What is the easiest athletic quality to improve? In reality, there are two: strength and endurance.
Is it any wonder the sports performance industry is often called "strength and conditioning"? Things like speed, reactive ability and specific sports skills are relatively harder to improve. We all enjoy a sense of improvement; it tends to give as a rush, and putting more weight on the barbell from week to week in various exercises makes us feel like we are getting "better." However, there are a few inherent problems with using weights on the bar as the primary marker that you are improving as an athlete.
- If you cannot get in a good athletic position, and then you exacerbate that inability through loading it with weights, you will only create athletic roadblocks for the future.
- Barbell training, when emphasized as the training priority for a long enough period of time, will eventually start to slow down athletes and make them more mechanical in nature.
- Barbell training can easily lead to more muscular compensations than some other training methods due to fewer movement options and a high force requirement. Excessive barbell training can cause the body to create a strategy to move the weight that often recruits excessive muscles in the extremities (forearms, jaw, neck), a pattern that starts away from the center of the body and moves inwards rather than the reverse.
All of this isn't to say weightlifting is inherently bad, not by any means. Plenty of athletes who need to improve basic strength and body mass will have much better seasons as a result of an intelligent lifting program. For quite a few athletes, their limiting factor is indeed body mass and a basic level of strength. For others, the limiting factor is not strength, but speed, movement quality and sport biomechanics (and regardless, biomechanical proficiency should be the foundation of a program.)
I find that after a high level of barbell strength is acquired, movement quality and barbell strength tend to start having an inverse relationship if additional barbell strength is further pursued as a training priority. The qualities required to be a high-level weightlifter eventually start to take away from the creative fluidity and elasticity needed to be a high-level athlete, which is a hard concept for many to accept.
I have found that regardless of whether getting stronger is the lowest hanging fruit for an athlete or not, a baseline of movement quality and position (by position I mean being able to sustain an athletic posture for an extended time period) is crucial. This requires a balance between the phasic (big movers) and tonic (postural muscles) of the body.
Being over-coached, tense and rigid are enemies of movement quality. Playing in a way in which creativity is rewarded and encouraged, foster it. Movement quality can also be found through proper bodyweight training, such as isometrics held in the correct position with good posture and breathing mechanics. These types of movements help create a muscle balance where the body can actually self-optimize to the point where there are fewer muscular compensations (a muscle firing when it shouldn't or vice versa).
To this end, there are five basic bodyweight abilities I'd be happy for athletes to perform before they really think about getting significantly into the barbell side of training. If athletes can perform the following five competencies, then a subsequent barbell training program will be more effective, and overall athleticism will improve. The five abilities are as follows:
- 3 minute isometric Lunge hold (lower body)
- 1 minute+ isometric Push-Up hold (upper body)
- 2 minute hang from a bar (grip and back)
- 3 minute ankle hop (foot arch strength)
- Bear Crawl 100m+ (trunk, stabilizer and knee function)
Why did I select these abilities? Because they are very simple and span a spectrum of "weak links" and core human abilities that will not only prepare an athlete for future work, but that also in and of themselves have the potential to dramatically improve one's athletic abilities. Let's dive into each standard a little deeper.
1. 3-Minute Isometric Lunge
The Isometric Lunge I am referring to here is the "Extreme ISO" lunge which was invented by coach Jay Schroeder. In many situations, it is the core movement in my coaching arsenal.
To perform the Lunge as shown in the video above, get into a position of tall posture, with the front shin vertical to the ground and straighten your back leg behind you. From this position, you don't just hold the Lunge, but slowly "pull" yourself down into a lower position as time moves on. For this movement, two minutes straight is acceptable, but for most athletes, I'm really looking for a three-minute hold that's solid to the point where I could balance a glass of water on their front thigh.
