When talking about strength, most people think of the Big Three lifts (Squat, Bench Press and Deadlift). These are great tools to build strength, but it’s important to know that they are not the only tools available. Some athletes won’t be ready to be significantly loaded in all three lifts and will respond better to different methods of maximal loading. Fit the exercise to the athlete and not the athlete to the exercise. Going outside the box and using other exercises as your main strength builders will create a well-rounded strength foundation and a better program suited for your athlete.
Change up the stimulus and have a variety of movements that your athlete is competent and strong in. A variety of strength-building movements in your athlete’s program will translate to powerful and explosive sports-specific movements that make the athlete more resilient to injury. Your athlete is not a power lifter—getting married to the Squat, Bench and Deadlift can leave them unprepared to put their new found strength to their sport.
(Note: The Squat, Bench and Deadlift are important strength indicators and should not be dismissed. It’s extremely important that your athlete is competent in these lifts.)
The six serious strength builders I like to use with my athletes outside of the big three are Bulgarian Split Squats, Hip Thrusts, Farmer’s Walks, Pull-Ups, Inverted Rows and Heavy Sled Pushes. All these exercises are usually used as accessory strength movements to the big three. While these are great accessory movements, they can be used as main strength builders as well.
Bulgarian Split Squats
The Bulgarian Split Squat can be used like another variation of the Squat in your program. I’ve created videos to show how the many different setups you can use for this great exercise, including Back Squat, Front Squat, Safety Bar and Dumbbells.
The Bulgarian Split Squat allows you to overload the lower body more than the Squat because the lower back won’t be the limiting factor in the lift. This will also help you develop some serious single-leg strength. This is extremely important for athletes since most sports performance movements are performed on one leg. For optimal strength gains perform rep ranges between 3 and 8 reps and do 3-6 challenging sets.
Using this as a replacement for a heavy Squat for a month or two will deload the spine and the central nervous system and provide a different stimulus to the lower body.
The Barbell Hip Thrust is a great way to load up the back side while being very joint friendly to the knees and back. This is a great alternative to the Deadlift if your athlete has back or knee pain or if you just want to switch it up from the Deadlift for a month or two.
The weight you do for a hip thrust should be about the same if not more than the weight you would usually perform for a Deadlift. When directly working your back side, the posterior chain will respond better to higher reps, so for optimal strength gains, perform 5-10 reps for 3-6 challenging sets.
After performing this for a month or two, you should be able to hit your 1 rep max for your Deadlift on a Hip Thrust for 3 reps or more.
Farmer’s Walks are a great exercise that can be put anywhere in your program and still have a massive strength-building effect. This is a great way to load the body up safely and still have an effect as if you were maximally loading a Squat or a Deadlift. You can also perform the movement with dumbbells or Farmer’s Walk handles in addition to a trap bar.
Since you are walking while being loaded, the Farmer’s Walk challenges the deeper muscles that keep your body upright and maintain posture. This makes it a great variation for athletes as well as general population clientele. It’s key to keep your core rigid and engaged throughout the walk.
While using this as a main strength builder, perform this for 10-30 yards for 3-6 sets. If you are using this as a finisher or anywhere else in your program, you can absolutely go for longer distances and longer duration.
A personal favorite finisher of mine is to grab 15 to 20 pounds in each hand and walk a mile. Note that this will work on more muscular endurance than strength, but it goes to show that exercises can be used for many different purposes and it all depends on how you program them.
This is an exercise where your body weight can be all the load you need and is a great representation of where your functional strength is at. While the Bench Press gets so much hype for building upper-body strength, the Pull-Up (wide grip, neutral, pronated or supine) does a great job to develop the biggest muscle on your back—the lats.
If you want to create an additional challenge, you can add an external load with chains, weight belts or bands, or you can just do Eccentric-Focused Pull-Ups where you go extremely slow on the way down and forgo the focus on the up phase.
It’s great to keep track of how much weight you can pull for a three-rep max on a Pull-Up as an indicator of your relative strength. When being used as a main strength builder, perform 3-8 reps for 3-6 sets. Note that these rep ranges and sets are just a general recommendation and that you can fool around with the reps, sets and load. Using an AMRAP set at the end of a workout where you do as many reps as possible is a great way to exhaust your muscles and add additional volume.
Having a strong upper back is vital to having healthy shoulders and a strong upper body. Upper-back strength will complement your pressing strength and even increase your Bench Press. A great analogy I like to use for upper-back strength as it relates to a strong press is that having a weak back while benching or pressing is like trying to shoot a cannon out of a canoe. If your upper back is small and weak, you simply won’t have much of a platform or foundation from which to push off.
While the upper back responds very well to high volume, it’s important to try to periodically overload that area. If those muscles can produce more force, it will be able to handle more volume, as well.
Perform 6-12 reps for 3-6 sets being as low to the floor as you can or even having your feet elevated with chains, bands or a weight vest, as external load is a great way to overload the area. You can use this as a main lift on its own, or even pair it up with the Bench Press where it will actually help to set scapular position during the bench and create a bigger platform to press off of. Whichever approach is more efficient and effective for your athlete.
Heavy Sled Pushes
Heavy Sled Pushes are one of my personal favorite main lifts because of how closely they relate to the mechanics of a sprint. This is a strength exercise that will directly translate to better linear speed and power.
No matter what position or sport you play, almost any athlete will benefit from Heavy Sled Pushes. They’re easy to perform and a great way to load the body without putting the spine at risk, making it a great strength exercise for young athletes, as well.
The Heavy Sled Push is a great exercise to utilize after your sprint work to reinforce proper sprint technique. Another great way to program these is to contrast a Heavy Sled Push with a 10-yard sprint. If it’s just the sled push on its own, do about 3-8 sets of 10 yards. During a contrast workout, do between 4-8 sets of 10 yards with 15-20 seconds of rest followed by a 10-yard sprint.
Never limit your programming to what is accepted as the main strength-building exercises. Take your programming outside of the box and use the tools at your disposal to build a well-rounded athlete. The big three lifts will always be great indicators as to if your athlete is getting stronger or not, but they’ll never be the only way to get your athlete strong. Sport has a variety of movements, expose your athlete to as many movements as possible and get them strong in all of them.