To build athletic power and strength, you can’t underestimate the power and usefulness of bodyweight exercises. During training, there are times when:
- Athletes may not have easy access to barbells or heavy dumbbells.
- Coaches may want to keep their athletes from barbell training for awhile to unload the spine while improving movement quality and body awareness.
- Athletes want to focus on controlling their body weight when they prioritize single-leg over bilateral training.
In any case, having a great handle on bodyweight training and its application is critical.
I have three favorite bodyweight exercises for improving power, jumping and acceleration on the field. Even when they’re not the “meat and potatoes” of the workout, they are great during the warm-up to drive motor patterning in single-leg stance.
These movements are:
- Pistol Squat
- Skater Squat
- Explosive Split-Squat
The way the movement is performed and its variations in tempo are just as important as the movement itself.
Athletes who are wobbly in a single-leg stance don’t do well with fast tempos. In order to maximize motor control, the first two exercises (Pistol Squat and Skater Squat) should be slowed down to the point where athletes can “feel” which muscles are working, and also to ensure proper posture and knee tracking.
The first two moves are single-leg exercises, and the third is a modified double-leg exercise.
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The Pistol Squat is the industry standard for developing single-leg strength. It is also one of the most telling functional exercises of the lower body. If you don’t have good ankle and foot mobility, both in the joints and tissue, you’ll not be able to do a Pistol Squat well.
With nearly every athlete I’ve worked with, the ability to do Pistol Squats with good technique under load is more indicative of jumping and short-acceleration ability than a Loaded Barbell Squat. This doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do barbell squats, but if you are interested in acceleration and jumping ability, you should put a premium on doing Pistol Squats well. To perform:
- Stand on one leg with the other leg extended out in front of you at about 20 degrees.
- Keeping a long spine, push the knee of the standing leg forward and the hip back at the same rate, until you reach a depth that you can comfortably attain.
- As you descend, your swing leg should project out front and stay straight.
Doing these in front of a mirror is helpful for many athletes to help check their position and knee tracking (making sure the knee tracks over the 2nd and 3rd toe).
To do a Pistol Squat well, prioritize posture and force transmission through the foot. Do not treat it the same way as barbell squatting, which emphasizes sitting back and pushing through the heels. Athletes can get depth in a Pistol Squat by sitting way back and slouching forward, but this completely takes all muscle tension out of the movement and reduces transfer to powerful athletic movements.
For explosive strength and power development, I recommend 4-5 sets of 3-4 repetitions with a slow down- and fast up-tempo as a very general guideline.
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Where the Pistol Squat puts a premium on glute and quad strength, and its link to the feet, the Skater Squat puts more force through the glute and upper hamstring fibers. Called the “deadlift of bodyweight movements” due to its muscle recruitment patterns, it is also known as a “King Deadlift,” after Australian strength coach Ian King.
To perform this posterior and lateral chain developer, stand on one leg and put the free leg behind you. From there, drop straight down into a Single Leg Squat, keeping the rear leg behind you. Go down until your rear knee is a few inches above the ground. For accuracy, it is helpful to use an Airex pad under the rear knee and consistantly contact the pad instead of guessing depth. The feedback of contacting the pad is also helpful from an external cueing perspective, and allows for more confidence in the lift.
Although for many athletes, the Skater Squat is easier than the Pistol Squat, you must still take care to ensure proper posture. To this end, holding light weights (5-15 pounds) out in front of the body is useful for added feedback on the movement.
In training, this movement can use the same general set and rep scheme as the Pistol Squat. The goal is not fatigue, but rather power and quality throughout performing the sets.
Explosive Split Squat (with partner)
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The Explosive Split Squat requires a partner. This movement is a blend of strength and plyometrics, offering an opportunity for high-joint velocity at the hip, which builds both strength and explosive coordination. Athletes who can Split-Squat the house but cannot perform this movement well are unlikely to express their explosiveness in speed situations. The switching mechanism between hip flexors and extensors is very important.
To perform this exercise, assume a staggered stance and lower your knee to the ground as if performing a lunge. Drive through your front heel to explosively drive up out of the Split Squat. To tolerate this movement well, you need good hip flexor and glute function, as well as stabilization in the lateral plane. The reason I have listed this movement last is that it is a jump, and jumping movements call for high motor unit recruitment. This puts the exercise on a level closer to barbell movements in terms of its explosive building potential.
For the Explosive Split-Squat, performing 4-8 reps is a good range that will build a good blend of explosiveness. In the higher rep ranges, it offer a mild lactate buildup, which is good for the anabolic potential of the exericse, in addition its jump-building quality.