2. 1-Minute+ Isometric Push-Up
The Isometric Push-Up is an upper-body staple that helps build strength, posture and basic awareness of the trunk muscles. To get into it, keep the forearms perpendicular to the ground, the shoulder blades pulled back, and drop down into a Push-Up. Hold this for time, not letting the elbows crash inward. The hands are placed on blocks or plates to allow some room to stretch-load the chest, similar to Charles Atlas' dynamic tension principles.
Many strong females can achieve this standard, but a kneeling version of this held for at least 90 seconds is an acceptable alternative given good trunk control.
3. 2-Minute Bar Hang
The bar hang is a unique exercise in that there is literally no way an athlete can wiggle or compensate around existing fatigue. Dr. Tommy John talked at length about this in episode 139 of the Just Fly Performance Podcast. This makes hanging from a bar for time one of the most "mental" exercises out there. Athletes who have a low pain tolerance, regardless of grip strength or back mobility/function, will always be the first to bow out of this training exercise.
If you can stick with it, a two-minute bar hang builds both grip and balance of the back muscles and upper body in general. If we look at just how easily a monkey can hang from a tree, this hopefully can give us some good inspiration to at least perform to a fraction of their abilities.
4. 3-Minute Squatted Line Hop ("Hyperarch Hop")
Foot strength is a crucial aspect of being a better athlete. Beyond just doing calf and tibialis raises, a dynamic ability of the foot to activate all three arches, and do so despite fatigue, is important. Without proper foot strength, compensations up the kinetic chain are absolutely inevitable. In fact, this might be the most neglected piece of training in all sports performance. We tend to assign every corrective exercise in the book, from Terminal Knee Raises, to Clamshells, to Dead Bugs, when often times, the issue in the kinetic chain starts at the foot!
To activate and strengthen the foot, the Squatted Line Hop is an incredibly useful exercise. It's also known as the "hyperarch hop" as coined by foot expert Chong Xie.
Xie pioneered a better way to do Line Hops to maximize their effect on intrinsic muscles. This is done by keeping the ankle as rigid as possible and focusing on a landing on the balls of the foot under the first and second toes while performing the movement. Many athletes will simply perform Line Hops on a supinated (outward tilted) foot and let their heels hit while the ankle loses all its tension.
To me, the ability to hop with the ankle rigid for three minutes straight, and do so in at least lower than a quarter-squat position, indicates that an athlete has the lower body tools to progress further in the foot strength and plyometric spectrum. In above video below, Xie demonstrates how to perform this with rigid ankles and feet.
5. 100-Meter Leopard Crawl
The last of these abilities, but certainly not the least, is the 100-Meter Leopard Crawl. I learned about the importance of crawling from Tim Anderson and his "Original Strength" works. One thing Tim and many others have found from doing a lot of crawling is that not only did it lead them to feel better, but their strength numbers in the weight room, such as on Squats, went up!
Crawling "knits" the body together in a manner by which we are designed to move. As the rule tends to go with exercises, the simpler they are, the better, and the more intention you can put into them. Crawling requires strength in the scapular and hip stabilizers, as well as the legs. When done with the knees very low to the ground, it is also a great quad and leg developer in a low impact manner.
In a Leopard Crawl, I am looking for an athlete to keep their knees within 2 inches of the ground during the moving portion of the crawl, which makes the move much more demanding and leaves less room for cheating and compensations. If athletes can perform this, then you can be reasonably certain they have the basic core strength and endurance that will help transfer into more intensive training means. For more mature athletes looking for a challenge, moving this out to 150-200 meters will really challenge them on many levels and yield a pretty serious quad burn to boot.
When it comes to modern training means, many general preparation coaches get caught under the lens of barbell training without ever zooming out to see the greater picture of how the human body innately functions. By improving your ability in the above methods, you can ensure better athleticism, less injury, and create a better platform for further training. These methods aren't easy, but you'll find them highly rewarding. If you are interested in these methods and the next levels beyond in regards to training speed, check out my new book Speed Strength.
Photo Credit: PeopleImages/iStock
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