This has become one of my main strength exercises for the athletes I train over the last few years. Some might say that a unilateral exercise is inferior to its bilateral counterpart, but I would disagree. I actually prefer programming the unilateral movement. Don’t get me wrong, they are both great exercises, but I tend to favor the rear foot elevated split squat (RFESS). If you prefer the bilateral movement that is ok, but think about what is the best movement for the athlete that you are training.
Most athletes are in a unilateral position when they play sports so why not get them into that position in the training facility. I have a few reasons why I prefer the RFESS. Some of them have to do with performance and some have to do with injury reduction.
Side Note: If you injure an athlete while they are training they can’t play. This would be counterproductive.
Here I am performing the Front Squat and RFESS, while Alex discusses point number 2 below.
So here are a few reasons why you will see athletes at SportPerformanceU performing the RFESS as their main strength exercise.
1. Sport Specificity- I do think the term gets overused and abused in most cases, but for a higher caliber athlete where the term should actually apply, I’m all about it. If you are in a unilateral position during the high majority of the sport you play, mimicking that movement in the training facility is a great idea. Athletes that are sprinting while playing their sport would benefit greatly from using this exercise as their main strength movement.
2. Bilateral Deficit- Yes the elevated foot is helping, I get it, but not to the extent that you can ignore the significant difference when comparing the two. For example the highest RFESS I have seen done in my facility is 265lbs for 3 reps. This athlete's bilateral squat is nowhere close to doubling that number. End of story.
3. Neutral Spine- The number one role of a performance coach is not to increase an athlete’s speed, power or strength; it is to keep them injury free and ready to go on game day. One way to do this is programming exercises that will improvement athletic quality while minimizing risk of injury. The bilateral squat is a difficult exercise for many athletes to do properly. There are many reasons for this, but for the purpose of this point I will focus on the spine.
Maintaining a neutral lumbar spine is difficult for most athletes once their thighs pass parallel to the floor. I’m not going to go into the intricacies of this point, but it is clearly an issue. By performing the RFESS this becomes a mute point, the lumbar spine can no longer go into flexion. Risk vs. reward must always be considered when programming exercises for your athletes. When it comes to maintaining a neutral spine, the RFESS wins.
Agree or disagree that the RFESS should be your athletes main strength exercise, you have to agree that it is an exercise that most all athletes should be doing. If you prefer it to be an accessory lift, that’s fine, just make sure that your athletes are doing it.
Being an endurance athlete and I use the word athlete loosely; I just started mountain biking races this year, I have come to appreciate even more how important strength training is to those specific athletes. It is strength training that compliments an endurances athletes sport training in such a way that they will be able to push harder up the mountain, run faster up a hill or explode through the water and off the wall with greater power.
In all these sports strength training will help you compete at a greater level, but no more so than in swimming. In a sport where hundredths of a second mean everything, strength training should be a focus of any competitive swimmer. Dry land training for swimmers has come a long way in the last few years, but there is still much ground to be made. The old school mentality of dry land training for swimmers was to perform additional endurance exercise such as jogging or jumping rope. Although these activities in and of themselves are great to do, they are not going to help swimmers perform better in the pool. The new thought is that swimmers and other endurance athletes alike need a properly constructed strength training program to follow.
There are many things that would go into a comprehensive strength training program, but for the sake of this post I would like to focus mainly on the pure strength side of things. Strength training is really about force production. To move something faster, yourself or an object, you need to be able to create a greater amount of force against another object. For a swimmer, that would mean applying a greater force into the wall during turns and into the water during laps. Let’s say for example that a swimmer could cut .02 of a second off their time with each turn in a 25 meter pool while swimming the 200 meter free event from strength training for let’s say, a few weeks. If my calculations are correct this swimmer would take off .14 of a second. I’ve heard that is a lot in swimming. That is the difference between a swimmer being on a proper strength training program and cutting that .14 of a second off their time versus one that keeps their same time from not being on a proper training program.
Ok, so strength training is important, so what do I do? Unfortunately your specific program is not so black and white, there is a lot of gray involved, but there are many staples that should work for everyone if applied appropriately. This would include squat and deadlift variations, sled pushes, pushups, chin ups and rows. Most strength training programs will be built around these main movements.
Whether you are a swimmer or other endurance athlete make sure that you are following a strength training program that is best suited to your needs. Most endurance athletes should do well with training twice a week and some do like to bump it up to three times a week during their offseason.
Everyone loves doing what they are good at, whether it be push ups, squats, deadlifts or any other movement. But ask yourself, how much better are you making yourself if you always focus on your strengths. If you have a great looking squat and your deadlift is lagging behind try taking a few weeks or months to focus on bring your deadlift up to par. I’m not saying don’t squat, but make the focus getting good at deadlifts. Ask yourself what it is about the deadlift that you struggle with. Is it the lift off, lock out or something else? Make a program focused on bring up your weakest link.
As it pertains to the deadlift let’s say that you struggle with your lock out.
