The human body has a limited capacity to adapt to physical stress. As a result, it's important to know which exercises can give you the most bang for your buck. Including too many "limited effect" exercises in hope of covering all bases is a problem. Sure, on paper it makes sense to include exercises for every single muscular structure in the body; however, in real life it just doesn't work. This leads to a lowered capacity to adapt to the training regimen, and as a result, limited progress.
It's a much better methodology to go for a minimalist approach when training athletes. Minimalism isn't to be confused with low volumes of training. Rather, it means that only the most effective overall exercises should be included. Include big core exercises that will stimulate the whole body and allow sufficient time to recover and adapt. That's the golden rule!
In this article I'll show you which exercises are "money" exercises. In other words, I'll show you what exercises will give you the most bang for your buck!
A money exercise has the following characteristics:
- It's a multi-joint exercise: The more articulations in the movement the better.
- It's a multi-muscle exercise: The more muscle mass is involved in an exercise the better.
- It's an accelerative exercise: The greater the possibility to accelerate during an exercise the better it is.
- It's a "target" exercise: The more an exercise uses muscles needed in sports the better.
Note that these characteristics are in order of importance. In other words, don't include an exercise targeting a muscle involved in your sport if it isn't already a multi-joint exercise (e.g. the shoulder is involved in most sports, but the lateral raise isn't a money exercise).
The best money exercises are the variations of the Olympic lifts, specifically the "power" variations (power clean, power snatch, etc.). Simply put, these exercises cover all the bases! Very few, if any, other strength exercises involve more articulations (ankle, knee, hip, shoulder, elbow, and wrist) and they're unparalleled in term of implicated muscle mass. They're obviously accelerative in nature, especially with loads of 70 to 80%, and they target key muscles in most sports (quadriceps, hamstrings, calves, glutes, erector spinea, abs, deltoids, and trapezius).
Olympic lifts can lead to great increases in the capacity to generate power in sporting activities! For example, power output during a max effort bench press would be 300W for a 100kg man. ("W" meaning a measurement of work.) The squat and deadlift would be 1100W. How do the Olympic movements stack up? Check it out:
- Snatch (to max velocity): 3000W
- Snatch, 2nd pull (explosion phase): 5600W
- Clean (to max velocity): 2950W
- Clean, 2nd pull (explosion phase): 5500W
- Jerk: 5400W
(Source: Stone 2002)
The main drawbacks of some Olympic lifts is that they're hard to master for many athletes. However, this can be resolved by using simplified versions of the lifts. To make the Olympic lifts more user-friendly for athletes (and more effective) we only have to remove the two most difficult phases of the lifts (double knee bend, squat under) and keep the really effective portion (explosion). So the best lifts for athletes are:
- The power snatch from the hang
- The power clean from the hang
- The power snatch from blocks
- The power clean from blocks
- The push jerk
Let's review each of these.
The power snatch from the hang is especially effective because it's the pulling exercise which has the highest absolute power output and it requires a lot of trunk stabilization. I keep it simple when I teach this movement. I use three coaching points with my athletes:
- Keep the back tight.
- When the bar is at the knees jump up (not forward, not backwards).
- Keep the bar close to the body at all times.
There's no need to go heavy on this movement. The key is acceleration, and lots of it! Only add weight if you can maintain proper technique and maximum acceleration. Remember that F = ma (force equals mass times acceleration). You don't need to increase the mass to increase force; you can increase force by accelerating more!
In the power snatch from the hang, the bar starts at the knees instead of from the ground and you catch it with minimal squatting under the bar. Here's a full illustration:
Instead of lowering the bar to the knees yourself, you can place the bar on lifting blocks which will place the bar at the knees. This is a power snatch from blocks. The difference between the power snatch from the hang and power snatch from blocks is that in one you start the exercise by reversing the action of the barbell (hang) and in the other you start against an inert bar (blocks). The former will develop more reactive strength and the capacity to rapidly switch from eccentric to concentric work. The latter will develop more starting strength.
The power clean from the hang is very similar in structure to the power snatch from the hang. With the power clean from the hang you use a narrower grip and only pull the bar from your knees to your shoulders, not overhead. As a result you're able to use a bit more weight. Don't let that be an excuse to use too much weight! Always strive for acceleration and technique first; weight will follow naturally.
The power clean from the hang is also an explosive lift as you can see by the photo. The bar should be lifted with the lower body and hips mostly, not the arms.
The power clean from the blocks or from the ground can also be used (athletes generally have less trouble doing a power clean from the ground than a power snatch from the ground, so it's a good exercise to use). To perform the power clean from the hang, simply skip the first illustration in this series below:
As we saw in the power output info listed above, the jerk is not to be forgotten as it does have a very high absolute power output. Remember that power rather than raw strength is important in sporting performance.
The objective of the jerk or push jerk is to lift the bar from the shoulders up to the overhead position using a powerful push of the lower body and arms simultaneously. In competition, Olympic lifters split their legs so that they don't have to push the bar as high. I don't recommend splitting for an athlete; keeping parallel feet will force the athlete to lift the bar higher and thus produce more power.
These are the main variations of the Olympic lifts that should be used by athletes. Many coaches advocate the use of the competitive lifts themselves (full squat snatch, full squat clean, and split jerk). I don't recommend that you do so for a simple reason: they're harder to master and won't bring anything that the power variations wouldn't bring for the athlete.
Coaches also like to use snatch and clean pulls. While they can be used from time to time, I find that the correct pull technique is actually harder to master than the power variation of the Olympic lifts (mostly due to the fact that athletes tend to "break" or slow down the bar before full acceleration is reached). In the former Soviet system, pulls were only used once an athlete reached Class I (more or less equivalent to a national caliber athlete) simply because for other athletes, the complete lifts can give you the necessary stimulation. Since our motto here is "Get the most bang for your buck," we won't get into these more complex lifts in this article.
Money exercises also include basic strength exercises like bench press, squat, chins, and deadlift. While these exercises don't have the impact that the Olympic lifts can have, they are nonetheless very useful because they can lead to a significant increase in overall muscle mass and strength. For what it's worth, these lifts are better suited than the Olympic lifts to develop raw strength, while the Olympic lifts are better to develop power.
While in my opinion the bench press doesn't deserve the near mythical status that it received, it can still be a good exercise, certainly worthy of being included in a good athletic program. Some "experts" argue that this movement isn't specific to sports. Well, keep in mind that ultimately, even if the lower body is key in most sports, you don't want any weak links! For that reason, the bench press can be useful to develop adequate upper body strength and size.
Chin-ups are often forgotten in a training program, maybe because they're seen as rustic or simplistic. Don't be fooled! There's no exercises equivalent to weighted chins to build the upper back muscles, rear deltoids and forearms. Chin-ups should be included in the training program of all athletes.
The key point that's often forgotten while doing chins is to go for the full range of motion. The best way – the most athletic way – to do a chin up is to stretch fully at the bottom position and pause there for one or two seconds (dead hang start).
Of course, some heavier or out of shape athletes may have trouble with chins (not being able to lift themselves up). The best way to proceed in that case is to have a spotter gently push you up by your lower back to help you complete the movement.
Another money lift is the full squat. A lot of athletes and coaches shy away from full squatting, instead using shallow one-fourth squats. This is solely motivated by ego –wanting to lift more weight to impress others. They justify their method by saying that full squats are bad for the knees. As most T-mag readers already know, this is hogwash!
In case you need some ammo defending full squats to the ego-squatters, here's why they're actually safer than partial squats:
- The deceleration path is longer during the full squat. Thus the deceleration is slower during the full squat. The faster the deceleration, the greater the risk of injury.
