Robert A. Panariello MS, PT, ATC, CSCS
Professional Physical Therapy
Professional Athletic Performance Center
New York, New York
In a recent conversation with my good friend Hall of Fame Strength and Conditioning (S&C) Coach Johnny Parker, he commented on his recent visit to a D1 University where in discussions with this University Head S&C Coach regarding the review of the football team’s weight room program design, it was stated that approximately 80% of the program design placed emphasized toward athletic performance and approximately 20% placed emphasis on “prehab” and injury prevention. A breakdown of this football training program design revealed a 50%/50% split of the program exercise volume for both athletic performance and prehab/injury prevention and not the assumed 80% to 20% originally stated.
Addicted to Fatigue
The more programs like CrossFit and Insanity gain mainstream traction, the more people seem to use their level of fatigue as a barometer for the quality of a workout. Once you get accustomed to grueling workouts, it’s as though you crave the feeling of fatigue. If you’re not crushed at the end of a workout, you feel like it was a weak session. But, if we’re puking in a bucket or can barely walk, it MUST have been fantastic.
Throw in all the positive reinforcement we get about this –non-stop social media posts about how hard someone’s workout was today, YouTube videos of people trashing themselves, etc. – and it’s hard to avoid this trend.
In sports and in the weightroom, all muscles need to be strong and powerful. The body works in a series of kinetic chains to produce forceful, powerful, and coordinated movement. Nevertheless, some muscles are more important than others. And in the weightroom, prioritization is needed to make sure the lifter puts the majority of his or her efforts into the methods that deliver the biggest return.
What’s the Most Important Muscle for Total Athleticism?
If I had to choose one muscle, I’d say that the glutes are the most important muscle for total athleticism. After all, they’re heavily responsible for hip extension, hip external rotation, hip abduction, and posterior pelvic tilt, which means that they’re highly utilized in sprinting, jumping, landing, climbing, throwing, striking, swinging, turning, cutting from side to side, squatting, bending, lunging, cleaning, and snatching (basically all things athletic).
Congratulations, you’re a strong bro! You have strong lifting partners and you’ve even helped some of them pack hundreds of pounds onto their powerlifting totals. Nice work!
So you wanna be a strength coach, eh?
Now you’d like to take the next step and become a strength coach. You want to apply your skills to help athletes get better, but before you do, there are some things you need to learn. Here are twenty of them: (keep in mind that these are just my opinions, that there are many ways to structure a program and that many routes can lead to success)
- Strength is Just One of Several Important Qualities for Athletes – don’t get me wrong; strength is critical for athletics and lays the foundation for many other qualities. However, there are many other important qualities, including power, strength-endurance, strength-speed, speed-strength, rate-of-force-development, reactive strength, speed, stamina, flexibility, and skill.
- There is More to “Strength” than Just the Powerlifts – in powerlifting, strength is measured in your squat max, bench max, deadlift max, and total. All other lifts and variations are deemed “assistance lifts.” In athletics, many lifts transfer well to performance, and an obsession with focusing on powerlifting totals can be problematic (more on this later). Many great coaches would argue that other exercises such as hip thrusts, Nordic ham curls, Pallof presses, Bulgarian split squats, push presses, chins, rows, farmer’s walks, cable hip flexion, and Olympic lift variations, are just as important to the development of the athlete as the three powerlifts. This implies that for sport training, the term “assistance lift” does not apply.
- The First Rule is to Do No Harm – this is something that you need to have in the back of your mind at all times! Your athlete is talented and athletic already, and your job is to help improve his or her performance. You can’t do that if they’re injured!
- Squat, Deadlift, and Bench Press Variations are Chosen Based on Longevity and Transfer, not Maximum Demonstration of Strength – piggybacking off of the last comment, you might love a particular style of squats, deadlifts, or bench press, but this doesn’t mean that all of your athletes should employ it. Some will do better in the long-run by purely sticking with close grip bench, or 30 degree incline press, or chain front squats, or high box squats, or rack pulls. Not every athlete can or should full squat, pull from the floor, or wide grip bench. Click HERE to see 19 good squat and deadlift variations.
- Hex Bar Deadlifts: Get Used to Them – there’s a reason why nearly all strength coaches love the hex bar deadlift; they’re great! First of all, they’re easier to teach than conventional or sumo deadlifts. Second, they’re better tolerated by many athletes. On a side note, heavy kettlebells also work well for teaching the deadlift pattern, but most coaches don’t have access to them. Click HERE to learn more about the differences between hex bar and traditional deadlifts.
- Incorporate Single Leg Exercises – there are highly successful strength coaches who have done away with barbell squat and deadlifts and have opted instead to stick to single leg training. While I don’t feel that this route is necessary, I do feel that athletes should definitely be regularly performing single leg exercises. There are plenty of badass single leg exercises to choose from, including Bulgarian split squats, reverse lunges, step ups, single leg RDLs, single leg hip thrusts, and single leg back extensions. Make sure to incorporate these into your training.
- Prioritize the Posterior Chain – the glutes and hammies are critical for speed development, and in ground-based sports, speed is king! The way I see it, if you don’t include at least a few exercises such as hip thrusts, barbell glute bridges, single leg hip thrusts, pull-throughs, kettlebell swings, back extensions, and/or reverse hypers, you’d be failing your athletes.
- Utilize Multi-Vector Core Training – athletes are required to be strong and powerful in the core in all directions. Therefore, it is optimal to include core exercises that hit the core from various vectors. For example, RKC planks and hollow-rock holds will provide the core with anti-extension strength, side planks and suitcase holds will provide the core with anti-lateral flexion strength, squats and deadlifts will provide the core with anti-flexion strength, and Pallof presses and band anti-rotary holds will provide the core with anti-rotation strength.
- Adapt the Program to the Individual – you won’t be able to train every athlete the same way. Due to injury histories, goals, age, anatomical differences, experience, and preferences, you’ll need to adapt your programming for certain athletes. For example, some athletes should stick with mostly single leg exercises, some athletes should avoid overhead pressing altogether, and some athletes will require reduced volume, frequency, and/or intensity.
- Constantly Monitoring to Assess the Transfer of Training – just as in the case of powerlifting, where you need to test your 1RM from time to time to make sure your training is productive, you need to test athletes regularly in various markers of performance. Examples of performance-measures that you might want to test include the vertical jump, broad jump, 40-yard dash, and t-test. What’s important is that the tests that you choose are easily reproducible and also characteristic of the qualities needed to succeed in the sport.
- Incorporate Sport-Specific Training – don’t get me wrong, the powerlifts will build an incredible base of strength, but if there were no such thing as sport-specific training, then all athletes from all sports would train the same exact way. Anyone with any modicum of experience examining the training methods of Olympic athletes from different sports will tell you that the training methods from one sport to the next vary considerably. Rotational athletes will need a bit more rotational training, collision-sport athletes will benefit from performing a bit more high-force training, and so on and so forth.
- Prioritize Power, Speed & RFD, not Strength/Force – in most sports, it is power, speed, and rate of force development that separate the best players with the bench-warmers, not maximal strength. Certainly maximal strength training will improve power, speed, and rfd, but plyometrics, sprints, ballistics, towing, explosive lifts, dynamic effort, and accommodating resistance should be highly utilized with athletes to ensure that they maximize their sporting prowess.
- Avoid Dangerous Exercises and Modify Exercises to be More Joint-Friendly - powerlifters will round their backs when they deadlift and when they perform reverse hypers. Bodybuilders will perform upright rows and behind the neck presses. These folks know what they’re doing and they’re willing to assume some risk in order to reach their goals. However, with athletes, you want to optimize their joint health, so you stick with safer exercises and you modify movements to make them easier on the joints, such as performing upper body movements with a neutral grip for those with shoulder or elbow issues and performing block pulls or high-handle hex bar deadlifts with those with poor hamstring flexibility. Click HERE to see 21 exercises for injury free mass.
- Be Strict With Spinal Motion – to elaborate on the last point, if you attend any powerlifitng meet, you’ll notice that most of the lifters allow for some serious spinal motion during the deadlift. With athletes, you want to prioritize core-stability and insist upon the maintenance of a neutral spine during heavy lifts such as squats, deadlifts, and Olympic lifts. Moreover, you don’t need to insist upon a huge spinal arch during the bench press.
- Have a Large Arsenal/Toolbox & Don’t Worship Any Single Exercise – over time you’ll feel like MacGyver in the weightroom. Sure you’ll stick to the basics much of the time, but you’ll be amazed at how often you will switch variations on the fly when working with peculiar athletes. You will utilize all sorts of tricks, from altering joint positions and angles, to using different types of resistance, to incorporating various tools and implements. Don’t force a square peg through a round hold; find the round peg and drive it on home.
- Develop Well-Roundedness & Versatility – in powerlifting, the sole focus is on the big three and the total. In athletic strength & conditioning, however, there are dozens of great exercises that transfer well to performance, and they’re all equally important. If an athlete can squat the house but can’t perform ten bodyweight Bulgarian split squats, that’s a problem. If an athlete can deadlift a ton gets stapled to the floor during 135 lb hip thrusts, that’s another problem. If an athlete can bench 365 lbs but can’t perform ten bodyweight feet-elevated inverted rows, you might have yourself an imbalance. Over time, you’ll learn typical strength balances, as well as how variations in anthropometry affect those strength balances. You’ll be able to spot weak-links with form and shore up strength imbalances rather quickly.
- Ensure Proper Levels of Mobility - in powerlifting, you need a basic level of mobility, but no more. For example, it’s necessary to hit parallel in a squat and pick the bar off the ground in a deadlift, but it’s not advantageous in powerlifting to be able to wrap your legs around your head. In powerlifting, you want the body to provide high levels of passive elastic force when at the bottom position of the bench, squat, and deadlift. In contrast, athletes typically need more mobility to perform optimally. Ankle dorsiflexion, hip flexion, hip extension, hip internal rotation, hip external rotation, thoracic extension, shoulder flexion, shoulder internal rotation, and shoulder external rotation are joint actions that tend to require stretches and special exercises in order to ensure optimal levels of mobility. Keep in mind that optimal mobility is needed for both maximal performance and injury-prevention.
- Promote Recovery – powerlifters taking a gram of anabolic steroids per week tend to make solid gains no matter what they do. Hopefully you’ve realized that athletes who are natural require better strategies in order to make gains. Things like foam rolling, active-recovery, breathing techniques, contrast showers, massages, and meditation can create meaningful differences in performance gains, so make sure you educate your athletes about healthy habits outside of the gym. Click HERE to learn more about recovery techniques.
- Prioritize Form Over Strength – Feats of strength are impressive indeed. But these strength feats are so much more beautiful when they’re accompanied by great technical form. In powerlifting, it doesn’t matter if it’s pretty, but with athletes, one of the worst things you can do is injure an athlete because you were either encouraging them to use sloppy form or because you prescribed too heavy of a load for them to control.
- Utilize Higher Rep Ranges – most powerlifter’s lives are built on heavy 5′s, 3′s, and singles. With athletic strength training, you shift the spectrum. Generally speaking, 5-12 reps are well-advised when training athletes. This isn’t to say that you can’t employ triples or even singles, it’s just to say that most of the time you should stick to medium rep ranges.
Please don’t mistake the advice contained within this article as dismissive of your skills. If you can coach the powerlifts well and you understand regressions and progressions, then you’re off to an excellent start. These skills will take you very far in this field. But if you want to succeed, you need to learn the ropes and master the art of being a strength coach. I wish you the best of luck!