The Best Performance Training Moves

In our search for the most effective weight-training exercises for athletes, we contacted some of the country’s best trainers and strength coaches and asked them one simple yet perplexing question: If you could prescribe just one exercise to your athletes, what would it be? 

Back Squat

Contributor: Rob Fitzgerald of EliteFTS, former staff writer at Muscle & Fitness and a former elite powerlifter, football coach and strength coach who has worked extensively with high school, college and professional athletes

Where it hits: Quads, glutes, spinal erectors, hamstrings, core

Why it’s effective: “There’s a reason the squat is called the king of all exercises,” Fitzgerald says. “If you have two athletes who are the same height and weight, the stronger athlete will be the faster one, and the back squat is the single most effective exercise for increasing an athlete’s overall strength levels. When your squat goes up, everything goes up.”

How to do it: Stand erect with your feet at least shoulder-width apart. Squeeze the bar as tightly as you can with your elbows directly under the bar, and retract your shoulder blades to keep your entire upper body tight. Arch your back, inhale deeply, then bend your hips and knees as if to sit in a chair. When your thighs come to parallel or just below, return as explosively as you can to the standing position with your head and chest up. It helps to feel as though you’re pushing your traps into the bar on the ascent.

How much to do: To build maximal strength and explosiveness, athletes should use weights in the 65%-95% 1RM range, with total workout volume ranging between 12 and 30 reps depending on the intensity used.

Push Press

Contributor: Tom DeLong, MA, CSCS, an applied sports scientist with 20 years of experience as a competitive powerlifter and strength coach, and 11 years as an instructor at UCLA Extension in Los Angeles

Where it hits: Quads, glutes, shoulders, calves, core

Why it’s effective: “The push press, a variation of the overhead press, is easy to execute and highly effective for athletes in any explosive sport,” DeLong explains. “Although it’s primarily for lower-body power, it requires solid core stabilization as well as upper-body strength.”

How to do it: Stand erect holding a barbell on your front delts with your hands just outside shoulder width. Start with your feet about hip-width apart and your knees slightly bent. Bend your knees to dip down a bit, then explosively extend your knees and hips and drive the weight overhead until your arms are fully extended and your body forms a straight line from hands to feet. Your arms and shoulders will help press the bar up, but the majority of force should come from the momentum created by your lower body. Lower the bar under control to the start position.

How much to do: 3-4 sets, 3-5 reps each, with 1-2 minutes rest between sets; use 60%-80% estimated 1RM

  1. Flat Bench

One-Arm Rope Cable Row

Contributor: Mike Stack, CSCS, an exercise physiologist and president of Applied Fitness Solutions, a fitness- and performance-enhancement firm in Ann Arbor, Michigan

Where it hits: Back, biceps, obliques, core

Why it’s effective: “This exercise is a perfect pulling movement for any athlete – it incorporates aspects of grip strength, postural stability in the athletic position and single-limb movement,” says Stack. “Beyond that, the explosive nature of the pull simulates the ballistic movement common to most sports.”

How to do it: Stand facing a cable station with a rope handle at chest height, feet wider than shoulder-width, chest and head up. Grasp the rope in one hand using a neutral grip with your arm fully extended; place your other hand at your waist in the ready position. Pull the rope hard and fast toward your midsection, rotating your body slightly to bring your back and hips into the movement. Pause at the top, then return to the start. Repeat for reps, then switch sides.

How much to do: Three sets, 8-10 reps per arm, 90 seconds rest between sets

Bench Press Throw

Contributor: Tim Scheett, PhD, assistant professor in the department of health and human performance at the College of Charleston and an associate editor for the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research

Where it hits: Chest, shoulders, triceps

Why it’s effective: “The one thing many people tend to forget when training for sports is the importance of developing explosive upper-body power,” says Scheett. “Whether we’re talking about football, basketball, baseball, soccer, tennis, volleyball, wrestling, whatever, every athlete benefits from having great upper-body explosiveness. And perhaps the best exercise for this is the bench press throw, because it utilizes relatively light weight and can be performed in a Smith machine, though I recommend a good spotter to ensure safety when catching the bar on the way down.”

How to do it: Center a flat bench in a Smith machine so the bar comes to your middle chest. Lie faceup on the bench, grasp the bar at shoulder-width and unhook the latches. Slowly lower the bar to your chest as if to do a normal bench press. When the bar touches your chest, explosively press it back up so it leaves your hands at the top of the rep. After releasing, keep a slight bend in your elbows and catch the bar as it comes back down. Reset your hands before doing the next rep.

How much to do: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with 3-5 minutes rest between sets using 30%-50% 1RM