on the towel slides out directly to the side and should be completely straight.
10. Slide the foot back by pushing through the heel that is not on the towel and return back to the starting position.
11. Repeat on the same leg
12. Perform 4 sets of 10 on each side
How to do it:
1. Grab a barbell
2. Put one end on the ground and grab at the end of the other side of the bar with your hands in a cupped position.
3. While standing tall take a step back with your feet, your body should be leaning slightly forward.
4. With the bar close to your neck and your feet shoulder width apart, squat back at an angle by pushing your hips back as soon as you bend your knees.
5. Squeeze your shoulder blades and keep your core tight,
6. Lower yourself down until you feel a good stretch in your hamstrings.
7. Once you have reached the bottom, drive through your heels to push yourself up.
8. Once you have just about reached the top, shift your weight to your toes and explode your hand forward.
9. Your body should be fully extended and leaning slightly forward
10. Return the bar back to your chest and repeat
11. Perform 4 sets of 8
4. DB Incline Row and Rear Delt Raise
How to do it:
1. Lay down as tall as you can on a bench that is at 15 degrees.
2. Start out with a lighter weight to get the hang out it
3. The DB’s should be directly under your shoulders and your shoulder blades need to be squeezed the whole time.
4. Start with your hands in a neutral grip and raise your elbows up until they are past your body and get the last squeeze of the shoulder blades at the top.
5. Lower your hands down until your elbows are almost fully extended.
6. Turn your hands so that your palms are facing your feet.
7. Raise your elbows up and out into a triangle position.
8. Your elbow and forearm should be at 90 degrees.
9. Lift your elbows past your body and get the last squeeze at the top.
11. Perform 4 sets of 10 reps
5. DB Bent Over Y and Reverse Fly
How to do it:
1. Start with a light DB to get the hang of it.
2. Bend your knees and bend at the hips by sticking your butt back as far as you can.
3. You should feel a good stretch in the backs of the hamstrings.
4. Squeeze your shoulder blades.
5. Your arms should be slightly in front of you.
6. While keeping your shoulder blades squeezed and your arms straight, slow as you can raise your arms directly in front of you and do not force them up.
7. Squeeze your shoulder blades at the top.
8. Slowly lower them back down until your hands are directly under your shoulders.
9. While keeping your arms straight and shoulder blades squeezed, raise your arms directly to the sides of you so your hands and arms are lined up with your body.
10. Get the last squeeze at the top and slowly lower them down.
12. Perform 3 sets of 10.
As a strength and conditioning coach, my goal is to prevent injuries from happening and build up the athlete so they can be better in their sport. I believe in individualization because everyone is different. You do not need to do crazy hard exercises. It is very important for the athlete to really understand their bodies so all the muscles can work together and help improve their performance, as sports are multi-planar, unpredictable, and variable! These 5 exercises are examples of compound movements in multiple planes, for athletes to improve coordination, balance, and adaption. These are great during a conditioning phase or if an athlete requirements improvement in balance, posture, connectivity of the body, and injury prevention.
If you are not getting individualized strength training for your sport, find a strength coach or trainer who can best adapt your training for your individual needs. As always, a strength coach should be helping you be better!