Feb 20, 2019

by Team Snapbac

There are many things athletes have in common: drive, mind over matter, and an iron will to push past their own limitations, break barriers, and achieve personal bests. When it comes to a one-size-fits-all athlete workout (including warm-ups and cool downs), there are a lot of opinions, confusion, and misunderstandings. A competitive bodybuilder will not share the same training strategy as a gymnast, just as a professional football player would not practice his skills on the basketball court or soccer field. So is there a set of fundamental exercises for athletes that can be used to keep every athlete and weekend warrior in top condition between specific trainings for their sport?

Some athletic trainers think so!

10 Best Exercises for Athletes

Before diving into theories and workouts, it is key to get a consensus on terminology. The world of exercise and athletes has its own language, but the words don’t always have an agreed upon definition. In regard to universal movements that provide essential benefits to all fitness levels, the two terms most referenced for muscle strength and performance are power and explosive movement. The misunderstanding comes when people use them together as in “explosive power” making them unanimous and interchangeable. This simply is not the case when defining workouts for athletes as these two things must both be addressed equally and at times independently to achieve the results we all need on the field, track, or in the weight room.

“The two terms most referenced for muscle strength and performance are power and explosive movement.”

These terms then get further befuddled when we break them down. Power can only be understood through force which brings in its own set of exercises. The explosiveness of your movements is defined through the understanding of power which must also take into account the equation for work. It may sound complicated, but that is the very reason why trainers have a difficult time agreeing on essential workouts for all athletes. Once we break it all down, you will see how each element is required to create a well-balanced training routine to address every athlete in every competition.

First, let’s take a look at power.

This is brute force, muscle strength, and the ability to push harder and longer no matter what you are doing. Power can only be understood by first looking at force which is the correlation of your strength creating movement. Going back to grade school math, we need to look at the original equation for force which is mass multiplied by acceleration, (F = M x A). Putting this into athletic terms, this means force is increased through the weight or resistance we use and the speed at which we perform the movement because it measures the interaction between objects and their change in motion. Whether are hand is exerting force on a door to open it or we exert force on a barbell to lift it, the terminology is the same. Force is what is used in deadlifts.

To equate force with power, we need to add in time (Power = Work / Time). In this equation, “work” is (Force x Distance). So we can increase our power by exerting force over a greater distance in a shorter amount of time. The farther we travel in the movement, be it a jump, lift, push or pull, the longer we exert resistance which increases our power output.

This is primarily due to the time it takes for a muscle to reach maximum force with a contraction. For your movement to hit peak power, the muscle must be contracted for a minimum of 300 milliseconds. Exercises without a great range of movement for your limbs or torso fall under 250 milliseconds decreasing the power output. This means any isometric moves or rapid pushes from joints such as the knees or wrists, which do not use the full limb, rely more on explosive force rather than full power. To build power we need to focus on workouts that use long contractions followed by an exertion of speed such as box jumps from a deep squat.

Now, let’s get a better understanding of explosive movement, better defined as contraction speed.

This has less to do with distance and focuses more on speed of movement as with isolated contractions that apply maximum force in the shortest period of time. Whether sprinting off the starting line or working with isometrics, the initial explosion in the muscle contraction directly impacts the result. This is not about maximum power because time and distance are decreased. The emphasis is on rate of force development or RFD. We are not looking at endurance as with power above. This set of exercises needs to focus on the initial demand we make on our muscles and how much force they can generate in less than 300 milliseconds.

This becomes vital in sports as we require jarring movements with explosive force at high speeds, meaning we will never reach maximum power. We must train to increase the amount of force that can be generated in the initial stages of muscle contraction, basically creating more explosion in less time. Operating from isometric contractions, RFD is naturally very high, but when applying acceleration to mass, speed is often lost for power, though force is increased. This is why we need varied training to methods to target both RFD and power giving us speed and force to take off and follow through.

Now that we have the two terms clearly defined, we can see why so many professional trainers and coaches take varied approaches and hold conflicting opinions on the reality of a universal workout routine for all athletes.

Thousands of studies have been done on explosive contractions or increased power, but few have combined the results of both, and it is the combination that will keep any athletic person fit and ready to tackle their mountain any day of the week. It is not just about building strong, powerful muscles, and it’s not just about speedy reactions and initial bursts. We must bring explosive force from the very first phase of movement to continued power as we see it to completion. That is why we have put together the ten best movements to keep your body in ultimate condition and ready to push past any boundary physical or mental.


