8 Exercises To Be A Better Athlete
Many coaches are always looking for the best way to improve their athletes. Unfortunately, most coaches are stuck in the “this is how it’s always been done” mentality. I can tell you first-hand, if you hear this as an athlete or parent, this probably isn’t the coach for the job. With the amount of research, studies, education, and growth of the internet there are always new and improved ways to get the same, if not better, results. This isn’t saying that new is always better, far from it. However, the “this is how it’s always been done” mentality shows the lack of desire from said coach from continuing to self-educate.
Part of my goal with this article is to provide exercises that I believe any athlete can benefit from. Here at Terre Haute Intensity Resistance and Sports Training (THIRST), we’ve got a wide variety of athletes and clientele that come to us looking to become a better athlete. With those athletes, I can tailor exercises and their prescription, specifically for them.
But what about just any athlete off the street? Someone that’s just going to try to wing it, and do something to improve? These exercises are for them and anyone else that just wants to move and perform better. I’ve chosen exercises that are big, bang-for-your-buck choices in terms of return on investment. I also wanted to try to provide a full-body training regimen that covered most of the main movement patterns. Please note that these are not in any particular order of importance.
Split Squat Jumps
The first exercise we have up is the Split Squat Jump. I’m a huge fan of this plyometric exercise. We get unilateral training in an explosive nature that also requires huge recruitment from the glutes and hamstrings. Most single leg plyometric exercises are going to have an athlete jump in and out of ladders or over small hurdles. Unfortunately, many athletes will not get their glutes and hamstrings working to a high degree here, just from a range of motion standpoint.
The pitfall to this exercise is that most athletes need to have mastered a weighted lunge or split squat, and have also done well with box jumps and their variations. Athletes that aren’t strong enough to do this stick out, because they will barely leave the ground. Just know that this exercise will come with time for less advanced athletes.
Key Coaching Points: Ensure the athlete is pressing through their whole foot on the front leg and that the torso remains upright. Keep reps on the lower side (3-5 reps per leg), and rest on the high end (60-90 seconds between sets).
Next up, we have the chin up. What most will consider to be the ultimate bodyweight exercise and the gold standard of upper body strength, and rightfully so. The challenge that pull ups and chin ups give for just the average person, let alone a kid, is demanding. Sadly, with the obesity epidemic, this exercise is becoming harder and harder for athletes to perform. So my first recommendation is to have athletes keep their bodyweight and body composition in check to help ensure they can do a bodyweight chin up.
I would also like to explain that a chin up is when the athlete has their palms facing them, and a pull up is when an athlete has their palms facing away. I’m more of a fan of the chin up for athletes so that we can get the shoulder into external rotation to help with mobility limitations.
In the video above, I’ve provided some regressions that you can use if your athlete can’t do a bodyweight chin up. I discuss the option of controlled eccentrics lasting 3-5 seconds per repetition, or adding in band assistance so that the athlete gets more help from the bottom of the exercise. Both are great options to help improve chin up performance, just know that eccentrics are taxing to the muscle, so they should be avoided close to competition if an athlete is in-season.
The chin up will be great to strengthen the lats, which will help with swimming, throwing, hitting a volleyball or tennis ball, wrestling, and just about any exercise where the upper body plays a crucial role in performance. The lats are also a very big, broad muscle, so improving their size and strength will help add mass to contact based sports.
Key Coaching Points: Ensure you pick the right progression for your athlete, and that they use the full range of motion. We also want to ensure they are driving their elbows down and attempting to get their chest to the bar without anterior translation of the humeral head. Ideally these are programmed for 3-5 sets of 5-8 repetitions, or 3-5 repetitions for eccentrics.
