Let me just start off by quoting one of the most influential lifters and self made, self proclaimed, meat head millionaires I’ve ever met: Mark Bell. Bell famously signs off his podcast (Mark Bell’s Powercast) with, “Strength is never a weakness.” This could not be more true. Though yes it is a clever play on words, the underlying principle should be considered when training for sport. Strength is a critical component to EVERY sport. I literally mean EVERY sport. Do not get that confused with most important. In a sport like track, speed is universally most important, but strength is a valuable component in even speed oriented sports. You do not need to be the strongest man in the world, or sport a 500lb deadlift, but when two evenly skilled athletes enter in competition, the one who is stronger is most likely to come out on top. Strength is directly correlated to one’s ability to produce force. For example, in the sport of sprinting, a stronger athlete can produce more force with each foot strike, producing a greater stride length. Greater stride length leads to greater distances traveled with each step with less energy used.
Why specifically barbells? Sure dumbbells, kettle bells, sandbags and body weight exercises are also great tools to build strength, but barbells are most commonly recognized as the superior training tool in building the greatest amount of strength. One of the greatest resources for learning about barbell training, Mark Rippetoe’s “Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training”, explains this concept best. Rippetoe states, “Properly performed, full range-of-motion barbell exercises are essentially the functional expression of human and muscular anatomy under load… Barbells allow weight to be moved in exactly the way the body was designed to move it…” (Rippetoe, M., 2013). Using a machine only allows the body to move the way the machine allows you too. If you are looking to strengthen your lower body, you can squat, or you can use the leg press machine. The leg press machine is a great piece of equipment, although it does have it’s flaws. You do not have to balance the weight and recruit all the stabilizing muscles of your trunk, the leg press machine has a backrest which allows you to produce force against a fixed object, thus removing the need for back strength.
Here are three basic barbell exercises that anyone can add to their current sport training. Keep in mind I am not a doctor, nor do I intend to play one on the internet. Be safe, not foolish.
The king of all exercises is the squat, and I believe every athlete from every athletic discipline can benefit from squatting. Correct and technically sound squatting helps strengthen the entire body (a stronger body is a body that is less susceptible to injury and able to produce more force). One of the biggest benefits of the squat is that it is the only exercise to directly train hip drive. Hip drive is the active recruitment of the muscles that create the posterior chain. The posterior chain includes all the muscles running from your mid back, hamstrings and everything in between. The posterior chain is the core of all athletic movements. The posterior chain contributes greatly to jumping, pushing, picking things up, pulling, stabilization, and balance. Employing squatting into an athlete’s strength and conditioning program can assist in the jumping ability of a basketball or volleyball player, develop the power and strength in the legs and hips of a football player, and produce greater leg drive and force in a wrestler. The squat is also a great exercise to strengthen movements that involve hinging at the hips. The hip hinge position is seen in many sports (traditional wrestling stance, football starting line position, starting position of a vertical jump, etc.).
A big misconception about squatting is the belief that squatting is bad for your knees. Let me clarify that bad squatting is bad for your knees (Ex: Squatting with your knees caving in is bad for your knees). Squatting with proper technique is actually one of the best exercises for your knees. Rippetoe goes on to state, “The squat, when performed correctly, not only is the safest leg exercise for the knees, but also produces more stable knees than any other leg exercise does.” (Rippetoe, M., 2013). In a study conducted by Tony Ciccone, Kyle Davis, Dr. Jimmy Bagley, & Dr. Andy Galpin from Cal State Fullerton on deep squatting and knee health, they found that deep squats do not place greater amounts of stress on the ACL and the PCL than shallow squats. However, their research went on to conclude that deep squats, “… result in greater activation of lower-body musculature compared to shallow squats.” (Bagely, J., Ciccone, T., Davis, K., & Galpin, A., 2015). That being said, DO NOT avoid deep squats. A REAL squat is when you lower the hips to at least parallel with the knees, preferably below. Any squat with hips higher than the knees is a partial squat, and not a REAL squat.
If the squat is the best exercise to develop hip drive, the deadlift is the best exercise to develop back strength. Similar to the squat, the deadlift develops stability in the posterior chain, and allows for the lumbar spine to remain rigid in order to transfer power into the trunk. The deadlift is one of the greatest tests of strength. You can either lift it or you can’t. The deadlift requires the athlete learns how to brace the spine properly which transfers over into all athletic movement. Learning to properly brace the spine is crucial to avoiding potential injury and producing power in a more efficient manner. Not everyone needs to do heavy deadlifts. For a marathon runner or a swimmer, heavy deadlifts might not be necessary. Although, lighter deadlifts with an emphasis on proper bracing and hamstring recruitment can greatly assist in injury prevention.
The deadlift is another great exercise that focuses on strengthening the hip hinge position. It develop one’s ability to lift objects of the ground from a hip hinge position, and extend the torso with proper bracing of the spine. Look at the back control position in jiu jitsu shown below. When the athlete in front is bending forward to defend different submission attempts, the athlete in back must use their posterior chain to extend their opponent’s body to create openings for submission attempts, forcing the hips open and forcing their body into a weaker position. The deadlift can directly strengthen one’s ability to extend the body and open the hips.
The Overhead Press:
The overhead press is one of the greatest upper body barbell exercises one can add to their strength and conditioning program (in this article I am referring to the standing overhead press). The overhead press not only develops the shoulders and all the secondary muscles involved in overhead extension, but teaches an athlete how to brace their spine in a new overhead range of motion. The overhead press is not just an upper body exercise. According to Rippetoe, “… except for powerlifting and swimming, all sports that require the use of upper-body strength transmit that force along a kinetic chain that starts at the ground.” This route that force travels through the body is called the kinetic chain. This chain begins at the feet (base) and ends at the bar (the load being moved) in the hands of the athlete. It goes without saying that some people consider this exercise as dangerous. Let me again state that bad pressing is dangerous. Pressing with poor technique can lead to shoulder impingement. Shoulder impingement refers to the pinching of the tendons between the head of the humerus (upper arm) and the scapula (shoulder blade). When pressing overhead, the athlete should focus on shrugging their shoulders at the lock out point of the lift. This causes the scapula to be positioned in a manner where the arms are strongly supported and impingement is not present.
In closing, barbell training can greatly enhance someone’s athletic ability and drastically increase performance in their sport. Barbell training is arguably the best way to build strength. By incorporating the squat, the deadlift, and overhead press, an athlete can get stronger, have the ability to produce more force, and become a more complete athlete. There are several ways to program barbell training for sport. This is all dependent on the athlete, the sport, training experience, etc. which I will cover in a future article. Below are some links to some of the best instructional videos on how to squat, deadlift, and press. Give them a watch and try them out.
If you enjoyed this article, share it with a friend. One of my biggest passions is spreading the gospel about the barbell. Barbell training has changed my life and I believe it can change yours too.
For more information of barbell training for sport, questions about current training programs, or inquiries about 1-on-1 training sessions, DM me on Instagram (@joshuasettlage) or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The Overhead Press: