Top Movements for Strength and Conditioning

Lately, my greatest mission has been to improve the quality of strength and conditioning around our country. It seems my focus has been on high schools and middle schools, but really I aim to help all coaches. That’s right, my aim is to help you guys and gals.

There are times I post videos on Twitter mainly to shed light on the need for change. Yeah it might hurt some feelings, but a lot of you don’t even realize there’s a problem. No one really governs our industry, so there’s no reason any of you should know there are issues.

And that’s the problem! When sport coaches are hiring strength and conditioning professionals, there is an inherent challenge. How do these sport coaches know the first thing about strength and conditioning?

So instead of complaining, I decided to do something about it in the way of helping you all. My goal is to help you all through articles like this one and videos. That way I can at least do my part.

The Barbell

The first thing I want to talk about is exercise selection.

The good thing about the Internet is that people get introduced to our industry via videos thousands of times per day. The problem is that people are getting introduced to junk multiple times per day. How do new people to our industry know the difference between a good coach and a bad coach?

The Internet is also a temptation for money-hungry coaches to post videos that are more for show than for performance. When you see videos of lifts being performed with bosu balls, slide boards, or an excessive amounts of bands, you can rest assured that the video is for show only.

Look, there are only a few movements that are scientifically proven to improve performance. I have no problem adding in some new movements as long as the main movements that we know work are the core of what you are doing. If your Instagram Page is filled with bosu balls, bands attached to every limb on your body, and other circus tricks – I know right away you are simply trying to get followers and money.

Last week, someone asked the question, “Can you call yourself a strength and conditioning gym without owning one barbell?” You already know my answer was that you absolutely can not. It has nothing to do with the fact that I love the barbell movements. My answer has to do with science.

Science has proven that certain barbell movements directly affect athletic performance in the way of faster sprint times and vertical leap. There is no doubt the barbell can help improve those two markers. However, there is so much more the barbell helps to improve:

  • Power production
  • Force production
  • Force absorption
  • Hypertrophy
  • Kinesthetic awareness
  • Reduced injury rates
  • Work capacity
  • Absolute strength and muscle control
  • Rate of force development
  • Motor unit recruitment
  • Synchronization of motor units
  • Core stability as it relates to the body on the field of play (standing upright)
  • All qualities of strength with velocity based training

As you can see the barbell is irreplaceable.

So can you open a strength and conditioning facility without the barbell? Well yes, I can jump off a cliff if I want to… but it’s going to be a bad idea. I could use kettlebells, dumbbells, and sandbags – but that is still not optimal for my athletes to maximize their potential. If you’re training adults in general fitness, it would totally be fine to use these instruments as long as you are quantifying their improvement. If you want to train top athletes like I do, you are going to need to use the barbell.

The Big Five Movements

Now that I have cleared that up, what barbell movements are essential for strength and conditioning? I could give a long list and make an argument for each, but I am going to narrow it down to five.

I want to provide younger coaches a go-to list to master and implement. When you master the five movements, then you can slowly add in other movements if you deem that necessary.

However, if you master these five, you will have a top rate facility, and your athletes will benefit from these movements that will help them reach their goals.

The Squat

No doubt that the daddy of all lifts is the back squat. Research has proven that the squat can be directly attributed to increases in speed and vertical leap. Bryan Mann actually set out to prove that the clean was superior in these areas, but his research proved that the squat was dominant.

With the use of velocity based training, the back squat can be used to improve every quality of strength (absolute, accelerative, strength speed, speed strength, and starting strength). However, the goal for the first few years of training should be absolute strength. If you read Coach Mann’s articles and books, you will learn that absolute strength will directly improve all qualities of strength for the first couple of years. Once your max reaches two times your own body weight, you can start spending training blocks on qualities of speed that will be more specific to your sport.

The back squat will also strengthen the body in a way that will prepare athletes for battle. All you have to do is think about all the joints that are strengthened with the squat: ankles, knees, hips, and all intervertebral joints. Basically the squat helps to bulletproof the body. If you are a football player, strengthening the back to absorb the impact of collisions is a must. You are asking your athletes to get into small car wrecks each and every day. To prepare the body for that kind of trauma, you are going to need to put a load on the body forcing adaptation where you need it.

