As I stated in the previous blog, “Part 3: Putting the Puzzle Together,” we will always begin the workout with some sort of warm-up, mobility and/or stability movements. Those exercises are what I, as well as many others, refer to as pre-hab exercises. Their purpose is to help keep you healthy and out of rehab. Once we’ve completed our pre-hab work, we will move into the main body of the program for the day.
Prior to all leg training, the prescribed pre-hab consists of mobility and glute activation exercises. I like over-and-under hurdle drills, multidirectional monster band walks and hip bridges as my primary movements. I will use both double-leg and single-leg variations of the hip bridge, especially with athletes on a Level 1 program. With more advanced athletes, I have found using a leg extension machine to do heavy hip thrusters is quite effective, and the thick pad is more comfortable on the anterior pelvis. To show how you can learn something of value from unexpected places, I got the leg extension machine idea from a woman’s Instagram post of “favorite booty builders.”
The next step in the progression is deep goblet squats and/or overhead squats (PVC pipe) with a two-second pause at the lowest point in the movement. If the athlete can get into a full squat, that’s great; if they are stopped short, it is usually the result of a mobility issue in the hips or ankles, and pausing at the low point often allows for increased mobility and an increase in depth over just a few sessions.
The pre-hab prior to a clean or snatch variation is either a 5-5-5 pull mechanics drill with PVC (for less experienced lifters to continue perfecting good movement patterns) or a clean complex or muscle snatch complex with an empty bar for two or three sets of five reps per movement (for more advanced athletes). I picked up the PVC pull mechanics idea from Coach Mike Burgener at the USA Weightlifting Level 1 course he was assisting with at the NSCA National Conference in 1995. Over the years, I’ve made a few modifications to better suit my needs, but his base concept of teaching to a large group is still present. For athletes that lack the necessary T-spine mobility to comfortably get into the front rack position, I like to add two or three sets of T-spine mobility twists and lat stretches that I learned from watching Chad Vaughn’s (@olychad) and Dr. Aaron Horschig’s (@squat_university) Instagram feeds. These exercises have made a major positive impact with our athletes in a short time.
Prior to the bench press, I like to have the athlete do what I call a rotator cuff complex, which is over-and-backs with a band followed by band pull-aparts followed by lock-out push-ups. We do three or four sets of each to warm up the rotator cuff and shoulder girdle prior to starting our bench press sets. Doing so has helped eliminate shoulder issues while also improving the poor posture issues, such as T-spine kyphosis and front-sloping shoulders, plaguing many of today’s young athletes.
My philosophy has always been that I’m trying to build the strongest, most powerful and resilient athlete possible. Different coaches have differing philosophies on what makes up the “backbone” of their program, which is most often based on their personal training and educational background. Some coaches focus on the “powerlifts” of bench press, back squat and deadlift, while others are more geared to the Olympic lifts of clean and snatch variations, jerks and various pulls. Earlier in my career, I would listen to coaches present at clinics or read their published articles, and they usually leaned heavily toward one philosophy or another, but most scoffed at the use of single-joint movements, considered by many to be bodybuilding exercises in a workout for “athletes.” The thought was that you get more bang for your buck performing multi-joint movements, and single-joint movements were only to “look good.”
My background was diverse in nature, so I’ve always utilized all three—Olympic, powerlifting and bodybuilding—heavily within my program. In my mind, they all three have an individual value in the building process. The foundation of the program will be based on explosive ground-based movements, such as cleans, and in more advanced programs, snatch variations (Olympic), to increase power. Squats, pulls and the bench press will be used to develop absolute strength (powerlifting), although they also will be performed dynamically during certain workouts. Various body part exercises, some of which will be multi-joint movements and some single-joint exercises (bodybuilding), will be used to increase strength in individual muscle groups where there may be a weakness, as well as to work toward muscular balance.
As I mentioned in the previous blog “Part 3: Putting the Puzzle Together,” most young athletes are front loaded, or overly developed in the anterior muscles, such as the chest, anterior deltoid, and quads. This coupled with poor posture from sitting at a desk/computer or playing video games all day is a major player in shoulder issues. I have always been a believer in utilizing pulling movements to develop the muscles of the upper back, but in recent years I have increased my volume in pulling significantly to help overcome imbalances and posture issues. In my current program, the ratio of pulling to pushing movements is at a minimum 3:1 pulling to pushing.
The pulling movements include vertical pulls, such as chin-ups and pull-ups, and horizontal pulls like one-arm dumbbell rows, reverse-grip bent rows and TRX low rows. I have also started doing a fairly high volume of horizontal movements like band pull-aparts, incline rear deltoid raises, bent-over lateral raises and TRX high rows. A pre-hab exercises for the upper back that I like are the scapular stabilization movements such as Ys, Ts and Ws.
On lower body training, we follow much the same ratio with approximately 67% pulling/posterior chain-centered exercises (various pulls) and 33% pushing (squatting). Another component that comes into play on the lower body work is single-leg movement. Since the athlete plays a significant part of the all sports with only one foot in contact with the ground at any given moment, it is important to develop unilateral strength. It also helps to correct any underlying muscular imbalances that are present. I know many coaches are not fans of the weighted step-up as an effective single-leg movement. I first read about it in an article, circa 1988, about the great track and field thrower from the Soviet Union Anatoliy Bondarchuk substituting them for back squats after a serious back injury. He was able to return from injury and continue a successful career without using back squats or, at the least, significantly decreasing the load on his spine. I have used them in my programming since that time as a primary single-leg movement with what I feel is great success. The keys are 1) making sure the athlete focuses on only pushing with the elevated leg and 2) coming to balance (stabilizing) at the top of the movement before placing the trail foot on the box.
In addition, I like both forward-lunge walks and reverse lunges because of their different emphasis on the legs and hips. In an effort to get as much from each movement as possible, I prescribe both with an overhead component by holding a weight (plate, dumbbell or kettle bell) with elbows locked overhead. The bracing works to stabilize the core and shoulders while requiring mobility in the T-spine and shoulders.
My more advanced movement of choice is the single-leg squat. I program it later in the training of athletes because I find that younger athletes (with less training experience) lack the strength to perform single-leg squats with depth and control.
With this writing, my goal was to give you some idea of how my philosophy guides my choices of exercise selection and basic “must haves” in most any program I design, as well as my reasons why I make those choices. If future blogs, I’ll begin discussing frequency, volume and intensity of training, as well as other details. Until next time, I’m hoping your training is going well.