The Single Most Important Exercise for Athletes

STACK Expert Lee Boyce makes the case for what he considers the most important exercise in strength training.

When you read the title of this article, you probably thought the writer wanted to stir the pot to his eventual demise by making such a broad statement and setting it in stone. And you'd be right.

But my opinion on this comes from a fairly balanced perspective. Sports involve movement and basically all capacities of health and skill-related fitness, on varying levels. Popular sports like football, track, basketball, baseball and hockey have something in common—they require at least some measure of explosiveness. That's absolute strength displayed in as short a time as possible.

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Strength is the foundation of any healthy body. Without it, we get injured and our bodies deteriorate mighty quick. We need strength for bone density, contractile tension and generally good athletic performance. Strength informs everything we do. Large, compound exercises will help any trainee increase his or her general strength, but when we're working with athletes, we have to make sure that joint health and injury prevention take priority.

You're likely expecting me to name the Barbell Snatch or Power Clean, which are admittedly the most athletic lifts. Athletes who are  capable can benefit greatly from them. They're also the most complex movements in training. And sadly, most who do them are not physically prepared to do so, so they end up exacerbating muscle imbalance issues and doing more harm than good.

We have to think more primitive, and remember that young athletes are in dire need of building a base. Simple things can make them stand out on the playing field. At younger ages, it's often the case that the biggest, strongest athlete dominates the field or court.

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When we look at the primal movement patterns, the one that comes to mind most readily is the Squat. This movement is of primary importance in all training systems—and I believe that every athlete should do it and get strong with it. But if I were splitting hairs, I wouldn't rank it No. 1. The Squat is a loaded "push" movement, meaning that even when the lifter has good form, muscle imbalances can place unwanted force on his or her hip and knee joints. And depending on the anthropometry of the lifter, squatting could cause weak or dormant muscles to remain disengaged. And we haven't even talked about shallow Squats versus parallel or deep Squats.

A beginner could have plenty of work to do developing the requisite mobility for a basic full-range Squat, before being able to train it for progression. On paper, the Squat may deliver the most "good," but when we consider the countless variables that a real, live person can throw at it, the conversation can change.

The exercise that allows most athletes to train with the most weight for strength is pull-oriented. It attacks the lagging posterior chain that most young athletes suffer from; it's joint-friendly due to no axial loading and minimal shear forces; and it has the simplest start-to-finish instructions you can get.

Of course I am referring to the Deadlift.

Cleans and Snatches begin with a deadlift pull from the ground. Good Squats rely on proper hip hinge biomechanics. Both can be trained by simply practicing the Deadlift. In addition, pulling dead weight from a complete stop encourages absolute strength because the stretch reflex is shut off. As a bonus, you can train this movement without an eccentric rep, meaning training it for volume and fast improvements is definitely possible. Having a strong pull from the floor can be a remedy for several muscle imbalance issues all by itself and make pressing movements stronger.

Translating it to sports, gluteal strength and starting power from zero momentum go hand-in-hand for becoming a stronger, more explosive athlete.

How to Deadlift, the Right Way

Let's focus on the conventional Deadlift with a straight barbell. Approach the bar and set your feet hip-width apart. As a guide, use the same stance you'd use to make your most powerful vertical jump. Next, follow these instructions:

  • Stand close enough to the bar so it divides your feet into front and back halves. It should be almost touching your shins.
  • Reach down with a double overhand grip (use a mixed grip only when it's really heavy), just outside your shins, and push your knees against your arms.
  • Set your back by squeezing your chest out as high as you can.
  • Tighten your grip on the bar and try to bend it.
  • Dig in with your full foot—both toes and heels—tighten your glutes, and stand up with the bar.
  • Remember to keep looking about 3 feet in front of the bar the whole time.

The finished product will look something like the video in the player above.

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Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock