When you think of strength training, the first thing that comes to mind is typically a loaded barbell, or perhaps some dumbbells or even kettlebells. This is a standard first thought and what I would consider first as well, since these are the most common tools used to develop strength. Though often undervalued (or completely disregarded), strength training through manual resistance is another means that is effective if done properly.
There is good reasoning behind using standard tools such as barbells and dumbbells, as those are extremely effective at developing strength and have stood the test of time. These implements make it easy to progress and measure improvement: If you increase 5 pounds over a month or increase in repetitions, then you know you have improved your strength and bettered yourself, to a relative degree.
While manual resistance exercises may not be as common or won’t ever replace the barbell, this method can serve as an additional training option. Some of the positives of using manual resistance are:
- Resistance can be adjusted immediately; your partner just needs to alter the tension. This makes it a great option, especially for youth athletes or those with a low training age.
- Many of the exercises using manual resistance require no additional equipment other than a training partner and can be performed anywhere. This works especially well within the team setting on the field before or after practice sessions.
- Several exercises performed with manual resistance are used to develop and strengthen the areas of the hips and ankles, which are often neglected when using traditional strength training tools.
Manual resistance works effectively with isometric exercises targeting the hips and ankles, but it can also be used to provide resistance with more common exercises, such as push-ups and reverse hypers. I primarily work with youth athletes in the private sector and have seen great success utilizing manual resistance within their sessions. It creates a fun training environment and is appropriate for their age and training level.
Educating Your Athletes
The main concern with using manual resistance comes down to the maturity and understanding of the individual applying the resistance. In a team setting, since the athletes themselves are the resistance, it is important to educate them and get them to properly apply the appropriate resistance in a safe and progressive manner.
As you know, getting athletes to follow directions can be difficult, yet not impossible. When introducing manual resistance, it is best to teach the group as a whole and go through full sets demonstrating on a coach at first—perhaps choosing something simple such as an isometric hold, since this will be on the coach’s time. Another option I like to do is use a stronger athlete as an example and make a point with them. If they feel the challenge when performing the exercise, then it sets an emphatic tone for the rest of the group.
Education is key, because if too much or too little resistance is applied, then it defeats the purpose of the exercise. If possible, coaches should be applying resistance to their athletes, but I understand this is not always possible.
Many of the same training principles that you would use with a standard barbell movement apply to manual resistance exercises. They can be performed for a set number of repetitions or as isometric holds. If the intensity of the manual resistance increases, then the quality of repetition may have an inverse effect. It’s important for your training partners to be able to gauge this and make adjustments.Many of the same training principles used with standard barbell movements apply to manual resistance exercises, which can be performed for a set number of reps or as isometric holds. Click To Tweet
Performing through the full range of movement is a positive in and of itself, and you can load a specific portion of the action such as the eccentric phase, concentric phase, or both. Utilizing the isometric hold is also beneficial since you can pick a specific joint position to strengthen.
Shown below are exercises performed in both manners. Regardless of which way they are performed, I would recommend focusing on a high quality of movement—so, isometric holds not exceeding 20 seconds and repetitions staying in a moderate range (unless resistance is altered to fit the change). Ultimately, it comes down to you and what you find to be most appropriate for your athletes, but moderate is a good starting point.
Manual Resisted Four-Way Hip Series (Flexion, Extension, Abduction, Adduction)
Training the hips directly is one of those things we know we should do, but how to do so isn’t as clear. There are several different methods of accomplishing this with bands, cable attachments, or fancy and expensive hip machines. Using a partner to create the resistance, however, is a simple and more effective method for most.
Video 1. When performing the isometric four-way hip series, it is important to create maximal tension and intent. When you place your hand on their foot or shin for the isometric, you’re not trying to drive their leg down but rather create an immovable pad for them to drive their leg into.
In the hip series, work to prevent any additional compensations from occurring during the holds. Typically, when you tell an athlete to drive into your hand as hard as possible, they will do so any way available to accomplish the task. The only body part that should be moving is the one being asked to perform the movement.
