Do this and be better at sports
Weight training and training in general is not the goal for most people (unless you do Crossfit, where exercise is the goal).
Most likely you train because you want to be better at another activity you run because you want to do better in your next race, you lift weights specifically because you want to be stronger to hit a golf ball further etc.
Even bodybuilders and powerlifters are not training for the sake of it, they are using training as a means to an end (muscle mass and strength).
Training is a conduit to help you achieve your sports goals. (Unless you do Crossfit, where the goal is to be better at exercising and making sure everyone knows about it).
So a question I get asked, and have asked myself, is:
What are the most sports-beneficial lifts and exercises?
Although there are a wide range of sports out there, all with slightly different skill demands fitness requirements, there are certain exercises that can be beneficial for pretty much any sport.
Let’s start with what physical attributes should be developed to excel at physical activity.
What do you need to be good at sports/physical activity?
1. Balance and co-ordination
Most, if not all sports require these two above all else. Obviously for the sports where you hit moving objects or have to catch then co-ordination is key, but this also applies to individual sports like running, swimming, climbing, athletics etc. Moving your limbs synergistically and in rhythm with one another is a co-ordination and balance skill.
Since sports are also about body control, having these two attributes are essential.
This is tied to the first requirement: you need to have a level of muscular strength to move your limbs, hit the projectile and control your body.
Evidently some sports need strength more than others but pretty much all sports take place standing up, which means that you need core strength and stability, even if you don’t necessarily need to be able to bench press your bodyweight.
3. Physical/mental endurance
Even within sports that are not endurance-orientated there is a need to be able to concentrate mentally when you are tired or just be able to execute a particular skill at the right moment.
The degree of this is evidently dependent on the level you play, but training is often an adaptive process for the mind as well as the body; professional athletes often take the approach that if they push themselves in training beyond what would ever be required in an actual game they have prepared themselves mentally to be able to perform even when fatigued or under pressure.
So basically a combination of balance, co-ordination, strength and mental durability will help you with any sport or physical activity.
With that in mind let’s look at the three lifts that should be in anyone’s training program to make them better in those departments.
The best exercises for sports
1. Overhead Press (OHP)
Sorry to disappoint all the bench press disciples, but if you want a truly sports-transferrable upper body exercise it should be the OHP.
The bench press is great for building raw power but because you are lying down it is not as effective in developing balance and coordination.
The OHP should always be performed standing, as this means that your core (abs and lower back) are fully engaged in supporting your posture and the weight.
With the chest up and core engaged, you should press smoothly up and lockout your elbows at the top, without using your legs to drive the weight up.
The bad news is that you will be a lot weaker at this movement than at bench pressing, and the strength progression is slow. Taking someone who has bench pressed a lot and never pressed overhead to this exercise is often an ego-crusher.
The good news is that if you persevere and get strong at the OHP it is very likely you bench press will improve as well (it doesn’t necessarily work the other way around).
Push-press- a good variation of the OHP is the push-press. Having set-up the same way you use your legs to provide a small amount of momentum to help drive th bar upwards (you squat down slightly to use your legs and hips to help your arms move the bar upwards).
You will be able to move more weight but the real benefit is developing co-ordination of force transfer from the floor to you fingertips.
Why is it good for sports?
Balancing the weight over your head while standing is going to develop a strong core, upper back, lower back and shoulders, all of which are used in every sport.
Also if you play contact sports like rugby the push-press mimics the force transfer from your legs to your fingers that is present when you hand someone off for example, or you drive into a tackle with your arms outspread.
Bench press is a better chest developer but if you are training to be better at sports the OHP and the push-press should be key parts of your training to improve co-ordination, balance and strength.
2. The Squat
The squat is a great exercise because it develops all three of the essential sports attributes listed above.
If you can squat deep (I mean so your thighs are at least parallel to the ground whilst keeping your lower back flat and your chest high) with a heavy weight (relative to your gender and bodyweight) then you will have achieved great flexibility, balance, co-ordination and strength.
Because of the balance required to squat deep it develops all the major muscle groups of your body, with emphasis on the glutes (buttocks), hamstrings (rear of upper leg) and quads (front of upper leg) and all the stabilising muscles of that region.
It goes without saying that well-developed glutes, quads and hamstrings are essential for speed, agility, jumping and explosiveness, attributes that will help in everything from having a strong base from which to power your golf swing to breaking a tackle in rugby or american football to having the speed and mobility to reach a tennis shot.
Additionally light or moderate weight squats (even bodyweight) can be done for high repetitions as a conditioning and cardiovascular exercise. Squatting heavy for high reps can also be done if you are a fairly advanced trainee who has good form, which is not only conditioning but also a great mental toughness exercise.
For example there is such a thing as the 20 rep squat program, where you take a weight you can just about do for 10 clean reps and stay under the bar until you have done 20, no matter how long it takes.
Needless to say you should have a good spotter for this and know what you are doing, but it is not uncommon to be seeing stars around the 13 rep mark, and completion becomes more of a mental test.
The joint king of exercises with the squat the deadlift is again an essential part of your training toolkit to improve sports performance. Like the squat it is a full body exercise and it will develop not only your large muscle groups like the glutes and hamstrings but will also test your grip and lower back strength and stability.
Performing the deadlift, like the squat, at a challenging weight is a great exercise in mental toughness.
It can be a pretty brutal exercise and it is the kind of movement entrenched in human DNA – think of the first caveman picking up a huge rock and as such it requires commitment to the lift and raw power.
With the bench press and the squat you start with the bar in the air, allowing you to both feel the weight before you start the lift and benefit from the ‘stretch’ reflex in your muscles as you lower the weight; the stored energy in the muscle as the bar descends is used to help move it back to the starting position.
With the deadlift you have to move ‘dead’ weight; you can’t test how it feels before you start lifting it and you don’t get the ‘stretch’ benefit. There is also no way to ‘cheat’ a deadlift off the floor (like bouncing the bar off your chest in the bench press or not squatting deep enough).
You either do it, or you don’t, which is pretty much how sports go: you make the shot or you miss it, there’s no in between.
This is why it is considered the ‘true test of strength’: no other exercise can adequately replicate its benefits.
The link for these three exercises
The key that all these exercises share is the fact that they work the core and the ‘trunk’ of your body, where power, stability and balance are generated.
The 3 exercises target and develop what is known as the posterior chain, a linkage of some of the largest and most powerful muscles in your body from your trapezius (traps) to you glutes and quads.
The posterior chain. Image credit: kickassfitness.com
As I mentioned in my post, the modern dysfunction, unfortunately these are also the muscles that end up being underused or even causing problems for many people who live sedentary or inactive lives.
Having a weak lower back (spinal erectors) and tight, short hamstrings is a symptom of sitting all day; this is a common cause of lower back pain that can be fixed by exercising to strengthen and increase flexibility of these muscles.
So by performing these three lifts regularly in your training you can not only help yourself to excel at your chosen sport but equally avoid the modern-day muscular dysfunctions that plague society through our ever more inactive work and lifestyles.
Always get someone knowledgable to check your form as you learn these movements; remember a bad habit takes a lot longer to unlearn than to learn a good one from the start, not to mention cause injury.
If you would like to see any posts related to a specific sport, please let me know!