Resistance Training - Part 2: Considerations in
Maximizing Sport Performance
Steven Plisk - Yale University, Connecticut, USA
Basic exercises are exactly that - basic. In general, they are very
straightforward and there is little need to substitute other movements in their
place or supplement them with different types of assistance exercises intended
to target the muscles differently. This is not a concrete rule, however, and
some prudent alternatives are offered below. Long-term variety is often best
achieved by adjusting the workload for a limited number of movements rather than
attempting to include every possible exercise. Commonly used exercises include
squats, pulling movements and presses.
Considering the concept of "basic exercise", strength training exercises can be
classified into three categories:
Primary or "structural" ...multi-joint, weight bearing (e.g., weightlifting
movements, squat, deadlift).
Secondary or "supplemental" ...multi-joint, non-weight bearing (e.g., upper-body
pressing or pulling exercises).
Tertiary or "isolation" ...single-joint, non-weight bearing.
Primary exercises are movements, which by definition tend to yield the most
profound results; whereas those further down the continuum have lesser effects,
and are usually technically simpler. The examples cited above for each category
are certainly not comprehensive, and it is not difficult to create hybrid
movements. For example, weightlifting movements in which explosive impulse and
power are the fundamental objectives represent a special case of primary
exercises that are semi-ballistic in nature.
The lunge and step-up each meet the criteria for a primary exercise; whereas
machines such as a hip sled or leg press arguably do not, despite the fact that
they may involve similar muscle mass and exertion. In fact, the latter may be
viable options during extremely intensive workloads and/or the athlete's trunk
cannot safely support the weight required to train the legs in movements such as
the squat or deadlift (as discussed below).
The chin-up/pull-up, dip, push-up and related exercises can be considered
multi-joint weight-bearing movements, which would place them in the primary
category according to this scheme. However, they often receive less emphasis
than the traditional upper-body exercises mentioned above. Furthermore, they
usually do not involve the same muscle mass or resistance used in other primary
movements, making it difficult to justify placing them in the same group. All
things considered, however, they may deserve greater consideration than
"standard" upper-body movements.
There are other examples as well, but the point is that this classification
scheme is not an attempt to label certain movements as being good or bad. It is
simply a place to start making rational decisions about selecting and
prioritizing them. As is the case with all aspects of a program, principles
should be used as a guide rather than preferences. Perhaps most importantly,
this means that training effect has precedence over strength demonstration. The
objective is to choose the most effective movements and execute them in the most
While sound movement mechanics are imperative, it may not be necessary in all
cases to perform the classical lifts as they are done in competition. For
example, the weightlifting movements can often be adapted or modified for the
sake of simplicity. In any case, the following safety guidelines should be
Use bumper plates; and (at least) an 8' x 8' platform which is clear of loose
plates, obstacles and people. Do not have anyone attempt to spot you.
Technique - especially posture and explosiveness - has priority over weight at
all times. Get into the "power position", and use your hips and legs to get
action on the bar.
Be prepared to miss a rep. If you lose control of the bar or can't complete a
rep for any reason, quickly get out from underneath and let it drop (do not try
to save it on the way down):
Use the barbell's downward momentum to move out of the way. Keep your grip and
push yourself away from the bar as it falls.
Stay between the plates. This does not mean that you should remain under a
falling barbell, but rather move backward or forward (not sideways) to escape.
Clean/Snatch In terms of training effect, it makes very little difference if the
athlete starts from the floor or hang position; or whether he/she catches the
bar. In fact, one of the simplest ways to teach these exercises to a novice
athlete is to perform a high pull from the hang position (variations can include
ranges from just above the knee to the upper thigh), where the bar does not
descend below knee level at the start of the movement, and is not caught at its
completion. Once this movement has been mastered, it can then be appropriate to
progress into a pull from the floor and finally the power clean. A similar
progression can be used in teaching the snatch. In either case, the success of
each rep can be gauged on the athlete's ability to get into the "power position"
and use the hips and legs to promote action on the bar, jumping and pulling
explosively enough to separate his/her feet from the platform.
Jerk Once again, in terms of training effect it makes very little difference if
the athlete performs a split when catching the bar overhead. Once the basic
mechanics of this lift are mastered, however, the split can improve an
experienced athlete's ability to manage the bar by achieving a lower receiving
position than is otherwise possible (unless he/she has the mobility to drop into
a full overhead squat). A simple progression for teaching this exercise is to
begin with the push press and move to the push jerk before progressing on to the
jerk. In either case, the success of each rep can be gauged on the athlete's
ability to dip (6 - 8", or 10% of body height) and drive through the "power
position"; and use the hips and legs to get action on the bar, jumping and
pushing explosively enough to separate his/her feet from the platform.
Deadlift /Squat This discussion will address some adjunct considerations for
safely and effectively performing the conventional squat and deadlift. These
guidelines apply generally to both movements due to their gross similarities.
Optimal range of motion in the squat or deadlift is that in which the trunk does
not round or lean excessively forward, or the athlete does not feel unusual pain
(to be distinguished from the discomfort of exertion). Many athletes can safely
achieve the classic parallel depth position with heavy weights, but some cannot.
For those who do not compete in the sports of powerlifting or weightlifting,
several points should be considered when pursuing an optimal training effect.