Video 2. When performing the series for repetitions, it is important to maintain the resistance to be consistent throughout the full range and for both athletes to demonstrate control. You don’t want any reckless, quick movements when performing any reps.
A cue for utilizing manual resistance during full range of motion exercises is to provide little (or just enough) resistance for them to achieve the concentric portion and then near-maximal tension on the eccentric portion. Athletes performing the exercise should almost fight you on the eccentric portion. Many individuals will do this subconsciously, because if they didn’t, then when performing the hip flexion, for example, their leg would slam into the ground every rep.Using manual resistance can apply tension through planes of movement that are usually not possible. Click To Tweet
The feet and ankles are similar to the hips, as we understand the importance of this complex but are limited typically within the weight room.
Using manual resistance can apply tension through planes of movement that are usually not possible.
Manual Resisted Ankle Series (Dorsiflexion, Inversion, Eversion)
When performing the exercise, you want to apply just enough tension to make the dorsiflexion difficult, but achievable, through pushing down on the front half of the foot. Typically, this doesn’t require much resistance, as it’s your entire body pushing down on an athlete’s feet. When returning to the ground though, have your athletes fight, trying to prevent you from pushing their feet back to the ground.
Video 3. Since we are stronger in the eccentric and isometric phases, athletes will be much stronger in this position, and it will help them feel the strain through their shins and feet.
Video 4. To begin this exercise, the athlete can sit on a bench and elevate their foot with a pad or a foam roller. If you are limited on the equipment, you can easily have them sit on the ground and cross their opposite foot under their leg (creating a figure 4) to elevate their foot.
From the starting position, you will then place your hand on one side of their foot, applying slight tension. Instruct them to drive their foot into your hand until the foot is in its full range of motion. To finish, you will forcefully drive their foot back into the starting position.
Manual Resisted Push-Up Series
Upper body movement patterns are easier to train in the weight room. Exercises such as chin-ups and bench press are staples of many training programs, and while there is nothing broken with the push-up, using manual resistance can be beneficial for a field-based session or use the isometric hold for a potentiation effect.
Video 5. The athletes want to start this a quarter of the way off the ground. This will allow them to be in a stronger position and able to push more forcefully away from the ground.
When applying tension, place one hand on the upper back and the opposite hand on the lower back. You want to ensure that the tension is evenly distributed during the hold.
Video 6. When performing for reps, the tension is applied the same way so that the resistance is appropriate.
Cueing your athletes to push away from the ground works better as opposed to pushing up. This creates more trunk engagement and intent through the exercise.
Manual Resisted Reverse-Hyper Series
I know I previously stated that one of the benefits of using manual resistance as a training tool was that it requires no training equipment. If you are fortunate enough and have access to a reverse hyper machine or an adjustable incline bench in your weight room, then you have a wide array of manually resisted, reverse hyper movements that you can perform with your athletes.
The reverse hyper is great for posterior strength development, but sometimes weight isn’t appropriate for individuals. Using manual resistance can serve both sides, as they can train the movement but within a more appropriate structure.
Using a partner to apply the resistance also allows you to train several different muscle actions at once, as you can also add hip abduction, hip adduction, and trunk isometric strength through the various movements listed below.
Video 7. The double leg hold is a great introductory exercise for the reverse hyper series. The athlete applying the tension isn’t pushing the feet down, but rather creating an object for them to drive their feet against.
Make sure that the athletes performing the above exercise keep their big toes pulled up to their shoes and their feet pressed together tightly. Another major point I stress with the athletes is the importance of breathing and controlling it, especially during longer isometric holds for 20-30 seconds.
Video 8. When performing the repetitions for the reverse hyper, maintain the tension being applied throughout the full range of the exercise and perform each rep at a constant speed in a controlled manner. I tell my athletes it’s similar to cranking up a jack or pumping water out of a well.
