By  CHRIS ECKLUND, MA, NASM-PES, CSCS, USAW, TP

A high school athlete walks through our doors and we can see their strength, stability and biomechanical control deficits from their gait pattern. We’ve also had collegiate and professional athletes come to our facility with the same issues. The only differences between that young, beginner athlete and the older, elite athlete are that the elite athlete has typically maximized and benefited from their gifts and masked or hidden the compensations and weak links much better. The result is that we often get athletes coming to us because they can’t figure out why they got injured.

It doesn’t sound sexy, but from this common scenario, it can be stated that training to avoid injury should be a priority and training to maximize performance should be secondary (Kucera 2005). What’s one of the primary reasons successful teams are successful? Is it their athleticism? Power? Conditioning? According to a study done by Hägglund, et al. and presentations by Nelson, A. & Padua, D. 2016, it’s the teams that keep more of their players on the court or field through the majority of the season. Surprised? Granted, you have to have a fairly decent pool of talent, good coaches, etc., but even if you’ve got the best team in the nation but all your athletes are injured, the team’s not likely to win.

Two qualities lacking with many athletes are strength and motor or movement competency (said another way: movement quality).

Movement Quality + Movement Quantity = Performance2 

Therefore, if you put both the quality of proficient movement with the right muscles acting on the right joints at the right time together with a high degree of strength supporting that pattern, the outcome or whole is EXPONENTIALLY better than the individual pieces.

Great…if that’s true. So, which training exercises move to the forefront that addresses these issues of quality and quantity? It’s always hard to narrow it down when people ask, “If you had to give me your top six favorite exercises, what would they be.”

How can we pick six top patterns?

  • High Value, Low Risk: Always opt for training exercises that afford a high degree of effort, a big bang for our buck, and are REALLY difficult to get hurt while doing. I tell my students and interns that any fool can make their client work hard. It takes a high quality, highly skilled and educated coach/trainer to get a client to work hard and do it safely.
  • Train Movement Systems: Make sure to train the body from head to toe, and do so every training session if possible (while also allowing for adequate recovery). What does this mean? Some upper body patterns and lower body patterns (i.e., upper pushing and lower posterior chain or upper pulling and lower squatting). The exception would be only training upper or lower body, or training one body part such as when an athlete is injured, on a compressed time frame and has to prioritize lifts or patterns, or to avoid overtraining when an athlete is in season or is training 5-7 days/week.
  • Train for Function. Case in point, it doesn’t matter how much you bench…unless your sport is powerlifting. Beyond that, lying on your back pushing up has limitations to sports application.

Why I would recommend the following lifts (beyond the reasons listed above)?

  • Anybody can do them (minimal equipment needed)
  • Unilateral exercises have more application to most sports. Running, cutting, throwing, striking are most frequently done on one leg or with one arm (or with one arm pulling while the other is pushing).

Are these six lifts the end all answer? No, but let’s get great at some basics that incorporate as many good qualities as possible.

  1. Single Leg Squat – Goblet or Suitcase:

Why:  Single leg squat strength has great implications for function in running, cutting, jumping, acceleration, deceleration and ACL injury reduction, especially since most athletes move on one leg at a time. This exercise works on balance, proprioception, foot strength and stability as well as triplanar hip stability.

Technique Points: (<–click to see how it’s done)

  1. Spine position neutral throughout from cervical through lumbar spine (do not compensate for increased range).
  2. Free foot off the side edge of a box. Brace the abdomen and spine.
  3. Hands reach forward with light load initially (typically 2.5 – 5 lbs per hand will allow for a good counterbalance and actually make the exercise easier) while the free foot also reaches forward to assist with counterbalance.
  4. Lower to a depth that the athlete can safely control while maintaining ideal posture. This will vary for each athlete depending on their capabilities.
  5. Keep the load balance over the entire foot making sure heel, base of big toe and little toe are all engaged and knee tracks in line with 2nd and 3rd

Optional: Split Squat (<–click to see how it’s done)

If the athlete is not capable of true single leg squatting, a split squat is a wonderful way to progress into this pattern.

Do you want video links for these as well?

  1. Single Leg Hip Extension Bent Leg

Why:  Staying on the theme of unilateral training, this exercise allows the athlete to train the posterior chain muscles of the gluteus max and adductors. These two groups are typically underdeveloped and play a large roll in leg and hip power for acceleration, max speed, and deceleration patterns. Underdeveloped glutes can also cause injury situations stemming from synergistic dominance problems with hamstring overuse. (NASM PES)

Technique Points:

  1. Spine position neutral throughout from cervical through lumbar spine (do not compensate for increased range).
  2. Shoulder blades at the edge of the bench. Arms can be extended on the bench to stabilize the torso.
  3. The knee should approximate about 90˚ when in full hip extension (foot placement too far forward creates a larger than 90˚ knee angle and recruits the hamstring group excessively). The free leg can hold a 90/90 position with a dorsiflexed foot.
  4. Utilize a small pad on the floor under the hips/glutes as a target for the athlete to touch ensuring maximum consistent range.
  5. Brace the abdomen and spine, descend until the glute touches the pad and drive through the entire foot emphasizing glute contraction and a glute “squeeze” to finish the hip extension. (Minimize cues like “lift high” or “drive up” which tend to exacerbate lumbar extension or excessive hamstring recruitment in beginners.)
  6. Load can be added in a variety of ways, but beginning with a load such as a kettlebell or a plate on the abdomen often times helps athletes create a better brace as they receive more kinesthetic feedback.

Optional: Cable or Band Single Leg/Arm RDL

This is another option as it recruits the posterior chain muscles of the thigh allowing the glute to still work while also integrating the balance and contralateral motion components.