6 Way Lunge
I believe that many will go through this list and realize that I didn’t place the goblet squat in my eight exercises. The main reason for this was that I thought the 6 Way Lunge was a better fit for all athletes. This particular lunging variation let’s us train in the saggittal and frontal plane while using a single leg variation. Most sports are going to require that we move from side to side, but also forwards and backwards. In my opinion, this is the benefit of this variation. We learn to develop lateral strength, deceleration strength, and acceleration strength. These are also fantastic for youth athletes that are beginning to master their bodyweight exercises.
The primary downside to this exercise is that we are performing three repetitions per leg for each “rep” of the exercise. The athlete will do a lateral lunge, forward lunge, and reverse lunge on each leg. That will equal one repetition.
Key Coaching Points: Ensure the athlete is pressing through the ground with their whole foot, and that they do no let the knee cave inward. The torso should remain upright, with a minor forward lean in the lateral lunge. These should be performed for 3-4 sets of 3-6 repetitions per leg.
Single Arm DB Bench Press
Walk into any weightroom in the country and you’ll likely find athletes bench pressing. As a competitive powerlifter and being a world-ranked bench presser, I love the bench press. However, for many athletes, it’s just not what we need to do to be a better athlete. Hear me out. I believe that horizontal pressing is huge..bench pressing with a straight bar, meh. We need to provide exercises that are shoulder friendly, but also provide us a good athletic component. This is where I think the Single Arm DB Bench Press comes in. We get a unilateral component in the training, we get some free abdominal and core work, but we also are learning to own the weight with the stability aspect without being forced into internal rotation.
There are a plethora of options from grips, angles, alternating, and other variables we can change with this exercise, which is also refreshing for the athlete at times. I believe this is also a fantastic exercise to help build general strength for the youth athlete that can’t quite do a push up.
If you happen to notice that an athlete has one arm that is considerably stronger than the other, you may want to perform 1-2 more working sets on the weaker arm.
Key Coaching Points: Make sure the athlete has their heels pushed into the ground and has their shoulders pulled back and down towards their butt. While pressing with the moving arm, keep the elbow slightly tucked so that the dumbbell is about at a 45 degree angle. These should be performed for 3-4 sets of 6-10 repetitions per arm.
Tri-Pod DB Row
I am a huge fan of horizontal rowing variations. No matter what someone’s goals are, having ample horizontal rowing in a training program is paramount to having good posture and performing at your best. When it comes to rows, I think the Tri-Pod DB Row is one of the top rowing variations, especially for athletes. Not only are we going to get stronger on the back side with our lats, rhomoids, traps, and smaller scapular retractors, but with this variation we also get a great core and trunk stimulus from having to resist the weight rotating us.
This is an exercise that nearly any athlete at any age can perform, as the weight can always be scaled to fit their needs. However, maintaining good technique is crucial here so that we’re training the proper muscles, but also seeing the benefits from the trunk work. With that said, most athletes need to do more pulling than pressing, so don’t hesitate to crank the volume on an exercise like this, so long as the athlete is recovering from training.
Just like the Single Arm DB Bench Press, if you happen to notice an athlete has an arm that is significantly weaker than the other, don’t be afraid to program 1-2 more working sets on the weaker arm to bring it up to speed.
Key Coaching Points: Ensure the athlete is able to keep a neutral spine and flat back without any (or very minimal) rotation of the torso. They should be focusing on driving the elbow back hard towards their back pocket. These should be performed for 3-5 sets of 6-12 repetitions per arm.
Band Pull Through
Part of being a great athlete is having a strong, explosive lower body. The Band Pull Through is an exercise that is phenomenal at developing the glutes and hamstrings with minimal equipment, while also getting the athlete out with a wide base of support. Many sports are played with a wide stance or have a lateral component to it, and I think this exercise does a great job of teaching athlete how to laterally apply force into the ground while training the muscles responsible for jumping, cutting, and running.
Hip extension happens in nearly every sport to some degree, and the Band Pull Through delivers on providing a stronger backside with a next to no injury risk. We also are able to work on teaching proper hinging technique, so that when we go to use a more advanced exercise like a Romanian Deadlift (RDL), sumo deadlift, or kettlebell swing, things seem to click much easier.
