Five Most Important Movements for Athletic Performance

I have come up with these movements based on the science available and my experience. I love science as much as the next person – but unless your research contains a control group with thousands of people over the course of twenty years or more, then I have a little more and little better data than you. There isn’t a block of programming I have used in the past two decades where I haven’t tracked the results. If you are a new strength coach, I recommend tracking results from day one, making sure to track such items as:

  • Total volume
  • Average intensity
  • Average increases in maximums
  • Injury rate
  • Athletic measurements vertical leap, broad jump, and 20/40 yd dash

There are a lot more, but these five categories will get you started. Based on my findings and my experience, here are the five movements I would consider the staples for any good athletic performance program:

  • Clean (and all variations)
  • Squat (and all variations)
  • Deadlift (and all variations)
  • Push Press (and all variations)
  • Carries (and all variations)

Each of these movements have variations which are great for attacking weaknesses, avoiding the law of accommodation, and keeping things fun. That last one is something a lot of coaches need to learn. You probably love the weight room naturally. Heck, that’s why we are strength coaches, but our job is to teach these athletes to love the weight room. One thing I can promise is that the modern athlete loves variation. With the world at their fingertips through their phones, we need variety to keep them engaged. Variety along with a naturally fun (yet safe) culture will keep the young folks coming back.

Clean (and variations)

The best way to express power in the gym is with the clean. The snatch is great for power as well, but if I had to choose, I am going with the clean. The clean prepares the body athletically in multiple different ways, such as: rate of force development, force absorption, mobility, kinesthetic awareness, core stability, and balance (to name a few). I prefer the clean versus the snatch mainly because of the higher load, leading to greater amounts of force absorption and core stability. However, someone could make a case for the snatch due to the higher velocities, greater mobility needs, and overall greater postural development.

Here’s a quick absolute power comparison:

Exercise Absolute Power (Watts)

Bench Press: 300
Back Squat: 1100
Deadlift: 1100
Snatch: 3000
Second Pull: 5500
Clean: 2950
Second Pull: 5500
Jerk: 5400

Now are these comparisons absolutely correct? No, because you could increase absolute power outputs in movements like the squat and deadlift by going lighter, or with different variations like squat jumps. However, I like to go with the clean because of the greater bang for your training buck. Force absorption is my favorite, and many of you have heard me talk about it. Here’s the thing. If you can clean 400 pounds, you can sure take on a block or deliver a bigger blow to your opponent. My star football player, Cade Carney (starting running back at Wake Forest University), cleans over 400 pounds – and you can see it when he runs the ball. When he runs into someone, he doesn’t go backward.

Tommy Bohanon, starting fullback for the Jacksonville Jaguars, cleans over 450 pounds. I love watching him play. He does everything correctly – he sticks his blocks, catches the football, and runs the ball north and south for positive yards when given the chance. When I watch football, I watch my guys more than the whole game. Tommy doesn’t just make blocks. He crushes his opponents. Now I agree it’s more than one trait that allows him to dominate his opponents: genetics, his size, and skills acquired. However, I promise a 450-pound clean helps.

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Based on the second pull producing the most power, there are several variations which work well:

  • Hang Clean
  • Hang Power Clean
  • Clean from Blocks
  • Power Clean from Blocks
  • No Hook Grip
  • Pause in the Catch
  • Slow First Pull to Explosive Second Pull

Hang cleans not only focus on the power output of the second pull, but they are more specific to the vertical leap with a counter movement. If you don’t know what the S.A.I.D. Principle is, you need to. “Specific adaptation to imposed demands” essentially means the body will specifically adapt to the types of demands placed on it. (National Academy of Sports Medicine)

Once an athlete has trained for two years, they will hopefully have developed some solid base levels of strength such as: max squat = 1.5 x bodyweight, and max deadlift = 1.75 times x bodyweight.