If you coach or you are a parent to a soccer player, you know all to well that knee injuries are everywhere in the sport – especially for female athletes due to their steeper Q-angles. I laugh when parents tell me that squats are dangerous, especially when their children play soccer. Parents put them in a sport that causes more knee injuries than any other sport on the planet, and they let them play year round without any strength training. It’s almost like they want to see them get injured.

Look, if you are a parent, you better have your soccer player squatting to strengthen their knees. I bet you don’t drive your car everyday year round without getting any maintenance performed on it. Why do you do that with your children? I once had a parent get mad at me because my battle rope was too heavy for their middle school daughter – making it dangerous for her. Yet the same parent had that same little girl playing year round soccer and sometimes for multiple teams at a time. Are you kidding me?

One thing to consider is maybe using front squats if you are in a busy high school. Front squats don’t require spotting since the athlete simply dumps it forward if they can’t complete the lift. This will take one worry away from the coach. And if you are coaching 30+ people at a time, you will appreciate one less worry. Front squats are superior for strengthening the back, and almost as good as the back squat for strengthening the quads. I’ll take it as a win when you eliminate spotting catastrophes.

I definitely want to mention variations because they can be very helpful regarding specificity. For example, squat jumps at around 40% and quarter squats have been shown to improve speed and vertical leap at a faster rate than full depth squats. However, these two movements work after an athlete has spent a couple of years maximizing absolute strength. I would recommend shooting for 2 or 2.5 times body weight in a full depth squat to maximize the results of these partial movements. One reason that these partial depth movements are so effective is that the angles of the joints are more specific to sprinting and jumping. Once again, specificity is king.

The Clean

Power production is maximized with this movement. Let’s take a look at the numbers in this figure courtesy of USAW:

Power Production

As you can see, the Olympic lift movements are five or more times the traditional power lifts. This quality makes adding at least one of the Olympic movements a necessity – not to mention the other factors that make the clean an incredible choice:

  • Force absorption. Personally this is my favorite quality of this movement, especially for my football players. When you catch a 300 pound clean over and over, this prepares the body for taking on 200-300 pound athletes on the field of play.
  • Kinesthetic awareness. This is learning to understand how your body moves through space. I coach some of the best weightlifters in the world, ranging in ages from 10 to 50. If you visit my gym on any given day, you will find them out back walking on their hands, performing back flips, and doing other crazy circus tricks. My point is they are all very aware of their bodies in space. When you are floating through space with 300 pounds and suddenly catching the weight on your chest or overhead, you learn to understand where your body is in space.
  • Mobility. Practicing the Olympic movements frequently will obviously contribute to improved mobility. If you know any weightlifters, then you know they are some of the most mobile athletes on the planet. The completion of the lifts requires ankle, hip, and thoracic spine mobility. When you perform these movements on a daily basis, the body adapts to required movement. Athletically optimal movement trumps strength. However when you pair movement and strength, you get a dominant athlete.

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The Push Press

This is where my opinion differs from a lot of traditional strength and conditioning coaches. Up until recently the bench press has been the king of the upper body movements for most strength and conditioning coaches. But when it comes to power production (the ability to move weight quickly through space), the push press is supreme to the bench press. However, there is something that makes it even more specific to sport.

The bench press is performed lying down on your back. Specificity wise, the only time that happens is when you get knocked down. The push press originates with massive knee and hip extension followed by an upper body push, which is similar to all athletic movements that involve the upper body: throwing a baseball, punching, throwing a football, or shot put. If you’re a football player either taking on a block or delivering a block, it’s a very similar movement. The funny thing is that I have always noticed an increase in an athlete’s bench press after an increase in their push press. I can’t explain this relationship, but I’ve witnessed the phenomenon time and time again.

When you top this movement off with the benefits to the core and the overhead stability, you have the perfect upper body movement. I want to be clear that I do not hate on the bench press. Heck, I was a world record holder in the bench press – and I love the pump we all get from a massive bench session. However when it comes to benefits to sport, the edge has to go to the push press.

The Deadlift

Dan John once said that the deadlift is the best movement for bulletproofing football players. I’d agree.

Have you ever seen a good deadlifter with a weak neck or weak back? I know I sure haven’t. The deadlift is excellent for developing the back – especially the spinal erectors, the hips (glutes and hamstrings), and the quads. The deadlift can directly be attributed to increases in speed and jumping, just like the squat – not to mention the angles of the hips and knees are more specific to sprinting and jumping.

