by Mike Robertson T-Nation
What would you do if you could only pick 6 exercises to put into your strength-training program?
Here’s a better question: What if strength was only one component of your entire program?
If you compete in strength sports such as powerlifting or Olympic lifting, picking your exercises is easy. But if you’re an athlete, you have hundreds, if not thousands, of exercises to choose from.
How do you whittle it down and only focus on a few exercises, the ones that would be the most impactful to your overall strength and physique?
The Athletic Strength Conundrum
These are the exact questions I was asking myself a few months ago.
I’ve been lucky in recent years to work with a handful of professional and Olympic-caliber athletes. The problem is, in my mind, I’m a “weights” guy. In my estimation, everyone can benefit from getting stronger.
And I still feel that way, no matter how many books I read, conferences I attend, etc. But I also realize that for an athlete, there’s a lot more to athletic success than simply being strong in the weight room.
If I’m trying to get someone ready for a 90-minute soccer game, we’re doing a ton of conditioning in that last phase or two leading up to camp. I don’t have a ton of time to do 6, 8, or 10 lifts in one training session.
So what do I do? Forget about weight lifting? Lose all the strength that we’ve taken precious time to develop in the off-season?
What we have to do is focus on a handful of big-bang lifts that will not only improve performance on and off the field, but maintain our mobility, strength, and power as well.
As a result, I came up with a list of the following exercises. I call them “athletic strength” exercises, not because you can’t get strong off them, but because the powerlifter or hardcore meathead may not totally agree with them. I’m okay with that.
If you’re a powerlifter, squat, bench, and deadlift until the cows come home.
If you’re an Olympic lifter, snatch and clean and jerk repeatedly.
However, if you’re an athlete that wants to not only get strong but also develop and maintain other critical qualities such as power, speed, mobility, and general athleticism, these are your exercises.
#1 – The Power Clean
While no one will confuse me with an Olympic lifting purist, I definitely respect the power of the Olympic lifts.
And I’m not even going to get into the whole “should you take the time to coach them?” debate – that’s been beaten to death already. Regardless of your stance, we can all agree that the Olympic lifts are fantastic for developing power and explosiveness.
Can you do this with a med ball throw? Or jumping exercise?
To a certain extent, sure. But these exercises belong more on the “speed-strength” side of the continuum.
The power clean is a great way for an athlete to improve or maintain explosiveness and power. If you’re comfortable coaching or training it, I highly recommend using it.
#2 – The Front Squat
The front squat is an amazing exercise for athletes and it provides unique benefits from its cousin, the back squat.
If you’re an athlete, you need strong quads. Quads are critical not only for improving your vertical jump, but your ability to decelerate, plant, and cut as well.
However, quads are just the starting point. The front squat is an amazing anterior core exercise. You know how you can get totally caved over and still manage to finish a back squat? Yeah, that ain’t happening with a front squat.
If your abs are weak, do a 2-3 month front squat cycle and you should walk away impressed with how much stronger and more stable your core and trunk are as a result.
Last but not least, the front squat is an amazing tool for maintaining your mobility. Front squatting ensures that you maintain ankle, knee, hip, and thoracic spine mobility, which is why it’s a mainstay in my programs.
#3 – The Trap Bar Deadlift
We all know that deadlifts are awesome. After all, the deadlift is my favorite lift, so there’s no way I’m going to downplay its importance.
For athletes, though, mobility could be a concern. Or in the same vein, they may not have adequate strength in the posterior chain to do conventional deadlifts safely and effectively.
The sumo deadlift doesn’t work either as it doesn’t get you into a very athletic position. This is why I’m a big fan of the trap bar deadlift.
When you use the high handles you can get someone into a very vertical tibia/inclined trunk position. This combo gives the trap bar deadlift the potential to be very posterior chain dominant.
Note: If you want to learn more about how to maximize your leg development, read this.
Trust me, if you work with enough athletes, you know they often have the posterior chain strength of Gwenyth Paltrow. They need stronger backsides, period.
