Exercise Selection for Athletes

Will Ruth

Main Takeaways

1. Embrace and enjoy the process. Be comfortable putting the work in early in the process to reap the rewards later.

2. Make sure your training is appropriate for your sport and your level. A proper training program will address your personal needs and the demands of your sport to make you better at your sport and more durable with injury prevention.

3. Sports training, whether on the field or in the weight-room, is all about mastery. Master the basics before moving on to more complex training methods.

Different athletes of different levels who play different sports require different exercises and different direction in strength training. Sounds like a simple concept, right? And yet, how many athletes are following a program right now designed for someone playing a different sport or even the same sport at a different level? Many high school athletes pick up a program designed for a college or professional player because they look up to that player or want to be at his/her level someday. However, when that player was in high school or had just started training, he/she was likely following a program designed for a player of their age and training experience. Even if a high school lacrosse player did manage to find MLL Pro Paul Rabil’s original high school lacrosse training program, I’d still need convincing that that is the right program for any other HS player to use. 

Most often, a program for an athlete in the same sport at a higher level is the best-case scenario. It is much more likely for a young athlete interested in strength training to gravitate toward the biggest or strongest athletes, who typically aren’t in their sport. Bodybuilding programs, even if they made Arnold huge and you want to be like Arnold, will not adequately prepare you for your sport. As an athlete, you do not need a 6-day bodypart split emphasizing total development of every angle and head of the pectoralis or biceps muscle. A non-football player does not need to design his training like a football player, with wide-stance squats, heavy bench presses, and power cleans. Additionally, I agree with Wil Fleming, Coach and Director of Youth Sport Performance at the International Youth Conditioning Association, on the issue of Crossfit. Crossfit is an excellent physical outlet for two types of people–people who compete in Crossfit, and people who don’t compete in anything and enjoy recreational Crossfit. Those who do not fall into either category, which includes everyone competing in a non-Crossfit sport, will be better served by a strength and conditioning program designed around the parameters of their sport. With that said, “a little of something is better than a lot of nothing,” so if Crossfit is what you have, then go to work. Just keep it in perspective–sports training is not about becoming a better lifter (or Crossfit-er), it’s about becoming a better and healthier athlete on the field.

A successful program for an athlete will emphasize the basic sport demands of strength, speed, and endurance, while making exercise choices to tailor the program to the specific needs of their sport and to them as an individual athlete. This requires an understanding of the demands of the sport, the common injuries in that sport and their prevention, and the level of athlete playing the sport. Here are links to the needs analysis I did for both Men’s Lacrosse and Men’s Rowing, the two sports I work with most. I would add a section for “training age” of each athlete. Training age is how long you have been training in a given context–so you would have a lacrosse training age of 4 if you have been playing lacrosse for 4 years, but your strength training training age might be 0 if this is your first time doing an actual strength training program. Athletes with younger training ages need more basic programs focused on movement pattern mastery, rather than a more complex program with high exercise variation. Most of the exercises below can be found in the Exercise Index.

Youth/High school athlete (0-2 years training experience)

Related: Youth Sports Training

  • Squat:

    • Most basic: Bodyweight squat
    • Next level: Goblet squat
    • The most basic squat version is the bodyweight squat, with proper positioning of knees in line with the toes, a neutral spine (flat back), and stable torso with the weight balanced evenly between the heel and the forefoot. Once the athlete has mastered the bodyweight squat, they could move through the weighted squat progression of: goblet squat, back squat, front squat, and single-leg squat.
  • Press:

    • Most basic: Pushup or Elevated Pushup
    • Next level: Weighted pushups, overhead press, and/or incline bench press
    • All athletes must master the push up before progressing to weighted variations. A good target for the high school male athlete is 40 pushups in a row. 10 full (not on knees) pushups for females. Stable shoulder joint (“packed” scapulae) and torso and a fluid movement between the up/down phases of the exercise are essential skills to master before moving on to the overhead press, incline bench press, flat bench press, and overhead push press.
  • Pull:

    • Most basic: Inverted bodyweight row or assisted chinup
    • Next level: Chinup and weighted rows
    • Pulling exercises help avoid injury by developing a balanced muscular system and building up the structural muscles of the neck and upper back. Basic pulling exercises for youth athletes include the inverted bodyweight row, chin or pull-up, and then the weighted versions of rows.
  • Hinge:

    • Most basic: Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
    • Next level: Barbell Romanian Deadlift
    • The hinge motion is the foundation of most movement in sports and helps develop strong back, glute, and hamstring muscles used for powerful sprinting and jumping, as well as making contact. While the hinge motion is used in other exercises such as the squat and push press, training the hinge motion specifically starts with the basic Romanian Deadlift followed by the elevated deadlift (or block pull), the regular deadlift, and the good morning.
  • Other

    • Basic bodyweight exercises like dips and jumps, and back exercises including the chin-up, basic barbell row, and single arm dumbbell row.

HS Senior/College athlete (2-4 years strength training experience)

  • Squat

    • The athlete will be expected to know the barbell back squat and likely the front squat. Add the rear-foot-elevated split squat, a more difficult single-leg squat variation. The athlete may also include box squatting at this point to emphasize explosive force development.
  • Deadlift

    • Speed training would be included at this point, with deadlift variations focusing on force production such as the speed deadlift from the floor, the high pull, and even the hang clean.
  • Press

    • Barbell overhead press, bench, and incline press would be expected mastered, moving on to the push press.
  • Other

    • Bodyweight exercises can be scaled as well, such as more difficult jump variations and adding weight to chin-ups, dips, inverted bodyweight rows, etc. TRX work is also great to add in at this point.

The same escalation of ability can be seen in training footwork and agility. Athletes progress from the most basic of footwork drills to the more complex drills as they demonstrate mastery. It does no good to jump levels without laying a solid foundation at the previous level first.

Finally, a good needs analysis includes an injury prevention section. For lacrosse, common injuries include impact injuries from stick and body checks, shin splints, knee ligament (ACL/MCL) tears, and concussions. Proper weight-room training can decrease or prevent all of these common injuries.

Impact injuries: Build some armor! Muscles act as padding for bones, so you’re much less likely to get severe bruising or broken bones if you’ve got some muscle on your frame.

Shin splints: Proper running form (not heel striking) and good shock absorbers (muscles of the lower leg in particular) can reduce or eliminate shin splits. Adding some tibialis anterior and tibialis posterior work in the weight-room can help strengthen the lower leg muscles to prevent this common chronic injury. (See Intro to WWU Athletics pg. 19)

ACL/MCL tears: I go into this in detail in “Footwork and Agility for Lacrosse,” but in short, strength training for the quadriceps, hamstring, and gluteal muscles has been shown to reduce non-contact ACL/MCL tears by improving tissue quality and running mechanics, making the muscles and ligaments more durable and helping the athlete run better to not put the knee in compromising positions.

Concussion: Strengthening the muscles of the neck and upperback has been shown to decrease the risk of concussion by helping to prevent the whiplash effect that can cause concussion. More concussion info here.

More reading: BYLC Off-Season Training

exercise progression

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