The trap bar deadlift has been shown to be even more effective for improving sprint times and vertical leaps. The center of mass is in a more advantageous spot as well making the lift easier to teach and bit safer. Either trap bar or barbell deadlifts are both great movements for athletes regarding injury prevention and optimizing performance.

Along with the squat, the deadlift is the most functional movement on earth. Our life is spent picking things up and squatting down, so it’s safe to say that both the squat and the deadlift are great for improving overall wellbeing. A lot of people refuse to deadlift because they say the deadlift hurts too many people. Guys, if you are hurting people with the deadlift, you don’t know how to teach the movement. If you can’t deadlift, how in the world is a wrestler ever going to throw their opponent? If you focus on establishing a fairly neutral spine and you understand the hinge pattern, the deadlift is one of the safest movements on earth. It’s also a great movement for making sure you don’t get hurt playing other sports.

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Heavy Carries

Bringing up the rear are heavy carries. Too many people talk about building the core without having the first idea about what that phrase really means. The core is every muscle that supports the spine and pelvis. As an athlete you want to strengthen the core in a way that relates to sports, which means you want to strengthen the core in a vertical manner. That means you want the core strong while standing upright or running in an upright posture.

Newsflash: performing lots of crunches and sit-ups isn’t a great core workout. Performing sit-ups and crunches is a great way to teach the torso to be a flexed position, which is the last place most athletes want to be in. Heavy carries are the best way I know to build the core in a vertical manner.

We use the following versions of the carry:

  • Bilateral Farmer’s Walk
  • Unilateral Farmer’s Walk
  • Front Squat Rack Position Carries
  • Zercher Carries
  • Axle Bar Overhead Carries
  • Fat Grip Dumbbell Carries

You are strengthening the traps, pelvis, and grip with the farmer’s walk. Dr. Stuart McGill has some good research stating that farmer’s walk will improve speed, especially change of direction because the pelvis down to the foot gets strengthened so much with each step. The supporting leg will take on the entire load making that joint sturdy and able to absorb massive amounts of force. The front squat and Zercher carries shift even more of the load to the spinal erectors making these carries super specific to strength sports like weightlifting and powerlifting – not to mention football for absorbing those big hits. The overhead carries are excellent for overhead stability, making these carries awesome for baseball players.

Others

I have to give the following movements honorable mention as important movements to strength and conditioning:

  • Pullup
  • Dip
  • Pushup
  • Bentover Row
  • Reverse Hyper
  • Bench Press
  • Barbell Hyperextension
  • Goodmorning
  • RDL
  • Snatch
  • Overhead Squat
  • Lunge
  • Rear Leg Elevated Split Squat

A Sample Program

I also put together a nice little four day per week workout for you guys that could literally be used ongoing for your athletes. Let’s take a look at it, and then I will explain it a bit more in detail at the end.

Strength Block
Day 1 Week 1

Push Presses (If possible and if not strict presses) – 5 x 5 at 75%
Back Squat – 5 x 5 at 75%
Overhead Fat Grip Dumbbell Carries – 4 x 20 yd each arm, building to a 9 RPE Max

Optional Assistance Exercises
1a. DB Bench Press – 4 x 8, work up to an 8-9 RPE
1b. Pullups – 4 x submaximal reps (use weight if more than ten)
1c. Reverse Hypers – work to an 8 RPE, 4 x 40 sec

Day 2

Hang Clean – 3RM at 8 RPE, then -10% for 2 x 3
Deadlift (eccentric slower than concentric) – 5 x 5 at 75%
Bilateral Farmer’s Walk – 4 x 30 yd, building to a 9 RPE Max

Optional Assistance Exercises
1a. DB Lunges – 3 x 10 each leg, staying around a 8-9 RPE
1b. TRX Leg Curls – 3 x 10, staying around a 8-9 RPE
1c. DB Power Cleans (focus on external rotation) – 3 x 10, staying around a 8-9 RPE

Day 3

Push Presses – 5RM at 9 RPE, then -10% for 2 x 5 (last set is 5+ but no misses)
Back Squat with Belt – 5RM at 9 RPE, then -10% for 2 x 5 (last set is 5+ but no misses)
Zercher Carry – 3 x 40 yd, work to an 8 RPE

Optional Assistance Work
1a. Dips – 4 x submaximal reps (add weight if able to get 10)
1b. BB Rows – 4 x 10 reps, working up to a 9 RPE

Day 4

Clean from Blocks – 3RM at 8 RPE, then -10% for 2 x 3
Deadlift (eccentric slower than concentric) – 5RM at 9 RPE, then -10% for 2 x 5
Unilateral Farmer’s Walk – 4 x 20 yd each arm, building to a 9 RPE Max

Optional Assistance Exercises
1a. Unilateral RDLs – 3 x 8 each leg, building to an 8-9 RPE
1b. DB Bulgarian Split Squats – 3 x 8 each leg, building to an 8-9 RPE

Day 1 Week 2

Push Presses (If possible and if not strict presses) – 90% of Day 3’s 5RM for 5 x 5
Back Squat – 90% of Day 3’s 5RM for 5 x 5
Overhead Fat Grip DB Carries – 4 x 20 yd each arm. Stay with where you stopped in week 1

Optional Assistance Exercises
1a. DB Bench Press – 4 x 8, work to a 9 RPE
1b. Pullups – 4 x submaximal reps (use weight if more than ten)
1b. Reverse Hypers – 4 x 45 sec, work up to a 9 RPE

Day 2

Hang Clean – 3RM at 9 RPE, then -10% for 2 x 3
Deadlift (eccentric slower than concentric) – 90% of Day 4’s 5RM for 5 x 5
Bilateral Farmer;s Walk – 4 x 30 yd. Stay with where you stopped in week 1

Optional Assistance Exercises
1a. DB Lunges – 3 x 10 each leg, staying around a 8-9 RPE
1b. TRX Leg Curls – 3 x 10, staying around a 8-9 RPE
1c. DB Power Cleans (focus on external rotation) – 3 x 10, staying around a 8-9 RPE

Day 3

Push Presses – 5RM, then -10% at 2 x 5 (last set is 5+ but no misses)
Back Squat with Belt – 5RM, then -10% for 2 x 5 (last set is 5+ but no misses)
Zercher Carry – 4 x 40 yd, work up to a 9 RPE

Optional Assistance Work
1a. Dips – 4 x submaximal reps (add weight if able to get 10)
1b. BB Rows – 4 x 10 reps with the ending weight from week 1

Day 4

Clean from Blocks – 3RM at 9 RPE, then -10% for 2 x 3
Deadlift (eccentric slower than concentric) – 5RM at 9 RPE, then -10% for 2 x 5
Unilateral Farmer’s Walk – 4 x 20 yd each arm. Stay with where you stopped in week 1

Optional Assistance Exercises
1a. Unilateral RDLs – 3 x 8 each leg. Stay where you stopped in week 1
1b. DB Bulgarian Split Squats – 3 x 8 each leg. Stay where you stopped in week 1

Day 1 Week 3

Push Presses (If possible and if not strict presses) – 90% of Day 3’s 5RM for 3 x 5
Back Squat – 90% of Day 3’s 5RM for 3 x 5
Overhead Fat Grip DB Carries – 3 x 20 yd each arm. Stay with where you stopped in week 1

Optional Assistance Exercises
1a. DB Bench Press – 3 x 8
1b. Pullups – 3 x submaximal reps (use weight if more than ten)
1c. Reverse Hypers – 3 x 35 sec

Day 2

Hang Clean – 90% of 3RM for 3 x 3
Deadlift (eccentric Slower than concentric) – 90% of Day 4’s 5RM for 3 x 5
Bilateral Farmer’s Walk – 3 x 30 yd each arm. Stay with where you stopped in week 1

Optional Assistance Exercises
1a. DB Lunges – 3 x 10ea leg, staying around a 8-9 RPE
1b. TRX Leg Curls – 3 x 10, staying around a 8-9 RPE
1c. DB Power Cleans (focus on external rotation) – 3 x 10, staying around a 8-9 RPE

Day 3

Push Presses – 5RM
Back Squat with Belt – 5RM
Zercher Carry – 3 x 40 yd

Optional Assistance Work
1a. Dips – 3 x submaximal reps (add weight if able to get 10)
1b. BB Rows – 3 x 10 reps with the ending weight from week 1

Day 4

Clean from Blocks – 3RM
Deadlift (eccentric slower than concentric) – 5RM
Unilateral Farmer’s Walk – 3 x 20 yd each arm. Stay with where you stopped in week 1

