Written by Chad Wesley Smith
Front squats are more functional. You never are below parallel on the field, so why do it in the weightroom? Closegrip bench transfers better to the field.
These and many more arguments are often put forth by strength coaches to justify their exercise selections with non-strength sport athletes. None of these reasons are wrong, none of them are necessarily right either, so in this piece I want to examine my criteria for exercise selection for athlete to help you make better informed decisions when creating programs for yourself and your athletes.
1. Can the athlete execute sound technique in the movement?
2. Can the athlete produce a significant output in the movement?
3. Does this exercise fit into the primary goal of the athlete’s training program?
Before we discuss each of these points more in depth, let me touch on a problem I often see that relates to all of them. Be wary of coaches/trainers who are a ‘Something Guy’, someone who is dogmatically entrenched in a specific training style or tool, an Olympic lifting guy, Westside guy, Kettlebell guy, powerlifting guy, strongman guy, CrossFit guy, whatever guy. None of these things are inherently bad or incorrect, but when the only tool you have is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail. A coach needs to equip themselves with multiple sound strategies and modalities to help their athletes. I’m particularly mindful of this issue as it would be simple for me to fall into being a powerlifting guy or strongman guy but doing so would be a disservice to my athletes as they do not compete in powerlifting or strongman and shouldn’t be trained as such.
1. Can the Athlete Execute Sound Technique in the Movement?
Whether it is due to mobility issues, unique leverages or relative weaknesses there are some exercises that certain athletes will not be able to safely perform and if this is the case, no matter how good or ‘functional’ you believe that exercise to be, it is not a good choice for that athlete. I say ‘functional’ because that term is thrown around often but also misunderstood. A football players function is to play football, a sprinters is to sprint, a baseball players is to play baseball, none of these tasks involve a specific type of squat or bench as part of the sporting requirements, so do not come under the idea that an athlete MUST do a certain exercise to succeed.
If mobility or relative weakness issues are holding an athlete back from doing certain movements that will enhance their sporting success, of course you should be working to correct those problems but you must work on these things within the context of the entire program and during the process of this you will most likely need to utilize either different exercises or exercise variations that they can currently execute well.
You also must balance the technical development of a lift and if taking time to learn the technique is a worthwhile endeavor for the athlete. This issue will most often arise with the Olympic lifts.
2. Can the Athlete Produce a Significant Output in the Movement?
A significant output is needed to create stimulus for the training process. If an athlete can’t produce a significant output aka they suck at the exercise, then it will not yield enough stimulus to warrant including in a training program.
Some exercises, good exercises, will not be good for certain athletes because they are just not good at them. Whatever the reason is doesn’t really matter, if the athlete sucks at an exercise, it isn’t worth doing.
Something to consider when choosing your exercises, is that creating too large of an exercise pool will limit your athletes’ ability to gain enough skill in any of the lifts to produce significant outputs. These athletes aren’t competitive lifters and because of that are not highly skilled lifters (even though some of them may be very strong) and because of this will struggle to adapt to too many exercise variations, so choose wisely.
3. Does the Exercise Fit Into the Primary Goal of the Athlete’s Training Program?
Football players play football, basketball players play basketball, MMA fighters fight and so on. Sport practice is king in the athlete’s training program and nothing should interfere with this, only enhance it. Of course at different parts of the year, different things will take priority in the training plan but when sport practice is present, it must be the top priority.
One very important thing to consider in this regard is the amount of stress an exercise imposes on the athlete vs its benefit to their development. Squat, bench, deadlift and Olympic lifting variations are general exercises to the non-strength athlete, meaning that there degree of transfer is relatively low and the transfer differences between variations is also fairly negligible. Because of this, you want to choose low cost exercises that will not fill your athlete’s “cup” without extra benefit to their performance.
For me, this usually means the exclusion of deadlifts in my athlete’s programs. Now of course the deadlift is a good exercise, but for most athletes (except those with a favorable build to it) it will be more taxing than the squat and its variations but will not yield any significant performance benefits for this extra energetic cost.
This is just a jumping off point when considering exercises to use in your athlete’s plans. There isn’t necessarily right or wrong exercises to use with your athletes, just make sure to always consider the real goal of their program, improved athletic performance. Bigger squat and bench numbers may yield that but just always be able to answer the question ‘is this making my athletes better?’ when creating programs for your athletes.
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