- It's been established that the most unstable knee angle is 90°. Does it make sense to stop (in a rapid manner) and change direction at the most unstable knee angle? It makes about as much sense as hitting the breaks of your car and trying for a 180 degrees turn as you hit a patch of ice! (For most of you, a squat where your knee angle is 90° equates to about a 1/4 squat.)
- Full squatting can actually strengthen the tendons of the knees, making the articulation more stable.
- Full squatting leads to balanced lower body development, while shallow squatting can lead to quad dominance which is the cause of many injuries.
- In the shallow squat you use more weight (that's why it's an ego lift). If you can't full squat a weight, you have no business quarter-squatting it! Your structures (bones, tendons, ligaments) aren't well adapted enough to sustain the load and you risk injury.
- Full back squats can make more difference in sport performance than any other exercise. Notice that I advocate a close-stance full squat with an upright trunk. This is the only way an athlete should squat.
You'll notice that I don't include other lifting exercises; however, you can create a larger exercise bank by using exercise variations. Examples: Instead of performing the power snatch from the hang, perform it from blocks or from the ground. Power cleans can also be performed from the hang or from blocks. Full squats can be replaced with front squats, jump squats or deadlifts, and bench press can be altered by changing the width of the grip or the incline. Also, try wide grip pull-ups (palms facing away), towel chins, and barbell rowing in place of chin-ups.
In the spirit of the "most bang for the buck" motto, I'd stay away from using two variations of the same exercise in one training session. This would be redundant and sub-optimal. However, two or three different variations can be included in a training week, just not on the same day.
Here's an example of the training program I used with my players last summer. This is the first week of the third phase of training, each phase lasting four weeks. This isn't given as a complete workout as it's only one week of training taken from a precise portion of their training cycle. However, it does illustrate how "money" exercises should constitute the core of an athletic training program.
TPC = Targeted Physical Capacity is indicated in the exercise description.
|A||Full Back Squat (Slow-speed strength)||4||5||85-95%||2 min.|
|B||Power Snatch from the Hang (Power)||4||4||75-80%||2 min.|
|C||Power Clean from the Hang (Power)||4||4||75-80%||2 min.|
|D||Push Jerk (Power)||4||4||85-90%||2 min.|
|E||Bench Press (Slow-speed strength)||4||5||85-90%||2 min.|
|F||Chins with weight (Slow-speed strength)||4||5||5RM||2 min.|
|A||Medicine Ball Throws (Power)||6||4||20 lbs.||30 sec.|
|B||Hurdle Jumps (Power)||5||20||BWT||1 min.|
|C||Side to Side Jumps (Power)||5||10/side||BWT||1 min.|
|D||Jump Squat (Power)||5||12||45-70 lbs.||1 min.|
|E||Sled Pull (Speed)||6||60 m.||110 lbs.||2 min.|
|A||400 Meter (Anaerobic capacity)||15||1||BWT||2 min.|
|A||Front Squat (Slow-speed strength)||4||5||80-85%||2 min.|
|B||Power Snatch from Blocks (Power)||4||4||70-75%||2 min.|
|C||Power Clean (Power)||4||4||70-75%||2 min.|
|D||Push Press (Power)||4||4||80-85%||2 min.|
|E||Incline Press (Slow-speed strength)||4||5||80-85%||2 min.|
|F||Chins (Slow-speed strength)||4||5||80-85%||2 min.|
Note: Ab work is also done on this day.
|A||Medicine Ball Throws (Power)||6||4||20 lbs.||30 sec.|
|B||Hurdle Jumps (Power)||5||20||BWT||1 min.|
|C||Jump Squat (Power)||5||12||45-70 lbs.||1 min.|
|D||Sled Pull (Lactate threshold)||6||150 m.||55 lbs.||4 min.|
|A||Power Snatch from Hang (Power)||5||4||65-70%||2 min.|
|B||Bench Press (Slow-speed strength)||5||5||75-80%||2 min.|
We tend to look for gimmicks and instant success methods, however, nothing beats the use of a solid foundation of "money" exercises performed with dedication and drive!