To get the most effective results from each workout, it is imperative to understand what the move is and what it will do for your body. Plyometrics, plyo, or shock training was created by Dr. Yuri Verkoshansky as a form of training to develop and improve RFD by increasing the speed that force is created in the muscles giving you those explosive reaction times. Plyos are rapid movements that focus on quickly building your force while decreasing your contact with the ground or surface. The movements are designed to capitalize on the stretch-shortening cycle (SSC), which is a rapid cyclical muscle action. Speed, reactive power and rapid bursts from a static isometric position is a fundamental skill for any athlete, especially in contact sports, and plyometrics are the training needed to improve these movements.

So what exactly are plyos?

There is a distinction between upper body plyometric training and lower body plyometric training. Lower body focuses on jumps, bounds, skips and hops, and upper body examples would be push-ups with hand position changes or pushing up to standing and back down, many of the medicine ball moves listed below or pull-ups with a hand lift at the top. According to the definition of shock training, walking, running, skipping rope, are all forms of plyo or SSC moves with limited contact time on the surface. The more impact a movement has in training the less ground contact time (GCT) is involved. For example, race walking has a GCT average of 270-300 milliseconds, which is considered slow plyo. Multiple hurdle jumps have a GCT average of 150 ms, which is a fast plyo. GCT greater than .251 seconds is slow, and less than .25 seconds is fast.

All of these moves train your muscles to increase the force production during the concentric contraction which will improve your speed when changing directions, increase strength, power and balance and enhance your use and storage of elastic strain energy.

#2 Carries (The Farmer’s Walk)

This one is truly as simple as it sounds! The trivial action of picking something up and carrying it for a distance has been a form of physical training since the beginning of time. As the name implies, it is what gives a farmer the torso strength of a mule, makes a new mother have powerful shoulders and forearms and builds the strength and endurance of athletes to outperform their competitors. This one modest move that will train your whole body, but it won’t be easy. The action and form of a proper carry is not complicated, but to achieve real results, you will need to challenge yourself and push harder than you ever have before.

When done right, carries can bulk up serious muscle and work your entire body with a special focus on your grip strength. This is particularly important to all athletes whose sport involves a ball. You will feel your neck, back, shoulders, hands, hips and arms, and if you push yourself far enough, your legs will burn too. This move rapidly builds full-body strength, burns through fat and will improve strength-based performance all while having very little risk of injury.

The move is simple, pick up the heaviest objects you can find and carry them as far as you can go. Whether you lift a dumbbell, kettlebell, stone or a bag of dirt, you get the same benefit. The only form notes would be to follow standard lift rules, bent knees, flat back, power through the ankles, neutral neck, etc. If your grip is maxed but your body can take more, try wearing weights around your shoulders, chest, wrists and ankles. The more you can load on your body, the more strenuous the exercise.

#3 Sleds or Prowler Training

Unfortunately, we are not sending you rushing down a mountain covered in fresh white powder. In this case, you will be pushing the sled, or prowler, against considerable resistance while building your chest, arms, core, calves, glutes, hamstrings, and quads. Depending on the moves you perform, you will be building both strength and RFD drastically enhancing your endurance conditioning and muscle hypertrophy. The more weight you add, the faster you push, the farther you go, and the longer you can stay at it will all increase with time and training.

The Prowler is a versatile training tool that is fully customizable to your current fitness level. You can push it or pull it and train different parts of your body. When working on your muscle power, remember the equation above, Force x Distance / Time. Simply add more weight and push it faster and farther each time. This training carries over into your sport when you are required to have explosive movements, jumps, sprints, direction changes, etc. The movements build full body muscle and shred excess fat. There is very little recovery time needed when training with the sled and minimal wear on the body making it an excellent tool during season to bulk up your workouts and add in high-intensity training that won’t detract from your sport or game.

Using the sled in short sprints with high weights, you will improve your anaerobic conditioning through rapid bursts of power. You can focus on your aerobic training by using less weight and going longer or taking little to no rests between anaerobic sets. The versatility of the Prowler sled is what puts it in the top ten power exercises for all athletes. The results you achieve are all about the form you take. You can run forward and push the sled, run backward and pull it, put your hands high and activate your shoulders and obliques or low and place your body more horizontal working with your deep inner core.

#4 Burpees

The dreaded burpee may be the bane of every athlete’s existence, but there is no denying its powerful effects on the body and its ability to get you performance ready. When training your body to be an athlete or to have an athletic form, you will challenge yourself harder than ever before, push past all mental limitations and spend every moment with the aim of conditioning your body, mind, diet and will. It takes time, often all of it. That is why you want your top moves to work as many muscle groups as possible while building endurance, speed, strength, power and agility. That requires burpees. Done correctly they will work your entire body with a deep focus on your quads, glutes, hamstrings, chest, shoulders, triceps and your core. The best part is you can do them anywhere! No equipment is required, no specialized training, no spotters and no training.

All of your predominant major muscle groups, legs, core, chest and arms, are challenged by speed and resistant force created between a surface and your own body weight. You can take them slow and focus on fine tuning muscle movements or fast and build up your heart rate and aerobic conditioning. Add them to a circuit training with rapidly repeating sets and you can create a HIIT routine to strengthen your cardiorespiratory system and carve your physique anywhere, at any time.

Though the burpee is effective even for those who have never set foot in a gym, there is still a matter of technique that must be adhered to if you don’t want to injure your back, neck or shoulders. Take the move slowly at first to feel into each of the four phases, and when you have mastered the movement, begin to flow from one to the other. Start standing up and bend at the waist to place your hands on the floor directly in front of your feet. Then drop into a squat and push up with your feet like a mini-hop sending your legs out behind you. This move will put you in a push-up position. Follow this with the same mini-hop, bringing your knees towards your chest and back into a squat, and finally back up to a standing position with a full jump and your arms stretched out above your head.

#5 Medicine Ball Toss

No introduction is needed from the medicine ball! This may likely be every athlete’s most important piece of equipment which can render full body results through an endless variety of movements that are only restricted by your own limitations.

The medicine ball marries plyometric training with weight lifting and resistance conditioning. If you could only choose one form of exercise to stay in shape for every game, every competition, and every performance, let it be the medicine ball!

Starting with the basic ball toss, it will work your quads, glutes, shoulders, and triceps while conditioning your body’s major extension systems, the ankles, knees, and hips. This is crucial to building speed and power in sports.

Grab your ball and in one full move extend your arms from your waist, spread your feet to shoulder width and squat down leaning forward as your arms and the ball drop between your knees or calves. Then jump as if you’re on the 3-point line, pushing through your ankles, knees, hips, and legs throwing the ball as high as you can above your head. Then get out of the way as it comes back down.

There are many moves with the medicine ball that can work all the major muscle groups, but it really shines with chest, arms, and core. Most of the moves create incredible force met with resistance and balanced by speed.

By creating more force, you build strength and reaction time increasing RFD and giving you more power when lifting. Throw it above your head against the wall and you add in lats and forearms. Try the same wall toss on your knees, sideways to the wall so you build up momentum in twisting at the waist on your throw. You can do the same thing from a seated position, just be sure to rotate to work both sides.

With just you, a ball and a solid wall, you can perform various moves that work the body, wall chest passes where your force creates the bounce back will work your pecs, triceps, biceps and core.That will provide you the complete exercise.

#6 Heavy Lifts

You’re not going to find an athletic body workout routine that doesn’t include some form of weight lifting. For competitions and sports that require long figures and lean muscles, heavy, arduous sets of lifting may not be the best choice, but that doesn’t mean you can’t drastically change your strength and muscle tone with fewer reps chosen to build you up without adding too much bulk. It’s important here to understand the difference between bodybuilders and powerlifters. If your sport is bodybuilding, then your focus does not have to be on strength and conditioning, not to say you don’t need it, but competition is about aesthetics. Your lifts will be geared towards micro-movements and isolation exercises as you cultivate that award worthy physique. For our purposes here, we will encourage powerlifting to help athletes build brute strength.

This is all about one single motion to lift as much weight as you possibly can within three primary moves, the squat, the bench, and the deadlift. When you stack on the weight, you’re not aiming for impressive rep numbers. Two to five is sufficient if you’re really challenging yourself with resistance. If you can’t do more than one, then you know you’ve put on your max weight. Isolation moves are not part of the program since the goal is raw strength over rippling muscles. When you manipulate the resistance to build up your strength, you maximize your capability for force from a muscle or muscle group, meaning you are stronger. Added strength enhances power in speed and agility and reduces the risk of injury.

