Regardless of what level of sport you play, I guarantee at some point in your life you’ve looked up to the elite professionals in your chosen sport. As a teenager growing up, I know I did. Even after high school when it was clear to everyone but me that I wasn’t going to be one of those athletes I looked up to, I still had a glimmer of hope I would.
So years later when I’m playing footy for my local club, I had a light bulb moment. Well if I can’t play like these athletes that I looked up, why can’t I at least train like them?
Working as a strength and conditioning coach, all too often I see athletes come to me with their ‘strength programs’ that resemble a bodybuilding program. These programs are great…if you aspire to be a bodybuilder.
Strength training is pretty simple when you think about it. If you want to play footy for example, then you need to strength train like a footy player.
If you want to play footy, then you need to strength train like a footy player.
This article is going to outline 3 simple exercises or areas that you’ll see in professional sporting performance programs, that you can include in your program today to turn you from training like Arnold, to excelling in your chosen sport.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Chances are, the strength program you’re following has Squats and Deadlifts as the two lower body movements. These are fantastic lower body strength exercises for building up bilateral (two limb) strength. If we think about sport for a second, there’s not a heap of time during most sports where you’re standing on two feet is there. This is why unilateral (single limb) lifting needs to be a priority in all sport specific strength programs.
The Bulgarian Split Squat is arguably the king of the unilateral lower body lifts. The exercise targets your Quads, Glutes and Hamstrings, whilst also adding that increased difficulty of balancing on one foot.
To execute the exercise, the athlete must have their rear foot elevated on either a bench or box, step out enough so the hips can sit into a single leg squat position without the front foot coming off the ground, control the down phase of the exercise with a slight forward leaning torso, then drive back up into the starting position to repeat.
Common mistakes include:
- Stepping out too far. This results in too much of your bodyweight on your rear foot.
- Upright or leaning back torso. This will result in extension through your back, which puts strain on your lower back. Always have a slight forward lean, so you can draw a straight line form your head to your bent knee.
- Forcing depth. By lowering yourself more than you’re capable, you will cause a shift through your hips, which will result in a compromised lift being executed.
To add the Bulgarian Split Squat into your program, start off with 3 sets of 8 reps each leg at bodyweight, then work your way up to using dumbbells in each hand, which will eventually lead to getting a barbell on your back.
This term gets thrown around a fair bit when it comes to training. Plyometrics are jumps, hops, bounds, skips, or to put it simply, whenever our feet strike the ground, then quickly leave the ground (foot contact during sprinting for example). These movements occur in almost all facets of sport from changing direction, to jumping and landing, to sprinting.
Even from this very brief overview, you’re probably putting two and two together now and thinking that training this athletic quality is pretty important. You are right!
Research has shown that training and preparing our body for these actions, will improve our strength, speed, power, change or direction, jumping and balance.
Before we go hell for leather and start jumping the house down in the gym, just like any other exercise, these need to be progressed in a structured and periodised way.
Step 1: Landing
You must learn to land before you can jump. Being able to land correctly and safely is key to not only jumping, but when you decelerate and change direction.
Example exercises – Box Drop and Stick and Tall to Short
Step 2: Low Level Jumps
This is where you can start to produce force, albeit low level. In this step, you progress from only concentrating on the landing, to including the jump also.
Example exercises = Hurdle Hops, Skipping, Low Box Jump,
Step 3: Moderate Level Jumps & Low Level Hops
Now you’re ready to pick it up a notch. You’ve ticked all the boxes in the previous steps, and now you’re starting to produce higher levels of force. The step is a progression from Step 2, but now you’ve added single leg work.
Example exercises – Squat Jump, Broad Jump, Mod Hurdle Jumps, Low Single Leg Box Jump, Low Hurdle Hops
Step 4: High Level Jumps & Moderate Level Hops
Nothing special or new to introduce in this step. Just a progression from what you’ve achieved in Step 3.
Example exercises – Lateral Bound, Track Hurdle Jump, Mod Hurdle Hops, Single Leg Box Jump
Step 5: Shock Jumps & High Level Hops
This final step is where you introduce the shock factor. Shock Plyometrics involve dropping from a height and quickly absorbing the landing force, then redirecting that force into a jump, hop or bound. Think of a spring when doing these exercises.
Example exercises – Depth Box Jump, Track Hurdle Jumps (Continuous), Single Leg Tuck Jumps (Continuous)
Too often athletes and gym goers only train the muscles they can see (quads, chest, arms). Not often enough, the same people train the muscles they can’t (hamstrings, glutes, back).
Hamstring strength plays such a vital role in professional athletes’ strength programs, so why is this not translating into general population?
Being strong in the ‘strings, not only directly relates to being able to run faster, but the injury prevention benefits far out-way any of the other positives. Hamstring strain injuries in sport are very common, and unfortunately, they’re not going away anytime soon. The good news? Most are preventable.
Outlined below are 3 exercises you need to include in your strength and performance program to bulletproof those ‘strings! (Please be mindful regarding at what point in your program these are included. Not all on the same session, and not any directly before sprinting/sport training).
1. Romanian Deadlift (RDL)
If the Bulgarian split squat is the king of single leg lifting, then the RDL is the king of Hamstring and Glute dominant lifts. There’s no better way to build up your hamstring strength than RDLs. This lift attacks them with the hip hinge movement, and to put it simply, must be included in your strength program. 3 sets of 8 reps with a dumbbell in each hand is a good starting platform, then progress to a barbell once you’re ready to start stacking the tin on.
2. Hamstring Slide
We’ve attack the hammies from the hip, now we move down to the knee. Lying on your back, you’ll start with your feet on the slide boards near your butt, then slowly inch out smoothly until your legs are straight. It might not feel like much, but believe me, don’t go too hard too early with this exercise. Start at 3 sets of 8 reps, then eventually progress to single leg slides.
3. Extended Bridge Back Hold
Lastly, we’ve worked your hamstrings from the hip and knee, now we target a hold. You need to build capacity in your hammies for them to able to cope with the high force seen on gameday. Starting position for this is the end position of the slide, with your hips held high. Hold this position for 30sec to begin, then progress to single leg holds for less time.
For more information on how to train like a pro, get in touch with our coaches at ACE Performance