Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Big Three Exercises for Athletic Strength

There are many exercises you can perform to build muscle, and many of them zero in on a particular muscle to help shape and tone it.  However, my personal strength training goal is pure athletic strength and muscle resilience for endurance contests.  I have found 3 primary exercises that, when combined, pretty much hit every muscle I need to strengthen.  I also like these movements because they teach various muscles to work together, which is ideal for athletic performance.

1. Pullups: These will work every "pulling muscle" in your upper body.  If you want to make them harder to make sure you reach failure around 6-8 reps, you can hang weight from a belt.  I like to do these with my knees lifted up to stomach level to keep all leg momentum out of the movement (makes it harder), and to work the abdominal core at the same time.   To really add in abdominal work, I will sometimes hold my legs straight out in front.

2. Pushups: You can do these anywhere, which is convenient.  They work all the pushing muscles in the upper body.  To make them harder, you can have someone push on your back.  I like to do them with my hands and feet on small, weighted balls, as I showed in a previous post, to involve the core.  Obviously, a bench press or dumbell press is generally the same action and lets you pile the weight on.  However, you may not always have a bench available and you do miss out on some of the core stability benefit that I like to incorporate into everything as an endurance athlete.

3. Deadlifts:  These can be done with a barbell or dumbells.  The ideal scenario is to use one of those olympic bars at a gym with the rubber weights.  Deadlifts pretty much hit every muscle in your body and are, what I consider, the best strength building exercise for athletic strength.

So that's it for my big three exercises for athletic strength.  As I mentioned, there are countless other great lifts you can do, but I believe you can make huge gains with these three.  Pullups and pushups can be done frequently throughout the week, but I would recommend only doing deadlifts once or, at most, twice a week if you are lifting a lot of weight.

Let's Do This!


  1. These basic exercises are essential to maintain athletic performance.

  2. Hi Jeremy,

    I have a few questions regarding this piece. One, how does one define "athletic strength?" Basically, what does that term entail? Are we discussing fast-twitch muscle fiber, limit strength, or endurance?

    Second, pushups and bench presses/dumbbell presses are in fact very different movements (in one case the body isn't static, in the other it is), creating very different stresses on shoulder musculature (particularly surrounding the rotator cuff). Is it fair to equate these movements?

    And why are deadlifts the best for building "athletic strength?" Wouldn't the back squat approximate a wider variety of athletic movement while engaging a broad range of muscle groups?


  3. D,

    In the "athletic strength" sense, I am referring mainly to fast-twitch muscle fiber needed for most physical sports. In addition, I have seen evidence that endurance athletes, such as runners, also benefit significantly from deadlifts as fast twitch II and IIa fibers contribute to running endurance, by helping maintain a quick and therefore efficient stride rate.

    Regarding pushups vs. bench press, I agree they are different and it is in that sense that I actually prefer pushups. I am only equating these movements in the sense that they both work the general pushing movements, such as the pectorals, triceps and front deltoids.

    The back squat is a great lift, but I give the edge to the deadlift because it not only engages massive hip, quad and hamstring strength for coming out of an athletic stance -- especially useful for sports like football, wrestling, sprinting -- but it also strengthens supporting muscles in the traps, shoulders, biceps, forearms, etc.

    Also, the squat has it's drawbacks, such as requiring really good spotter if going heavy, and potential for resting a lot of weight directly on the spine.