You might want to start with adding in more heavy rack pulls higher up on the thigh. What if you are a bit slow off the floor? Maybe you need to throw in some speed work with lighter weight. Is your upper back strong enough to lift big weighs? If not, throwing in some more rows and chins into your program will help.
At the same time there should always be balance in your training program. An example of this would be those that love to bench press (you know who you are!), but maybe sneak in a pulling exercise once or twice a month. This will lead to weaknesses and imbalances creeping in. The last thing you want is to be injured from a training program that is unbalanced and poorly written.
For our athletes out there this is also extremely important. During the season, depending on your sport, attention should be paid to what imbalances and weaknesses usually show themselves during your season. If you are a quarterback your plant foot and throwing arm will be getting more work during practice and games.
This could lead to overuse injuries if not cared for during the season. An in season training program needs to focus on preventing the opposite limbs from lagging behind and also making sure overuse injuries do not present themselves in the more active limbs.
Make sure you are working with your performance coaches to have the best chance at avoiding injuries. It is up to you to make sure your weakest links are brought up to par, if not you will always be held back from your true potential and possibly on the side lines with an injury.
Power is a quality that every great athlete needs to possess in order to excel at their sport. It is the final touches that propel good athletes into great ones. Without a doubt, this is an area that an advanced athlete needs to pay great detail and attention to. The questions that have to be asked are how and where does this power need to be applied. Does it involve rotational or linear movement? Those will be the questions that I look to answer for sport specific power development.
first things first, the greatest amount of power that can be produced is transferred through the ground up through the lower body. When an athlete exhibits a tremendous amount of power, whether throwing, kicking, hitting, tackling or any other form, that power is produced by applying explosive force through the ground. Power and force are inversely related but are still components of one another.
Bottom Line: Develop strong explosive wheels to produce tremendous amounts of power.
What you need to produce the power against will usually dictate what direction you need to train power. If you are tackling an opponent you will most likely train power in the sagittal plane or perform a linear movement. If you are moving an object such as swinging a racket or throwing a football you will be training power in the transverse plane which is a rotational movement.
Bottom Line: Power development should be sport specific for the advanced athlete.
Ok, so we answered the how it needs to be produced and where it has to be applied. How about what should we do to train those sport specific power movements. Training power in the sagittal plane could involve movements such as box jumps, power cleans and snatches. These movements are all preformed in the sagittal plane and would be great exercises for a hitter (volleyball), power forward (basketball) or offensive guard (football). Athletes that need to train power in the transverse plane would use a variety of medicine ball rotational throws, scoops and slams. These would be great for our pitcher (baseball), quarterback (football) or golfer (golf).
Bottom Line: Power exercises should be selected based on the sport and position you play.
Remember this topic is about advanced athletes. There is nothing wrong with a twelve year old quarterback working on rotational power, but let’s not get carried about getting to sport specific at a young training age. Let the athletes develop and learn, then master the basics. As for our advanced athletes sport specific training is key to their success.
We get a lot of parents and athletes asking us for exercises that are "specific" to their sport. Hockey players want hockey specific training, football players want programs that relate to their position, etc. And rightfully so - most athletes who train are doing so with performance in mind. They want their work in the weight room to translate to the fields of play. The question is, what constitutes a sport-specific exercise and how much does an athlete need to train in that way?
It is true, some exercises are similar to movements we see in sports, and therefore translate quite well. Take, for instance, a quarterback doing rotational medicine ball work. Or, take a boxer doing a landmine single arm press. These movements are both visually and functionally very similar to way an athlete would move while playing the sport. What we must remember is that a training program that consists only of these "specific" movements is not a well rounded program and can lead to decreased performance and injury.
Exercise selection should first take into account each athlete's biomechanical integrity. If an athlete is restricted in a certain movement, we can't load it no matter how specific it is to their sport. We first must fix the pattern before moving onto the loaded exercise version. Take a squat - this movement I would consider "specific" to offensive lineman; they move and push in bilateral patterns, and their firing out of a stance can be similar to a squat. So, for offensive lineman, yes, we would like to program squats. However, if an athlete fails the squat portion of our analysis and doesn't yet possess the mobility and stability to do the movement properly, we can't just throw it into the program because it is "specific." Exercise selection needs to be specific to the athlete before it is specific to the sport.
If an athlete has the mobility and stability to do the required movements then we can begin to specify. What that means is when we choose exercises for each major movement (push, pull, knee dominant, hip dominant, etc), we choose exercises that relate to their sport. However, we won't leave a major movement category. So, when looking at what knee dominant movements we want to accentuate, we might choose a rear-foot elevated split squat for a wide receiver, and a front squat for a lineman.
The end point here is that doing exercises that are specific to a sport is important for athletes who are ready and capable, but don't take that for granted. Many athletes need to work on movement patterns, mobility, and stability before they can progress to some of the "specific" exercises.
SPU's Alex Drayson and Matt Migiano write the SPU Athletic Performance Blog.
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