Smarter Exercise Selection for Athletes Made Simple

Risks and benefits of, and smarter alternatives to, the Power Squat, Deadlift, Good Morning, and Hang Power Snatch.

Clean Grip Hang Power Snatch

Choosing the right exercises can really pay off in the form of improved performance and reduced risk of injury. Here are a few common exercises along with some alternatives that provide similar (or in some cases, increased) benefits, with less risk.

Low Bar Wide-Stance Power-style Squat

Risks

  • The low bar position tends to be more stressful on the shoulders.
  • The deep hip hinge puts the upper body at a much more forward position, placing a large amount of shearing force on the lower back. This style of Squat is also very stressful on the hip complex. Couple this compressive force with the shearing force, and you have a dangerous combination on the spine.
  • This type of Squat is typically done by power lifters who wear squat suits and other gear that helps support and protect their joints.
  • The ultra-wide stance makes this a very unathletic Squat and transfers little to your athletic improvement. The wide stance has no purpose other than to shorten the distance the bar has to be moved, which equals more weight on the bar.

Benefits

  • Lifters can squat more weight than with conventional Squats.
  • Develops the hamstrings, gluteal muscles, adductors and low back more than conventional Squats.
  • The movement is more hip-dominant than quad-dominant.

Better Choice: Front Squats

Risks

Front Squats can be stressful on the wrists if done incorrectly. However, there are a few grip options to get around this issue. A neutral spine is critically important. No part of the spine should round during the lift.

Benefits

  • Much less stressful on the spine due to the anterior position of the bar, which lessens compressional forces on the spine.
  • Strengthens the upper back and anterior core, both of which are critically important for sports performance.
  • Forces the upper body into a more vertical position, which puts the legs in a better position to apply force and lowers shearing force on the spine. This exercise is anterior loaded, meaning the bar is on the front of the body, not the back. Much of the resistance athletes have to move and overcome comes from the front. Front Squats train the anterior core much more than the Back Squat, which must be strong to resist extension while trying to drive or press an opponent in a standing position.

Straight Bar Deadlift

Risks

  • The Deadlift is the most stressful exercise anyone can do. The complexity of the lift can really cut into your recovery ability. With all the other demands of a performance program, Deadlifts may not be the best choice at certain times in the off-season.
  • Many athletes fail to Deadlift heavy with proper technique, mainly due to mobility and flexibility issues. When done poorly, Deadlifts can absolutely destroy a lifter's lower back due to its tremendous shearing forces.

Benefits

  • Deadlifts are the king of mass and strength exercises. Few exercises work has much muscle as the Deadlift.
  • Deadlifts are mostly a concentric-only exercise, so they build tremendous starting strength, which helps athletes overcome their body weight in starting positions.
  • Develops strength of the posterior chain through hip extension.

A Better Choice: Trap Bar Deadlift

Risks

  • Some of the same risks of straight bar Deadlifts apply to the trap bar, but to a lesser degree. The athlete still must maintain a neutral spine, but there is far less shearing stress on the back since the athlete is now centered inside the bar.
  • The bar can swing or tilt on an inexperienced athlete and potentially cause an injury. This is rare and can be avoided with proper cues and coaching.

Benefits

  • Due to the body placement inside the bar, this exercise is more quad dominate and trains the quads more than a straight bar does. It also incorporates the upper, middle and lower back as well as the gluteal muscles. It does hit the hamstrings, but to a lesser degree than the straight bar. In a nutshell, the athlete gets all the same muscle building benefits as the straight bar with less stress on the body.
  • Like the straight bar, the trap bar is also mostly a concentric-only lift, so it also builds tremendous starting strength.
  • Trap bar Deadlifts engage all the same muscles as the Squat and the Deadlift, which makes it the ultimate exercise if you are short on time. It's also great for really tall athletes.
  • Trap bar Deadlifts are much easier to recover from than the straight bar version.
  • Most trap bars come with high and low handles. With the high handle, an athlete can pull heavier loads. Another benefit is that athletes with sub-par mobility can perform this lift much easier and safer than a straight bar Deadlift. The low handle is a great way to increase the difficulty for an advanced athlete because the athlete is now pulling from a lower position.
  • Athletes will reach much higher loads on the trap bar than they could ever do on a conventional Deadlift. Gains will also come faster.

Good Morning

The Good Morning is a common accessory lift to train the posterior chain. It is a popular exercise due to its transfer to Deadlift improvement. The bar is placed in a low position. You stand with a wide stance, outside shoulder-width, and drive your hips back until your upper body is parallel to the floor.

Risks

  • Extremely stressful on the low back and hard to perform safely. The chance of injury is high without proper coaching.
  • Will cut into your recovery ability.
  • Tension of the hip extensor muscles decreases as the movement nears lockout.

Benefits

  • Allows you to use heavy weight to train the glutes, hamstrings and low back.
  • It is an effective exercise to add muscle mass to the posterior chain.

A Better Choice: Barbell Hip Thrust

Risks

There are not many risks associated with this exercise. It can be very uncomfortable when using heavy loads. A thick pad is required to provide some cushioning on the hips.

Benefits

  • This movement is a biomechanically efficient way to train the gluteal muscles.
  • Not only does this exercise strengthen the gluteal muscles at the end range of hip extension, it also maximizes gluteal activation. Since people sit for much of the day, it is critically important for all athletes to improve strength here. Without proper contribution from the gluteal muscles during hip extension, the hamstrings become over-stressed from trying to compensate for poor gluteal function.
  • This exercise allows you to use extremely heavy loads without stress on the spine.
  • Due to the maximal contraction of the gluteal muscles, this is one of the best exercises to improve horizontal force production.

Hang Power Snatch

Risks

  • The ultra-wide grip of the bar can be super stressful on the shoulders and wrists.
  • The grip also places alot of valgus strees on the elbow joint.

Benefits

  • The wide grip forces the athlete to drive the hips in deep flexion. This position works the glutes and hamstrings hard.
  • Wide grip creates a shorter distance to pull the bar overhead and allows the athlete to use heavier loads.

A Better Choice: Clean Grip Hang Power Snatch

Risks

  • For those with shoulder issues this exercise could irritate the shoulders.
  • You cannot perform this exercise as heavy as with conventional Snatches.

Benefits

  • The much narrower grip puts less stress on the shoulders, elbows and wrists.
  • The narrower grip also creates a longer pull, forcing the athete to produce more power and bar speed to move the bar overhead. More power is always a plus.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: SQUAT | DEADLIFT | POWER | EXERCISE | TRAIN | STANCE | STRESS | SNATCH | SPINE | TRAP BAR | TRAP BAR DEADLIFT