Optional Assistance Exercises
1a. Unilateral RDLs – 3 x 8 each leg, 10% less than where you stopped in week 1
1b. DB Bulgarian Split Squats – 3x 8 each leg, 10% less than where you stopped in week 1

Day 1 Week 4

Push Presses (If possible and if not strict presses) – 90% of Day 3’s 5RM for 5 x 5
Back Squat – 90% of Day 3’s 5RM for 5 x 5
Overhead Fat Grip DB Carries – Maximum weight for 20 yd each arm, and then subtract 10% for 2 x 20yd each arm

Optional Assistance Exercises
1a. DB Bench Press – 4 x 6, work to 9 RPE
1b. Pullups – 3 x 10
1b. Reverse Hypers – 4 x 50 sec

Day 2

Hang Clean – 1RM, then -20% for 3 x 3
Deadlift (eccentric Slower than concentric) – 90% of Day 4’s 5RM for 5 x 5
Bilateral Farmer’s Walk – Maximum weight for 30 yd, then subtract 10% for 2 x 30 yd

Optional Assistance Exercises
1a. DB Lunges – 3 x 10 each leg, staying around a 8-9 RPE
1b. TRX Leg Curls – 3 x 10, staying around a 8-9 RPE
1c. DB Power Cleans (focus on external rotation) – 3 x 10, staying around a 8-9 RPE

Day 3

Push Presses – 3RM, then -15% for 2 x 3 (last set is 3+)
Back Squat with Belt – 3RM, then -15% for 2 x 3 (last set is 3+)
Zercher Carry – 3 x 40 yd

Optional Assistance Work
1a. Dips – 4 x submaximal reps (add weight if able to get 10)
1b. BB Rows – 10RM, and then -10% for 3 x 10

Day 4

Clean from Blocks – 1RM, then -20% for 3 x 3
Deadlift (eccentric slower than concentric) – 3RM, then -10% for 2 x 3
Unilateral Farmer’s Walk – Maximum weight for 20 yd each arm, then subtract 10% for 2 x 20 yd each arm

Optional Assistance Exercises
1a. Unilateral RDLs – 3 x 8 each leg, building to a 9-10 RPE
1b. DB Bulgarian Split Squats – 3 x 8 each leg, building to a 9-10 RPE

This workout is designed to go on and on in a very simple way. If you notice, I am not recommending a lot of percentage work because I realize a lot of you are coaching high school athletes. If you’ve ever watched high school boys and girls trying to figure out their percentages for the day, then you know that will eat up too much of the limited time you have with them. It’s so much easier to explain the RPE system, and then tell them to work up to a 5 rep maximum.

On day one we are starting with 75% for 5 x 5 to get things kicked off. After that, it depends on you Day 3 rep maximum. That way you are taking into account increases in strength for volume. Remember, especially with high school kids, they get stronger sometimes week to week and definitely month to month.

We are including a type of carry every training day because they cause almost no muscle damage, meaning they are easy to recover from. I’ve also programmed to progressively overload the carries in a strategic way. This is important because athletes will go through the motions on carries unless you either turn them into a competition or present a simple way to progress them.

The assistance work is simply a suggestion and is definitely optional and interchangeable. I would recommend you leave in pull-ups and dips as upper body accessory work because both movements are so good for relative strength and upper body development.

In case you don’t know what the PRE Scale is, I will explain it simply. Basically it goes like this:

  • 10 RPE is an all out maximum for the prescribed repetition maximum
  • 9 RPE is stopping one set before maximum
  • 8 RPE is stopping two sets or a couple of reps before maximum
  • 7 RPE is stopping 3 sets or three reps before maximum
  • etc etc etc

On the strength work (squats, push presses, and pulls) we are not taking it to a complete 1RM simply for safety reasons. However, 3RMs can get dangerous if athletes take it right to the edge. I recommend stopping before a potential miss just to keep things progressing without over reaching too much with your athletes. With the Olympic lifts, we are taking it to a 1 RM because technique is just as important as the amount. Testing with repetition maximums can turn into some ugly reps very quickly. Even with singles I recommend stopping before the reps slow down or get ugly.

I hope that this article sheds some light on what a solid strength and conditioning program should look like. I will add that sprints, jumps, and change of direction have to be a part of a solid program. I was simply pointing out the weight room portion. One thing to consider might be pairing jumps and sometimes sprints with squats or cleans. We all have to consider time so complex training might be a solution.

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