  1. Push Up – Lateral Crawl

Why:  This integrated move allows the athlete to train from head to toe with unilateral positions within the exercise as well as scapular stability work. It’s also a closed chained pattern that typically allows for more natural shoulder movements (improved scapular rhythm) to occur and makes it less likely/more difficult to overload the pattern or shoulder (unlike barbell or even dumbbell pressing at times). Finally, it allows the athlete to integrate contralateral patterning, movement in the frontal plane, and extra work on anti-extension, anti-rotation spinal stability.

Technique Points:

  1. Spine position neutral throughout from cervical through lumbar spine (do not compensate for increased range or load). Using external feedback (such as a Dyna Disc, foam roller or tennis ball) can help athletes to feel their spine’s position in space, especially as they begin the lateral walk.
  2. Draw-in and brace the abdomen, contract the glutes and press the hands into the floor to create maximum body stability.
  3. Descend to a depth where the shoulder is at or slightly past the elbow and return to starting position.
  4. Once complete with the push-up, move laterally while keeping the spine as level and neutral as possible.

Optional: Hands Elevated Push-Up

Frequently athletes are unable to control their bodyweight in a push up If you are working with a beginner, elevating the hands (e.g., on a bench) allows the athlete to brace and utilize the glutes for stability.

  1. Single Arm Row Anti-Rotation with Suspension Device

Why:  This exercise targets grip strength, unilateral and scapular stability, emphasis on mid/lower trapezius and rhomboids, and balancing pushing to pulling strength. Putting athletes in a position that requires focussing on grip helps both scapular stability and decreases the risk of lifting weights that are too heavy. Simply stated, if the athlete can’t hold on, they will cease the exercise and not put themselves at risk. This is not always true with exercises like lat pulldowns or cable rows. Further, with a load in only one hand, the athlete will get more anti-rotation work and also allow them to feel and learn how to pull and stabilize their scapula and spine all the way through the posterior oblique subsystem through the contralateral glute max to the ground. (NASM PES).

Technique Points:

  1. Spine position neutral throughout from cervical through lumbar spine (do not compensate for increased range). Do not allow rotation.
  2. Using a suspension device in single handle mode, use a closed grip for safety. Free arm can be abducted and externally rotated to 90˚ to create a packed shoulder position and some retraction. Often this gives newer athletes a sense of stability and symmetry when trying to create retraction in the working arm.
  3. Feet flat with knees slightly flexed to maintain traction on the floor. Abdominals drawn-in and braced.
  4. Pull until the body slightly passes the elbow of the working arm, keeping scapula relatively low and finishing in a retracted/depressed position.
  5. Slowly return to starting position.

Optional: Single Arm Dumbbell Row or Bar Inverted Row

Either of these options can be utilized if a suspension device is not available. 

  1. Full Body Explosive: Medicine Ball Squat, Throw, Drop, Jump, Land Single Leg. Hold, Jump, Land Single Leg and Hold

Why:  This is a simple whole body explosive pattern that allows the athlete to experience triple flexion, triple extension, load and decelerate in single leg support and then get a single leg jump and stability landing as well. The value here is getting both an upper body explosive action that translates into most overhead throwing or hitting sports and two unilateral decelerated landings with a one leg jump all in a low-risk pattern.

Technique Points:

  1. Spine position neutral throughout from cervical through lumbar spine (do not compensate).
  2. Start on the balls of the feet with a medicine ball overhead.
  3. Rapid triple flexion and ball slam followed immediately by a soft, quick “stick” landing on one leg.
  4. Hip load, spine position, knee tracking over 2nd and 3rd toe and balance should be emphasized.
  5. Once balanced (typically for at least 2-3 seconds to prove control), the athlete should explode into triple extension and then again land on the same foot as they did in step 4.
  6. Repeat with other leg.

Optional: Drop Jump 1 Leg to 1 Leg Jump & Stick

If no medicine ball is present or the movement is too complex, it is always best to break it down, make it simple and get great first.

  1. Integrated Core: Split Stance Anti-Rotation Chop to Rotational Chop

Why:  There is a fair amount of information coming from the physical therapy world discussing the importance of the core’s ability to resist unwanted lumbar extension as well as rotation and being able to control and create rotation when desired. (NASM PES, Boyle) Gaining the ability to avoid rotation and extension is a simple and safe precursor to redirecting and creating rotation, so emphasizing the anti-rotation component early in the set or phases is a great primary goal. The additional benefit of the split stance is that it allows the athlete to stabilize in an asymmetrical position similar to running, lunging, and cutting, as well as practice utilizing the trail leg gluteus max as a lumbar stabilizer.

Technique Points:

  1. Spine position neutral throughout from cervical through lumbar spine. There should be no change in spine position until rotation comes into play, yet even then the spine should corkscrew from the thoracic spine down, maximizing motion in the thoracic spine and staying tall.
  2. Leg position should be at the 90˚/90˚ position with the torso tall.
  3. Abs braced and trailing gluteus max engaged.
  4. Pull to the chest and press the belly button. A 2 phase down and 2 phase return works well to keep the movement clean.
  5. Once (if) adding rotation, press down and across the lead leg, thigh keeping the posture upright.

Optional: Anti Rotational Chop only (or from a kneeling or half-kneeling position to limit the degrees of freedom).

A great option especially if there might be any compensations or questions about your athlete’s ability to control rotation.

Summary Statements:

Be a coach of change and forward thinking and cautious to embrace current trends. Be a coach that avoids the common mistake in performance enhancement of maximizing strength and power development without training and educating your athletes on how to control it.

*These recommendations do not preclude the need for a full movement assessment to identify the quality of movement, the range of motion, stability, and compensations. This will help determine IF these exercises are appropriate or if there should be modifications made as well as what corrective exercise programming should be done to maximize the movement quality we have already discussed.