Flexibility is an element of any functional movement including squats and
deadlifts. Active and/or passive mobility are intrinsic to every skill or
technique, no matter how simple or complex; and should thus be developed to
optimal levels for two reasons. First: strength is applied through a movement
path (range of motion); and an athlete's neuromuscular system generates peak
power - and Second: operates most efficiently - when explosively stretch-loaded
Achievable depth often depends on the resistance being used. Even athletes who
have difficulty achieving parallel with heavy and limit weights often can (and
generally should, unless otherwise contraindicated) do so during submaximal/warm-up
reps. Thus, the inability to achieve a predetermined depth with heavy weight
does not necessarily mean that it cannot be done at all.
Contrived methods of keeping the hips in line with the center of gravity, moving
the knees in front of it, or otherwise altering the normal execution of these
movements (e.g., by elevating the heels) are counterproductive and potentially
injurious. A stable base and balanced position are generally best achieved by
positioning the hips, which are the stronger and more stable structure, behind
the athlete's center of gravity in order to receive most of the torque (as
described below); and driving through a "full foot" which is flat on the floor,
with weight evenly distributed between the heel and forefoot.
Most importantly, the names of these (or any) movements are not as important as
what they are intended to do. Form should be dictated by function. Multi-joint
exercises provide an opportunity to overload the major structures of the body by
putting the "power zone" (i.e. hips) in an optimal position to transmit the
largest force. It follows that torque at the hips is maximized by moving them as
far behind the center of gravity as possible, while flexing as far as the
athlete's leverage and body position allow. Squatting or deadlifting depth can
therefore be considered secondary to position. The key to a beneficial training
effect is to move the hips back while sitting to an optimal depth, not
necessarily to aim for any predetermined thigh angle. Depending on the athlete's
body proportions, maximal torque may occur at or below an angle of ~90° at the
hip and/or knee, with the midline of the thigh well above the parallel position.
In the case of the squat, it is also interesting to note the effect of bar
placement: The powerlifter's "low-bar" position usually allows the hips to move
further backward than does the weightlifter's "high-bar" position, although this
varies with individual body proportions and mechanics.
In summary, the effort required to overcome a given resistance obviously
increases with depth. Beyond a certain point, however, this is the result of a
loss in leverage rather than a gain in torque, in turn bringing stress-strain
relationships into question. This is not meant to imply that parallel depth
should be abandoned; or that the "half squat" should be universally adopted. The
latter can be effective for those whose mechanics and/or flexibility do not
permit them to safely get their thighs parallel according to the criteria
presented above. The salient point is that a standardized depth, which
originated decades ago as a means of judging powerlifting competitions may not
be appropriate in all situations; and that "full range of motion" should be
critically evaluated for each situation, rather than simplistically accepted as
a ubiquitous rule.
Alternatives With the obvious exception of the competitive lifter, there comes a
point in an advanced athlete's development when it may no longer be judicious
for the trunk to support the heaviest weights that the hips and legs are capable
of moving. This is not intended to dissuade athletes from performing heavy
structural movements. Indeed, one of the most effective ways to strengthen a
healthy trunk is to load it in a fixed position while the lower body does the
work, transferring force through the segments of the body. Likewise, lack of
torso strength is an underlying cause of many so-called back problems. However,
it is important to realize that the human spine is a tower, which was originally
designed as a bridge. One should therefore consider its limitations, and
corresponding training options, when approaching advanced levels of strength.
One recommendation is to view the primary exercises as a family of ground-based
movements, which are interchangeable to some extent. It is a simple matter of
whether the weight is supported across the shoulders or suspended from them. If
an athlete is better able to handle heavy squat weights by substituting the
conventional deadlift in its place, it may be appropriate to do so because the
two movements are more similar than they are different. Furthermore, if the
athlete has difficulty maintaining good posture when deadlifting from a static
bottom position, it may be appropriate to set the bar up on blocks or racks and
descend into each rep from an upright position. In this way, the best features
of each movement can be combined to achieve an optimal training effect.
Many athletes reach a point where they simply cannot maintain a flat back when
venturing into very heavy squats or deadlifts. The trunk must then be unloaded
and/or supported in order to train the hips and legs to their limit. One option
is to progressively introduce other structural movements which do not load the
trunk as heavily, such as the lunge or step-up. Another is to include assistive
hip/trunk strengthening movements such as the glute-ham raise, stiff-legged
deadlift, or trunk/reverse extension into the program in order to work the major
structures in different combinations while unloading the torso. An additional
option is to use barbell exercises for submaximal weights, and perform the
heaviest sets on hip sled, leg press or other apparatus, which supports the
torso. When pursuing a specific objective, the pros and cons of various
alternatives should be considered.
Imbalances are a leading cause of non-athleticism, injury and/or chronic
orthopedic problems, and thus a sound program must include movements for every
major muscle group. It is very possible to make big gains in strength and see
little or no functional transfer if certain movements are neglected, allowing
antagonistic muscle-group deficits to develop.
The concept of using power and control to achieve overload largely takes care of
itself - at least during lower-body workouts - when the program consists of
athletic free-weight movements. A useful rule of thumb is to include a "pulling"
or flexion exercise for every "pushing" or extension one such that each movement
plane is worked equally in both directions. In the case of lower-body training,
primary movements can be balanced out to a large extent with exercises such as
the glute-ham raise, abdominal/trunk flexion and various isolation exercises.
However, this becomes more challenging in the case of upper-body training
because of the mobility of the shoulder girdle and resulting need to offset
traditional pressing exercises; hence the value of high/low cable stacks and
various free-body exercises.
A hierarchy of training methods for specialized strength development is
illustrated in Table 1. As can be seen, this classification scheme is largely a
matter of practicality and there is some overlap. The key to applying these
methods lies in their skillful combination rather than exclusive or
disproportionate use of any one of them.