After that, specificity should become a major key of your programming. Cleans from blocks are better for starting strength in relation to sprinting. Clean from blocks are specific in regard to starting from a dead stop and the joint angles required. The pauses in the catch are great for force absorption. Once again, pauses in the catch during power cleans are more specific to most athletes. I want you to think about taking on a block in football, running into someone in soccer or basketball, or setting up a throw in wrestling. You normally won’t be in a full squat when performing these sport specific movements. Specifically, you will be in a position above parallel – much like a power clean.

The no hook is to functionally strengthen your grip, but more importantly to improve timing. Too many people spend too much time at the top. If you over pull without a hook grip, you will lose the bar out of your hands. No hook teaches you or your athlete to extend the hips, and then immediately begin the pull under the bar. A drill is always a better way of teaching versus any kind of verbal instruction.

Squat (and variations)

I love cleans as much as the next coach. Heck, I am a three-time Team USA Head Coach for USA Weightlifting. However, squats are the king of athletic performance. When it comes to vertical leap and 40-yard dash, the squat is more directly related to improvements than cleans. Coach Bryan Mann was the first person to open my eyes to that data. For specificity reasons, I recommend paying close attention to all qualities of strength:

  • Absolute Strength (0.3m/s and slower)
  • Accelerative Strength (0.75 to 0.5 m/s)
  • Strength Speed (1.0 to 0.75 m/s)
  • Speed Strength (1.3 to 1.0 m/s)
  • Starting Strength (anything faster than 1.3 m/s)

You can read more about this and these qualities in my eBook Bar Speed. Along with my co-author, Coach Spencer Arnold, we break down the mystery of velocity-based training.

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Some of my favorite variations are:

  • Paused squats
  • Eccentric based
  • Isometric based
  • Half squats
  • Jump squats
  • Front squats

Paused squats, which can also be lumped into isometric squats, are great for stability – especially at the exact angles of the pause. You can add some deep breaths for improvements in mobility along with stability. Another benefit of the pause is to limit the load due to the increase in difficulty. Front squats are the best way to strengthen the spinal extensors because the weight is in front of the body, maximally lengthening the spinal flexor moment. You could say all of these variations are a form of the conjugate method, which is simply varying the training stimulus to avoid the law of accommodation (fancy phrase for the dreaded plateau).

Deadlifts (and variations)

Deadlifts are arguably just as specific as squats. Some studies show greater gains in athletic performance from deadlifts (especially trap bar deadlifts). I also like deadlifts for their ability to (as Dan John calls it) “bulletproof the athlete.” Deadlifts develop the posterior chain of the body from the neck to the ankles. You’ll never see a great deadlifter without a massive neck/traps and back. Ed Coan immediately comes to mind. All of this comes in handy on the football field or wrestling mat.

I love to use the following variations for the deadlift:

  • Off blocks – for the obvious specificity of joint angle for sprints, jumping, and a strong athletic position.
  • Pauses anywhere during the pull – to strengthen any potential kink in the armor.
  • Velocity based – for the same reasons listed in the squat section.
  • RDLs – to strengthen the hamstrings and glutes a bit more due to the lengthening of the muscles under load.
  • Suitcase deadlifts – for addressing or preventing asymmetries. We normally use a twp to four inch deficit along with a farmer’s walk apparatus.

Push Press (and variations)

Without a doubt, the push press is the best upper body exercise because it begins with the lower body – just like any great athletic upper body movement, such as a punch, javelin throw, shot put throw, or pass block. (I’m not saying the bench press is a bad thing. I’m just saying it doesn’t make my top five.) The push press is the perfect movement in the gym to develop explosive upper body strength.

The only variations I might use are simply using different implements like dumbbells, kettlebells, or an axle bar. The only reasons I would use different implements are for symmetry, stability, and to avoid accommodation. Dumbbells are great for young athletes to develop stability.

Carries (and variations)

Carries should be a constant with any good program. When it comes to the stability of the spine and hips while the body is upright, which is 95% of the time in most sports, nothing is better than carries. There are two people who have greatly influenced me who are colossal proponents for carries: Dr. Stuart McGill and Coach Dan John.

Dr. McGill brings up a point I had never heard of. The unilateral farmer’s walk has been shown to improve an athlete’s ability to change direction because they are preparing each side to absorb massive amounts of force when they pick up each leg. This movement is also great for avoiding back pain by properly working the quadratus lumborum. The QL lifts the hips up and down from side to side, so asymmetrical work is the best way to strengthen and properly work the QL.

We use lot of variations with carries:

  • Bilateral Farmer’s Walk
  • Unilateral Farmer’s Walk
  • Zercher Carries
  • Barbell or Axle Bar Overhead Carries
  • Dumbbell or Kettlebell Overhead Carries
  • Kettlebell or Dumbbell Staggered Carries

Sample Program

Here’s a sample week of programming to show a way I would possibly program these movements:

Strength Phase
Day 1

Clean Complex – Clean + 2 Front Squats: Max (no misses)
Back Squat – 5 x 5 at 78%
superset with
Prisoner Squat Jump + Knee to Chest – 5 x 5
Deadlifts (velocity based) – 75% straight weight (or 60% straight weight and 20% bands/chains) for 8 x 2 with 60-90 sec rest, velocity goal 0.75 m/s or faster
Wide Grip Bench Press – 3RM (first rep paused 5 sec)

Day 2

Hang Power Clean – 3RM (8-9 RPE, no misses)
Push Presses – 5 x 5 at 78%
Closegrip Axle Bar Decline Presses with 100lb of chains – 5RM, then -15% for 3 x 5 (last set is 5+)
Barbell Rows (paused 2 sec on sternum) – 4 x 5
DB Fat Grip Overhead Walks – 3 x 20 yd forward and backward

Day 3

Clean (from blocks) – 3RM
Back Squat Box Squats (add weight to the last two sets if the speed is there) – 50% Bar Weight + 20% Bands or Chains for 6 x 3 (60-90 sec between sets, velocity goal 0.8 m/s)
superset with
Seated Box Jumps to 40″ Box to Depth Jump for Height – 6 x 3
Suitcase Deadlifts (from 4″ deficit) – 3 x 5 each side (stay at 7-8 RPE)
Leg Curls (Band, DB, or Machine) – 4 x 10

Day 4

Clean Complex: Pull + Clean + Front Squat: Max
Front Squat – 3RM (first rep paused 5 sec) 8 RPE
Weighted Dips or Nosebreakers – 4 x 8
Pull-ups – 4 x submaximal reps


In this workout, I included all the movements I recommended in this article, along with several of their variations. I also included some accessory movements I like to use simply as a reference. Rows, dips, and pull-ups are accessory movements that almost everyone should use (unless they have mobility issues that put them at risk). I normally include some form of leg curl mainly for injury prevention. Knee extension is so common in athletic performance workouts that imbalances can form rather quickly. All I have is anecdotal evidence, but I have witnessed a simple leg curl alleviate 80% of all knee pain.

The key for an effective athletic performance workout is to keep things simple. I like to use rep maxes a bit more than percentages just because athletic performance classes are normally taught in bigger groups with a time cap. If you start throwing lots of percentages at teenagers, you will add several minutes of simple math to the workout. Not to mention, they’ll often mess up the percentage.

Keep it simple and do your job as a coach. When the bar speed starts to slow down, cut them off. If you are blessed to have velocity instruments, set those numbers in stone to avoid potential injuries in the weight room. An experienced coach is just as good as GymAware in most cases. We know when the bar is slowing down.

Here’s the last bit of information I want to leave you with. You should know the why behind each and every exercise you prescribe. If you don’t, either cut the movement or find out the why. If an athlete questions your program or exercise selection, take it as a chance to teach. If you get offended, I take it as you not being able to defend your program. That’s a real lack of knowledge in my opinion.

I am a teacher. A good coach is a great teacher. I value every opportunity to teach my athletes. You should too.

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