The most important aspect of any physical training is quality of movement. To dominate on the field and in the gym you need strength, speed, power, agility, and endurance. Everyone knows they are the basics of high performance. But there are basics within these basics that are often overlooked. Sometimes good intentions are not matched with good execution.


Optimal movement in the gym means optimal movement when it matters most. [Photo credit: Rx'd Photography]


I often assess athletes’ training programmes on paper and everything looks great. Then I see the athlete performing the exercises. All of a sudden the programme becomes irrelevant and the initial discussion about sets and reps is replaced with a discussion about how they’re moving.


The Importance of Movement Quality

Whether squatting, sprinting, or swimming, movement quality will have the biggest effect on whether your training is going to improve or inhibit your performance. Lift with poor mechanics and you won’t strengthen anything. You’ll grind your joints into an eventual halt. Run sprint drills without paying attention to your mechanics and you’ll embed inefficient movement and just become better at sprinting badly.


Your training should improve your physical competence, not solidify errors. The principle of embedding movements should go for any and all training. Your body hardwires every move you make, so it’s crucial to hardwire good habits.


2 Scenarios

Consider this scenario as an example: imagine you’re a high-level rugby player. You need to change direction quickly and leap into a tackle to stop an opposing player making a break for the try line with the ball.


  • Poor movement: You see your opponent in the distance but waste a split second by taking an unnecessary step due to poor agility and acceleration mechanics. You miss the tackle.


  • Optimal movement: Good agility and acceleration mechanics allow you to get to your opponent quickly with no time or motion wasted. You make the game-saving tackle.


Let’s stay on the rugby field and try another scenario. A beast of an opposing player is charging at you. You prepare yourself to take a massive hit.


  • Poor movement: You’ve spent years training but have paid more attention to whether you’re doing 5 x 5 or 4 x 10 than to the way you are lifting and why. You haven’t focussed on basic lifting mechanics. The beast betters you. You crumble.


  • Optimal movement: Your strength training has focussed on creating a rigid, neutral torso regardless of whether you are lifting 50kg or 150kg. Your body understands and knows what to do when it is faced with external forces of compression, flexion, extension, and rotation. You stand strong and the beast bounces off you.


Your capacity to generate or resit force and move efficiently is developed by your training, either in the gym or on the field. Too often these capacities are dampened due to poor prioritization, as shown in these two scenarios.


What Really Matters

Many athletes mistakenly believe weight, reps, and task completion should be their top priorities. Load the bar, hit your reps, and get through the set. This approach leads to problems. Beat up joints, achy backs, unusable strength, and poor movement. As an athlete you cannot afford this. The gym is a controlled environment. It’s the place to become more robust and resilient. It’s not the place to take more hits.


Positioning, range of motion, and control should be the priorities of every movement you perform in the gym. Focus on these and you’ll build strong, athletic muscle all the while opening up your capacity to move freely and powerfully. If you can lift 152.5kg for 6 reps, bench 1.75 x BW (bodyweight), box jump 37 inches, and deadlift 195kg with only a slight rounding of your back -  know that these stats hold no clout on the field or real life. The field doesn’t care if your strength matches that of a powerlifter, a player from another team, or what the internet says you should be lifting.


Sport and functional movement only values the following:


  • The ability to speed up and slow down over a very short distance.
  • The ability to change direction quickly.
  • A quick expression of strength (power).
  • The capacity to move freely and powerfully through a full range of motion.
  • The ability to give and take powerful hits (tackle or blocks in collision sports or impacts from day-to-day life)
  • Maintenance of a strong position to generate and resist force in specific situations.


What all the qualities in this list have in common is they require an understanding of positioning, movement, mechanics, and control. As alluded to earlier, when these key components are learned and practiced in the gym, they become your default on the field. In other words, you’ll adopt these strong positions unconsciously when you’re under pressure, fatigued, or about to give or take a hit.


I’m not suggesting you avoid lifting heavy weights. I’m saying you should prioritize movement quality. First demonstrate you have the control, positioning, and range of motion, then add strength. If you can lift heavy weights with good mechanics, the field is yours.


The Principles in Action: Design Your Own Programme

Any programme designed to have a positive impact on your performance should focus on the key movement patterns: squat, hinge, press, and pull. First embed the movement pattern and then add strength and power.


Your programme should generally aim to have you:


  • Front squatting heavy weights through a full range of motion without losing any postural integrity (staying upright with the feet straight and the knees out)
  • Deadlifting with a neutral spine. This neutral position should be strictly enforced. If there’s any deviation from a neutral spine, stop and reset.
  • Push pressing is the ultimate expression of transmitting force from your legs, through your trunk to your upper body. This should be your main pressing exercise.
  • Vertical and horizontal pulling. Chin ups, one-arm rows, and bentover rows should all be utilized.
  • Jumping and performing barbell cleans. Once your basic patterns and landing mechanics are perfected, you can look to transition from one position to the next with explosive movement.


Game Winning Additions: Agility and Speed/Acceleration

Many training programmes include ‘agility’ drills that are prepared using the following definition of agility: The ability to repeatedly move quickly towards multiple cones in a controlled environment. Last time I watched sport I didn’t see any cones on the field, nor did I see one team letting the other know exactly where and when to change direction.


The definition from which agility drills should be designed is: A rapid whole body movement that requires you to accelerate, decelerate, and change direction in response to what you see or hear. Agility drills should require you to react in response to receiving instructions (hearing) and/or to visual cues (opponents and teammates moving or a coach pointing). Bear this in mind when designing your own drill. It’ll take an extra minute to design, but it will be infinitely more effective.


Speed is the game winner and has everything to do with mechanics. If you’re not fortunate enough to have access to a coach with an understanding of sprinting mechanics, film yourself sprinting and compare your mechanics to those of Usain Bolt. You don’t need to be a technically outstanding sprinter, but paying attention to improving your knee drive, heel recovery, arm swing, and torso alignment will trim the crucial split second off your sprint and be the difference between breaking free and being taken to the deck.


Embed good mechanics and you’ll unconsciously replicate these when sprinting on the field, whether holding a ball or weight or chasing an opponent. Your body will figure it out. The aim is to have optimal sprinting so that your body will replicate the mechanics as closely as possible in a game or competitive environment.


Pattern Before Power

Athletic performance and prowess is enhanced by becoming stronger and more powerful in key movement patterns. You must have the movement pattern before you can become strong and powerful in it. Focus on mechanics, control, positioning, and range of motion before scrutinizing your sets and reps protocol or throwing more weight on to the bar. This is the movement quality approach that yields the most short and long term success.


This article was originally published on Breaking Muscle UK.


Discover more movement fundamentals:

The Great Upside-Down Movement Pyramid