5 excellent exercises for sport
In our search for the most effective weight training exercises for athletes, we decided to contact a handful of the country’s best trainers and strength coaches and ask them each one simple, yet ever-perplexing question: What is the single best exercise a ballplayer, fighter or any other sportsman for that matter can do to improve his performance on the field, the court, the track or the ring?
The typical response included lots of head-scratching, and more than one trainer made the point that it’s virtually impossible to pick one single move that trumps all others. Fair enough. So we rephrased the question: If for some odd reason, you were limited to one exercise to prescribe to your athletes, what would it be?
In the end, the trainers came through in fine fashion and delivered the following 10 exercises. Each individual had his own reason for choosing the exercise he did, but overall, any one exercise on the list will work for a number of sports, from football to fighting to sand volleyball on the weekends, provided that sport requires some combination of strength, power, flexibility and conditioning. (All you dart throwers and foosball players out there, sorry, you’re out of luck.) Fortunately, you’re not limited to picking just one exercise. Work several (or even all) of them into your current lifting program and we promise you’ll be that much more of a beast in your chosen sporting arena in no time.
Contributor: David Sandler, MS, CSCS, co-owner of StrengthPro Inc., a Las Vegas based sports performance and nutrition consulting group (strengthpro.com).
Where it hits: Quads, glutes, abs
Why it’s effective: “Step-ups require a high degree of strength, coordination and balance – all marks of true athleticism,” says Sandler. “From a balance standpoint, using a barbell makes the move significantly more difficult than using dumbbells. A bar can sway side to side and front to back, whereas with dumbbells you can easily drop them to the floor if you lose balance.”
How to do it: Place a loaded barbell across your upper traps like you would when squatting and stand facing a plyometric box or other stable raised surface. (The height of the box should be such that when one foot is on the floor and the other is up on the box, the lead thigh is parallel to the floor.) Step up onto the box with one foot and press down into the box to raise your body up until the working leg is fully extended, then lower yourself back to the starting position, both feet on the floor. Alternate legs every other rep, or complete all reps with one leg and then switch legs.
How much to do: 3-4 sets, 8 reps per leg, 1½-2 minutes rest between sets
Contributor: Robert T. Williams, MS, CSCS, Division Fitness and Performance Specialist for EAS in Columbus, Ohio.
Where it hits: Quads, hamstrings, glutes, back
Why it’s effective: “One element of training that is often overlooked is inertia – more commonly understood as starting strength,” says Williams. “In most sports, you need to be able to accelerate quickly to the ball, or toward or away from a teammate or opponent. This requires explosiveness and strength, both of which are developed by deadlifting. Deadlifts will train the muscles to overcome your own body’s inertia to accelerate, but it will also allow you to overcome your opponent’s inertia in contact sports like football, rugby or wrestling, where you’re required to stop and/or takedown an opponent.”
How to do it: Position your feet shoulder-width apart beneath a loaded barbell touching your shins. Squat down and grasp the bar with a shoulder-width, pronated (palms facing back) grip. With your chest up and back flat, lift the bar by extending your hips and knees to full extension. Keep your arms straight throughout as you drag the bar up your legs to a standing position. Squeeze your back, legs and glutes for a count, then lower the bar back down to the floor.
How much to do: For increasing absolute strength, Williams recommends 5-6 sets of 3-5 reps using 85%-90% of your 1RM; for developing explosiveness, he recommends 3-4 sets of 5-6 reps with 50%-60% of your 1RM.
Bench Press Throws
Contributor: Tim Scheett, PhD, assistant professor in the department of health and human performance at the College of Charleston and an associate editor for the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research.
Where it hits: Chest, shoulders, triceps
Why it’s effective: “The one thing that many people tend to forget when training for sports is the importance of developing explosive power for the upper body,” says Scheett. “Whether we’re talking about football, basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, volleyball, wrestling, whatever, every athlete benefits from having great upper body explosiveness. And perhaps the best exercise for this is the bench press throw, because it utilizes relatively light weight and can be performed in a Smith machine, though I recommend a good spotter to ensure safety when catching the bar on the way down.”
How to do it: Center a flat bench in a Smith machine so that the bar lowers to your middle chest. Lie back, take a shoulder-width grip on the bar and unhook the latches. Slowly lower the bar to your chest as if you were doing a normal set of bench press. When the bar reaches your chest, explosively press it upward so that it literally leaves your hands at the top of the rep. After releasing, keep a slight bend in your elbows and catch the bar as it comes back down. Reset your hands so they’re even before doing the next rep.
How much to do: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with 3-5 minutes rest between sets using 30%-50% of your 1RM
Contributor: Mike Dolce, a former powerlifter and a strength coach and nutritionist to various elite UFC fighters.
Where it hits: Hamstring, glutes, lower back, core
Why it’s effective: “In my experience, most athletes, not just mixed martial artists, have terribly weak hamstrings, glutes and lower backs due to flexibility issues and undertraining,” says Dolce. “The high-hip deadlift directly addresses flexibility while building tremendous strength through the entire posterior chain [hamstrings, glutes, lower back] and core.”
How to do it: Stand over a loaded barbell on the floor with your feet roughly shoulder-width apart, your heels under your knees, your knees under your hips, your toes pointed forward and the bar directly over the midpoint of your shoelaces. Bend down and grasp the bar with a shoulder-width grip while keeping a tight arch in your lower back and bending your knees only slightly. Keeping your weight on your heels, your knees fixed in a slightly bent position and your hips high, explode the bar off the floor, driving through the upright position and slamming your upper thighs into the bar. Keeping your muscles tight, allow gravity to pull the bar back to the floor and let your hips “float” back to the starting position.
How much to do: Leading up to a fight, Dolce typically has his high-level fighters perform 5-minute rounds of 20-rep sets of high-hip deadlifts separated by rest periods consisting of 3-8 very deep breaths (eight deep breaths equates to roughly 40 seconds).
Contributors: Adam Mosher, CSCS, former head strength and conditioning coach for NASCAR’s Earnhardt Ganassi Racing and current pit crew member for Martin Truex Jr.’s #56 NAPA Auto Parts car; Jeff Kerr, a Hendrick Motorsports pit crew member who has also assisted Mosher as a strength coach.
Where it hits: Quads, glutes, hamstrings, core, shoulders, traps
Why it’s effective: “The hang clean is the perfect lift to improve strength, flexibility, balance, body control and explosiveness,” says Mosher. “In any sport, including pit stops [in NASCAR], those five factors are the pillars to being a great athlete.” “I agree with cleans,” says Kerr,” but I would choose the power clean for all the reasons Mosher mentioned and because it involves a little more lower body strength and power, since the bar starts on the ground.”
How to do it: Stand over a loaded barbell on the floor with your feet shoulder-width apart. Squat down to grasp the bar with an overhand grip, your chest out and your torso bent at 45 degrees. Keeping your entire body tensed, drive explosively through your heels to straighten your knees and bring your hips forward until the bar is at hip height, then immediately pull the bar up to your shoulders and squat under it as you catch it on your shoulders with your elbows pointed forward. Extend your hips and knees to stand straight up with the bar resting on your upper chest and front delts. Lower the bar back to the floor and repeat.
When doing hang cleans, the motion is the same, except that you start the movement in a standing position with the bar hanging straight down in front of you. Initiate the movement by dipping your hips down with a relatively shallow bend of the knees and exploding upward.
How much to do: Mosher recommends five sets of 3-5 reps using 60%-70% of your 1RM and roughly 70-second rest periods.