Single Leg Hold
Video 9. The single leg isometric is performed in the same fashion as the double leg movement.
With the single leg variation, the opposite leg can be raised or relaxed down, depending on the athlete’s preference, isolating just a single leg.
Video 10. Less is more when applying the resistance on the single leg repetitions. You don’t want any unnecessary rotation or movement whatsoever during each rep.
Abduction Isometric Hold
Video 11. Adding hip abduction and adduction to the reverse hyper holds is a progression to challenge your athletes.
When applying the abduction, your training partner will place their hands on the outside of the athlete’s feet, forcefully driving their feet inward and trying to make them touch. This simultaneously forces the partner to drive their feet up as well.
Adduction Isometric Hold
Video 12. To perform the isometric with the adduction hold, the training partner will create a fist with their hand and place it in between their counterpart’s feet, forcing the athlete to drive their feet inward, trying to crush the fist. The second hand will be over the heels of the feet, so the partner will continue to drive up into the isometric hold.
Trunk Lateral Flexion Isometric Hold
Video 13. This movement is for your more-advanced athletes and should not be rushed.
When adding the lateral pull to the reverse hyper isometric, you will lightly grab the athlete’s feet and either push or pull in one direction. If, for example, you are pulling their feet toward you or off of their right side, then they will have to isometrically contract their left side to prevent unnecessary lateral flexion.
If you do not have access to a reverse hyper machine, please do not let that stop you from performing these exercises—a more affordable alternative is a simple adjustable incline bench with maybe a pad for comfort.
Video 14. You can perform any of the previously mentioned variations with the bench setup if you do not have a reverse hyper machine available.
Start by setting up the incline bench around a 45-degree angle. Then the athlete will set their hips on the edge of the bench or pad and place their forearms flat on the bench, holding onto the bench tightly and collapsing their body down on the angle of the bench, while raising their lower body.
Manual Resisted Lower Body Series (Leg Curls, Lateral Step, Leg Extensions)
Video 15. Have the athlete lay flat on a bench or the ground with a pad underneath their knees. Ensure that the athlete keeps their toes flexed up toward the shin and maintains their feet pressed together.
When applying resistance in the above movement, do so by driving your hands into their heels. Maintain consistent, steady tension throughout each rep.
While the knee extension can also be performed on a bench, it is best to perform on a high enough spot, such as the reverse hyper machine, to allow for the full range of the leg to come back down. This setup may be a little tougher, but still, it’s a great alternative if you do not have access to a leg extension machine.
Video 16. Once you find the appropriate spot to perform the knee extension, you will start by placing your hand over the athlete’s shins to apply resistance. Have the athlete keep their big toes up as they drive their feet up until the leg is fully extended.
Developing lateral strength and speed is a must for a majority of field-based sports. Using a partner to apply tension on the lateral step forces them to drive with the knee and maintain a proper body position for this particular movement.
When applying pressure, work to apply it evenly through the shoulder and hip. I have also used tackle pads to drive into athletes to ensure a more even distribution of resistance.
Video 17. Apply the resistance evenly by placing one hand on the athlete’s shoulder and the other hand on the hip. When the athlete steps, they should lead with their knee and have the rest of their body follow, maintaining their base position.
Getting Results from Manual Resistance
When I first began implementing manual resistance in exercise, I was unsure of the results or if I would even be able to get my athletes to buy into the exercises. While using manual resistance may be different, it is by no means easy. Over time, I have found great success with these movements in my programming and improved results with the athletes I train.Even those athletes with a higher training age and considered to be more ‘elite’ can see a great benefit from manual resistance exercises, especially for training the ankles and hips. Click To Tweet
I primarily work with youth athletes—although I also train collegiate athletes competing in various sports, such as basketball, football, and track. Even those athletes with a higher training age and considered to be more “elite” can see a great benefit from manual resistance exercises, especially in terms of training the ankles and hips. They also tell me how they enjoy performing the exercises with their teammates, as it is something different from the normal 3×10 barbell back squat.
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