#7 Dumbbell Frog Squat Jump

This one move combines strength training and plyometric skills using dumbbells to create resistance and build muscle and a jump to increase rate of force built in the contraction of the leg muscles as the body enters a squat. The weight of your body will add to the resistance throughout the maneuver working on your quads, calves, glutes, and hamstrings. The dumbbells should not be very heavy. You do not want to feel separation in your shoulders when performing this move. Choose two dumbbells of equal weight that feel comfortable to hold with your arms straight down at your sides. You should feel the weight but not be challenged by it.

Keeping your arms straight at your sides, drop into a deep squat by lowering your hips and pushing your glutes out behind you. Your knees should stay parallel with your feet. Do not let them go forward or over your feet. Try to keep your back straight without leaning to far across the tops of your thighs. Work to drop the weights as close to the ground as possible. You can take this part of the move at whatever pace is comfortable to your body, but once you have reached your lowest point, it is time for speed. From a deep squat, push up through your feet, ankles, calves, thighs and glutes and jump as high as you can. You are aiming for speed and height. The contraction on your descent is slow and controlled and the contraction on the release is fast and powerful.

#8 Box Squat Jump

Much like the frog squat jump, the box squat jump is also working on strength conditioning with building up ROFD, but this move can be more challenging as it demands power from a relaxed position. Using a box or chair, sit comfortably with your feet shoulder-width apart and flat on the floor. Make sure your knees are over your ankles. Keep your back and shoulders straight and slightly lean forward. Place your hands behind your head and interlace your fingers for stability. Bring a lot of awareness to your body. You want to hold your core, chest, arms and legs tight in preparation for the move but keep your hips and glutes relaxed allowing the chair or box to support your weight. Do not hold yourself up or hover over the seat. You want to build force from a relaxed state.

When in position, spring up into a high jump. You want this move to be controlled, fast and to push as high as you can. For added resistance you can place a dumbbell behind your neck, resting on the top sides of your shoulders. Place your hands on the ends for stability and keep your elbows out in front of you. Immediately go back into your seated position as you come down from the jump, allowing your body to fully sit before springing up again for the next set.

#9 Finger Clean

This particular move is key for athletes who rely on tactile strength and dexterity. Football, baseball, basketball, uneven bars and many others require an athlete to have strong hands and a good grip. Though this is technically a lift, it does not target strength in the arms. By only using your fingers, the body requires a different power source to the lift the barbell. This is where the focus of the work is sent into the hips, glutes and quads. All sports and regular daily life benefit from power and strength built in the hips and lower back.

Your position will be the same as a hang clean, but the barbell will rest on the inside of your fingers, thumbs released, hands open, with your palms facing your body in a standing position. As you begin your descent, use the same form as the squats above, placing your knees over your feet and your glutes going back and down behind you. You will need to keep your knees and legs out of the way as the bar goes down in front of you. Your arms will stay completely straight through the descent, activate your hips by thrusting them forward pushing from your knees and ankles. From a standing position, build force by slightly bending down and swinging your elbows forward and up using the momentum to send the bar up to your shoulders. Never close your hands keeping the weight supported through your hips and legs. Over time this will allow you to build up more strength in the lower body to support greater weight.

#10 Dumbbell Clean and Press

Now is when you want heavy dumbbells to challenge your biceps, shoulders and back. When the move is performed, you will also activate your glutes, hamstrings and quads. This particular exercise is great for athletes who need to power through or move weight from below to above like a strong offensive tackle or Olympic wrestling.

Begin standing with your feet hip width apart and your dumbbells on the floor at your sides. Drop down at the hips and get a firm grip on each dumbbell with slightly bent knees, chest out and arched back. Then explosively stand tall with your arms hanging, pushing from the glutes and pulling your shoulders as high as you can slightly pushing your hips out in front of you. In the same movement, shrug your shoulders up to the ears, slightly bend at the knees and swing your elbows out and up bringing the dumbbells up to your shoulders performing the “clean” and bringing your body back into a full standing position. In the last part of the movement, use a shoulder press to push the dumbbells up over your head with your arms fully extended. To complete, fully reverse each movement sending the dumbbells back to the floor and repeat.

Sets and Reps

An athlete’s body is the tool to their craft and it must be kept in top form. Choosing the best athletic exercises to do this is about accessing the entire body through challenges that work to build speed, strength, agility, cardio and respiratory health, and mental clarity. Generally, moves are performed in 3 to 4 sets at 8 to 15 reps. To create the routine that is right for you, choose reps that push you to your limit and then do another set.