Key Coaching Points: Make sure the athlete is able to keep a neutral spine and is rooted into the floor by trying to actively push the floor apart. This will aid in overall balance but also ensure we are training the glutes and hamstrings fully (with a rounded back, we begin training the erectors, which do not aid in triple extension as a prime mover). Typically these will be performed for 3-4 sets of 10-20 repetitions.
Half Kneeling Landmine Overhead Press
Many athletes are required to hit, throw, block, push, or reach within sport. Training overhead for some athletes can be a gamble based upon their shoulder history and mobility restrictions. Just like the bench press, while I like overhead pressing, many athletes just do not have the clearance to do so safely with a straight barbell. This is where an exercise like the Half Kneeling Landmine Overhead Press comes in. We get to train the same musculature, but in a safer range of motion and angle of pressing. You’ll notice in the video, that I am pressing at an angle, versus just straight over head. The barbell also allows me to perform the motion with a neutral grip, or palm facing in position, which is also much more shoulder friendly.
On top of the better pressing angle, we also are in a half kneeling position, which is fantastic for allowing the hip flexors to lengthen (typically a muscle group that is chronically tight from prolonged sitting). Add in the single arm component and we also get amazing unilateral strength on each arm and a free abdominal exercise. It truly is a full-body exercise. An added benefit is that with this overhead pressing variation we get a nice, long reach achieving good serratus anterior recruitment as well as elevation and upper rotation of the scapula which is amazing for baseball, softball, volleyball, and other throwing sports.
Key Coaching Points: You’ll want to emphasize that athlete knows the midsection needs to stay braced and controlled during the whole range of motion. Also don’t be afraid to teach a “reach” while finishing the exercise at the top to get the most from the scapular range of motion. This exercise works best when done for 3-4 sets of 6-10 repetitions per arm.
Split Stance Band Pallof Press
Nearly every coach, athlete, and parent knows how important “core” or trunk training is for athletics. It’s what most coaches and parents want to see improved. “My kid needs a stronger core.”
This might be true, but how we go about training that can vary quite a bit. Most of your big exercises (like the ones I’ve already listed) do an amazing job of training the trunk while also seeing benefits to other muscles and movements as well. We do our fair share of trunk training at THIRST, but majority of our exercise selection comes in the forms of resisting load, or learning to brace against a moving piece. The Split Stance Band Pallof Press is an exercise where we have a ton going on, but we’re benefiting from training in various planes while also achieving a good athletic position.
I could have chosen a plethora of trunk exercises to put in here, but I wanted to try to pick one that I though would be useful for just about any athlete. The Split Stance Band Pallof Press teaches us to resist rotation, brace hard, keep the ribs pulled down, achieve lengthening of the hip flexors, all while pressing and moving appendages. This happens in nearly every sport, in some part at some time. Once you give this a try, you’ll realize it’s much harder than it actually looks.
Key Coaching Points: Ensure the athlete is in a good split stance position and able to feel their whole foot on the front leg. While pressing the band, emphasize to brace hard and resist movement as much as possible. We want to keep the ribs pulled down and not go into hyperextension through the low back. Ideally this will be done for 3-4 sets of 6-12 reps per side. This is an exercise where a slower tempo is tremendously better to own the movement.
While there are basically an indefinite amount of exercises we could list and make a case for developing a total athlete, these we’re the select eight that I felt had a huge bang-for-the-buck return on investment. Many athletes are only going to be able to train two to three times per week for 45-60 minutes, so exercise selection becomes of importance to try and train all the important qualities but keep the athlete safe and in good position as well. This is where I believe having a well-rounded sports performance program and strength coach comes into play, to help select specific exercises that particular athlete might need at that time in their development and season. Hopefully if anything, this gave you some new exercises to give a go or implement in your training programs.
Feeling confused? Have questions? Did we blow your mind with something? Let us know in the comments section.