Also, if you’re working with an athlete who has the mobility of a stone golem, the trap bar deadlift is a great starting point. It allows you to load their hips effectively while addressing other mobility needs throughout the “corrective” part of their programming.
#4 – The Close-Grip Bench Press
As much as I love wide-grip bench pressing for powerlifting performance, I feel as though the close-grip bench press is a superior alternative for athletes.
Think of it this way: if your hands (or elbows) are out really far from your body and someone is coming to push you off your spot, you’re going to lose.
However, if you have your elbows and arms in tight to the body, you can maximize leverage, as well as effectively tying together the legs, trunk, and upper body.
The close-grip bench is also an ideal exercise for building upper body strength. I know the bench gets a bad rap, but there’s something to be said for being flat-out stronger than your competition.
#5 – Resisted Push-ups
As awesome as the close-grip bench press is for developing the upper body, it does have limitations. The biggest issue when benching is that even if your core and lower body are tight, they’re rarely the limiting factor in your performance.
While close-grip benching is great for developing upper body strength, it doesn’t necessarily tie that strength together by unifying the upper and lower body. Which is why we do heavy, resisted push-ups.
A well-executed push-up with the core stable and in neutral spinal alignment will absolutely crush your anterior core. And even though this isn’t a coaching article per se, try this little trick to get even more core development:
Set up in the top position of a push-up and before you start moving, think about exhaling hard. After you’ve exhaled, pull your head and neck back to get into a more “neutral neck” position.
It may sound easy, but getting into a more ideal position through the neck and core will definitely crank up the intensity. The other huge benefit you get from performing a push-up versus a bench press is scapular stability.
When you’re doing a bench press, the goal is to “pin” your shoulder blades back and down. The scapulae are stable, but it’s a very static kind of stability. On the other hand, a push-up is similar to actual sporting movements since you’re forced to actively control the position of the scapulae.
Instead of simply pinning them back and down behind you, you need to make sure they’re moving appropriately and in the right place at the right time.
Finally, the push-up is a closed-chain pressing variation, meaning it’s awesome for developing rotator cuff strength and stability.
Next time, instead of doing 3×15 shoulder external rotations with a Theratube to crush your rotator cuff, bang out 2-3 sets of high-quality push-ups.
You’ll get more out of the exercise, and look infinitely more awesome to boot.
#6 – Chin-ups
The last exercise on my list is the chin-up. Just like the previous exercises, chin-ups are an incredible “bang-for-your-buck” exercise.
In most sports (and strength training programs), there’s a ton of emphasis on “pushing.” All you have to do is observe the posture of someone who “presses” all the time, without balancing it out with upper back work, to see why this is an issue.
These athletes are a disaster waiting to happen. Chin-ups, however, will help balance out the equation.
Another awesome benefit of well-executed chin-ups is developing the lower trapezius muscle. The lower trap is not only a key shoulder stabilizer, but (along with the upper trap and serratus anterior) constitutes one-third of the upward rotation force couple.
The key with chin-ups is that you need to focus on getting your chest to the bar and actively depressing your scapulae down. Here’s a short video on how to maximize chin-up performance:
Bottom line, if you only have a limited amount of time to strength train, at least some of that needs to be geared towards strengthening the upper back.
The chin-up will give you a ton of benefits and should be a staple in your athletic strength program.
What? No Single-Leg Exercises?
I know someone is going to come on Live Spill raging because I didn’t include single-leg work in my programming. Look, I’m a big believer in single-leg work, but this article is called “Athletic Strength,” not “Athletic Stability.”
Single-leg work has a time and a place. If you have a stability limitation, then single-leg work may be ideal, but if you want to get seriously strong or powerful, train on two legs (or arms).
Whether your goal is to be a beast on the field or court, or to simply look like a beast in the gym, the exercises included in this article are tried and true.
Make them a focus of your upcoming training programs and I guarantee you’ll see results not only in your physique, but in your performance as well!