We live in a time of abundant, free information. The problem with this? Not all of this abundant information is productive or correct.
With the emergence of YouTube and celebrity athletes on Instagram, there might be more misconceptions now than ever before about athletic training.
High school or even collegiate athletes may see celebrities like Terron Beckham (an NFL prospect and former bodybuilder), performing supersets of deadlifts followed by backflips, and think this is the ideal way to train. I can’t blame them. If I was 18 and saw a guy who is built like Terron Beckham, I would probably think this is the best way to train also.
But these celebrity athletes are successful in spite of their dangerous training, not because of it.
When it comes down to it, athletic training is fairly simple. For maximum effectiveness and on-field success, every athlete should have the following staples in their training program:
- Posterior chain strength work
- Sport-specific training
- A proper hip and spine mobility program
The Root of All Power
The posterior chain is a group of muscles on the backside of the body, and includes the glutes, hamstrings, and erector spinae. There is no sport on the planet that does not rely heavily on these muscles or the posterior chain as a whole. Have you ever seen a world-class football player with a small butt and hamstrings? I didn’t think so. Look at Serena Williams; her posterior chain is a marvel to every fitness professional.
The gluteus maximus is the largest muscle in the body. A strong gluteus maximus works together with your hamstrings to generate a huge amount of force and explosiveness. Your erector spinae safeguard your spine, and provide an enormous amount of stabilization to the core. If these muscles are not strengthened and conditioned, you will be guaranteed to perform sub-optimally in your sport.
A strong posterior chain will allow you to be quicker and stronger off the line after a snap in football. It will help increase your vertical jump, as well as your change of direction strength and speed in basketball. It can control and charge forward a scrum in rugby. During your golf swing, it will greatly increase the control of your weight distribution during your backswing, and allow you to explode forward with power when following through. In short, a strong posterior chain is essential for power, explosiveness, support, and control in every sport.
So how do we develop one? The most effective exercises to develop a strong and conditioned posterior chain include:
- Kettlebell swings
- Prowler or sled pushes
- Barbell glute bridges
- Barbell hip thrusts
- Bulgarian split squats
- Straight-leg deadlifts
If you want to excel in any sport from tennis to football to bobsled racing, it is time to make posterior chain training a staple in your athletic programming.
Sport-specific training includes exercises that mimic the exact demands of your sport. We will take the most popular sport in America for an in-depth example of sport-specific training: football. The actions required in the sport of football vary by position; however, there are some common threads.
The first is the reaction time from the snap of the ball. We can improve this with reactionary drills. A basic example of a reactionary drill would a coach blowing a whistle to command a change in position, from a player being on their feet, to going into a burpee. The player must react as quickly as possible to the whistle.
An advanced example of a reactionary timing drill would be a player running 5 yards away from a coach, then right before the player turns around, the coach would throw a tennis ball on either side of the player. The player would then have to immediately react to catching the ball upon turning around at the 5-yard mark. The player wouldn’t know where the ball is being thrown, hence their reaction would have to be very quick upon turning around.
The next action required in football is an explosion off the line. This movement requires the posterior chain strength and speed that we talked about before. The exercises listed above will provide strength and conditioning for the posterior chain in the weight room. To practice explosiveness on the field, players can use short burst sprints.
My personal favorite training exercise for explosiveness is sand sprints. Sand sprints deliver the perfect environment for maximizing explosiveness. They require players to be powerful enough to drive through layers of sand to get a solid footing for a big push off. They then require players to have a quick stride or cadence to not get stuck in the sand. This combination produces a strong and quick athlete.
In football, after this explosiveness comes a short sprint which requires multiple changes in direction, whether you are a defensive end or a wide receiver. These short sprints are accompanied with pushing and jostling for position. This should be practiced by mimicking gameplay scenarios. Players should go head to head on the line and rehearse plays.
Athletes may also incorporate pushing and pulling exercises for said jostling of position. These exercises should require full body stabilization to be as sport-specific as possible. In football, you are pushing and pulling while standing and moving, so contrary to popular belief, doing seated rows or bench presses won’t be the best exercises to replicate the demands of the game. Instead, the exercises should be complex, compound movements requiring full body stabilization, rather than exercises that are mostly for isolation of a body part or a competition-specific lift. For pushing, this would mean performing plyometric pushups or medicine ball chest passes. For pulling, it would mean standing bent over rows or landmine rows to elicit as much full-body stabilization as possible.
Sport specific training may seem obvious, but it should be. If you want to get good at your sport, you have to practice every facet of it over and over again. The message I want to drive home: ditch all of the fancy accessory work and drill for your sport.
Pick apart every action required in your sport and drill those actions over and over, in pieces and as a whole. Was it annoying to have to run the same route 1000 times in practice through the course of a season? Maybe, but it worked, and it is the most effective way to get good at that route.
When picking strength and conditioning exercises, pick those that are most closely related to the demands of the sport, and don’t get caught up in fads.
Get Your Spine and Hips Mobile
I know this gets beat to death, but it is absolutely crucial! If your hips and spine do not have proper function, your body and performance will suffer immensely. Your hips are central to every single movement in the body, and your spine is your lifeline. Treat them with the respect they deserve. Sitting destroys our posture, so we have to compensate for this and build back our hip and spine function with a specialized program.
Flows have become increasingly popular to deal with this issue, and are quite effective. You can find video tutorials for these all over the internet, including Chris Holder’s Cal Poly Hip Flow.
When picking a flow to strengthen the hips, I would focus on one that emphasizes lateral (side to side) movements. Almost all of our exercise movements are done in a linear plane or from front to back. Lateral movements are highly neglected, and are important for any athlete. They strengthen the muscles, ligaments, tendons, and tissue around your lower extremity joints and spine that are often overlooked. This is a main reason I prefer qigong to yoga, since many qigong exercises are done in a lateral plane, and most yoga poses are done in a linear plane.
Lateral lunges with variations of torso stretching should be included in the flow. You can stretch the torso away from the dominant leg in an arching fashion to mobilize and strengthen the iliopsoas muscles, or towards the dominant leg to require further stabilization of the hip joint, knee, and adductors. Cossack squats are another favorite lateral movement and are quite effective.
Finally, deep squatting should be included in any flow program to achieve proper hip and spine mobility. Try variations of the deep squat with internal rotations of one leg, external rotations of one leg, side twists of the torso, and vertical arm reaches. You can even practice holding an overhead deep squat with a broomstick or pole for an intense thoracic mobility and strengthening exercise.
No matter what you include in a flow, the main priority should be ingraining proper hip and spine mobility. In the Western world, our hip and spine health is so poor that this really does need to become a staple in athletic training for safety and proper biomechanics.
Train Simply for Athletic Excellence
There you have it. No splits, no front flips into pistol squats, no BOSU ball snatches. Just simple and effective training protocols that elicit maximal performance. Keep the programming simple, have every exercise geared towards a specific goal, use the three pillars above, and you will excel at any sport.
Before you can develop the body, you must hone the mind: