As coaches, nearly everything we do eventually comes down to choosing an exercise or mode of training. Exercises still matter, provided you coach them and place them in a program properly. This post covers the best of what I’ve learned in 2019. Most of these exercises are not new, but nearly all of them are refreshed in some way. Evolution usually is incremental, and sometimes it’s a quantum leap.
This article offers a mix of classic exercises with new technology, new exercises with conventional wisdom, and a few less familiar exercises that deserve some love. I don’t dare distill training into video clips of exercises that look cool or different. Rather, I defend great training ideas with deep purpose behind them.
Deceleration and Acceleration Training—Are They Mutually Exclusive?
First, I want to emphasize that some exercises are good all-around movements for sports preparation while others lean toward one area or another. Just because an exercise looks like an acceleration or deceleration movement doesn’t mean the neuromuscular system agrees. For the title of this post, I considered using athleticism, but such a wide term can be tricky.
My philosophy is conservative and a little boring, and may seem a bit biased toward capacity training for deceleration and teaching for acceleration. Still, most of the training methods and exercises I’ve included are great for sport athletes and sprinters when used properly. For example, depth jumps may be a deceleration activity, but they can also help an athlete during late acceleration.Depth jumps are a deceleration activity, but they can also help athletes during late acceleration, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
None of the exercises are for purists. For me, they’re good workouts or great movements for small groups. Although a few of the exercises are great for kids and others are for advanced athletes, don’t try to overly compartmentalize them.
Much of the deceleration training we do has re-acceleration benefits that connect slowing down and speeding up again—similar to how maximal speed requires acceleration. Due to the practical side of training and Newton’s laws, we can’t isolate one quality. Also, don’t view this as an eccentric or concentric discussion; see it as a way to redirect momentum with the appropriate neuromuscular qualities and skill sets.
You can use some of the exercises in Physical Education or senior populations if coached well, but all of them are appropriate for athletes. You also can plug some of these exercises into rehabilitation, but first make sure you have a solid plan.
Aikido Rolls or Simple Body Rolls
We use rolling exercises to learn how to fall correctly. The technique I’ll describe is not truly Aikido, though it is inspired by the philosophy of this martial art. Doing Aikido rolls safely with some degree of proficiency is the most important exercise on this list, as it extends beyond sport.Doing Aikido rolls safely with some degree of proficiency is the most important exercise on this list, as it extends beyond sport, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
The first exercise you’re likely to learn with Aikido is how to roll safely from a partner or on your own—not how to throw like Steven Segal. Great coaches like Jeremy Frisch and Matt Siniscalichi are taking rolling to the next level. You’ll be amazed how some athletes respond to speed and perturbations.
Injured athletes can get spooked from falling, even if it’s not connected to a contact injury or fracture. A hamstring pull creates fear of sprinting, for example. A few athletes are afraid to decelerate while others accelerate too much into a fall, reducing the rate of active slowing down.
Athletes who are hurt need to remove their fears with preparation to feel ready for action. Even if you train and rehearse or replicate the mechanism of injury, the athlete will always fear the unknown. Physiologically, teaching an athlete to fall safely so they can symbolically get up is very similar to the scene in Top Gun where Maverick lost his mojo and needed to engage.
Instead of spending too much time in the past, I strongly recommend looking at the videos of Bill Knowles, who truly understands the big picture. Falling a few times with purpose and skill enables an athlete not to fear a fall, especially with hurdles and contact sports.
Video 1. Matt Siniscalichi is a fantastic professional and one of the most unheralded coaches in sports performance. In this video, Matt demonstrates an array of rolling movements for all athletes.
Elderly individuals who’ve learned to fall backward by training are similar to the great shooters in the NBA who fall away, sometimes landing behind where they were on the hardwood without injury. It’s a skill students can learn at young ages and is something coaches can watch for during LTAD (Long Term Athletic Development) with team sports.
Athletes who are comfortable falling with amazing body orientation capabilities will be thinking about the next step while they’re in the air or during the tumble. Like cats, great athletes are comfortable falling. And simple exercises help teach athletes not to struggle. The exercises will not guarantee reduced injuries, but based on the empirical data, I know they’re worth doing.
Med Ball Reverse Jump Tosses
Perhaps the only throw not shown in any of my medicine ball videos is the reverse jump toss, and I fault myself for not sharing this more. The reverse jump teaches an athlete to overcome momentum in another direction and commit to extending the body. It’s a baptism by fire for many athletes who have explosive strength but feel uncomfortable expressing horizontal force.The med ball reverse jump toss teaches an athlete to overcome momentum in another direction and commit to extending the body, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Athletes often have the necessary power, but they lack the confidence to be patient to apply force backward. Sometimes an athlete does indeed have poor horizontal force capabilities, but without force plate testing much of the profiling is speculation. I love technology and appreciate sport science, but eventually there are times when you need to train and battle.
In my experience, taking a step backward before running forward helps, similar to a punt or kick return in American Football.
Video 2. When performing a medicine ball reverse jump toss, going backward, like a false step, can have value when done properly. Medicine ball throws should have foundational stance motions as well as more demanding footwork for athletes.
The key to adding this exercise to a program is knowing how much progression is enough and fair for an athlete. While I hate throwing anyone to the wolves, in the long run, it may be best for an athlete to prepare for a path that may not be easy—as long as it’s safe. Short periods of struggle help athletes learn to focus and concentrate, and learning to improve and follow directions under duress is a teachable quality.The point of going backward with a med ball reverse jump toss is to buy time to force a powerful extension and unfolding movement, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
If an athlete can do frog jumps and granny tosses well, adding a reverse jump toss is perfectly acceptable without additional progressions or regressions. The essential point of going backward is that having enough reverse motion helps buy time to force a powerful extension and unfolding movement. I consider this an advanced exercise because it’s more demanding, but the earlier you teach it, the more valuable it is.
Spanish Sled Sprints
Light sleds are great for acceleration because you get enough speed work to go longer with a very nominal weight. With all the research on heavy sleds showing rapid improvement, why am I still a believer in the LSU Ultralight sleds? I discovered its effects on late acceleration overload when I accidentally saw improvements in peak velocity showing up in acceleration. I still find heavy sleds useful in some circumstances, and they can be part of a comprehensive sprint program.With lightly loaded sleds, we can overcome speed barriers by combining top speed options & submaximal smooth runs with late acceleration reps. Click To Tweet
We’ve seen athletes overcome speed barriers by combining top speed options and submaximal smooth runs with late acceleration repetitions with a light load. For years, I believed light sleds defeated the purpose of resisted running. But then I realized contact times should have some influence on programming.
These are genius because terminal acceleration points need light overload, and this is one of the few specific exercises that does something special.
Video 3. You don’t need to go heavy all the time; remember that access to faster speeds may help acceleration. Using an upright stance often leads to specific posterior strength, which is essential for athletes who want greater peak velocity.
So how light and how long does an athlete go when using Spanish sleds? First, they only work on the track because the surface is faster. I don’t do any fast sled work on the grass, no matter how manicured they are. Going heavy on the grass is fine, and you can do this at any time.
Ultralight sled sprints should be used in the off-season when outside sports training is under more control and less chaotic. Theoretically, sprinting with upright mechanics and horizontal resistance really overloads the hamstrings due to the rate of force exchanging with the track. Take note, if athletes sprint all out with a light sled, they will feel it for days. Spanish sled sprints are a great compliment to a well-rounded program.
Loaded Heiden Movement Patterns
Lateral change of direction (COD) is simply acceleration followed by deceleration and then accelerating again. Heidens are a classic “dryland” exercise now famous because of Eric Heiden’s medal haul and Dan Jansen’s off-season training. If you’re not familiar with the movement, check out the video in my article on plyometrics and look at the clip showcasing the exercise in my second installment of hacks for coaches.
It’s a great exercise, but you do need to incorporate a progression with the movement pattern to polish it. There’s not a lot of information in the coaching community about how to load the pattern and increase the demand, and it wasn’t until I asked around that I realized Heidens needed more discussion.
Video 4. The use of lateral plyometrics, ranging from the quick ins and outs to more demanding movements, requires a careful progression pattern. Although Heidens tend to be lateral, you can use them to teach bounding forward if you start with a foundation of coordination.
At first glance, the Heiden is a lateral bound back and forth. But getting there safely and efficiently requires a starting point and set of prerequisites. When rushed, Heidens done without excellent technique fail to leverage the purpose of the exercise and can foster habits we don’t want.
Coaches and athletes have plenty of options for loading and speed. You also can use low boxes. Keep in mind that the use of overspeed (or resisted resistance) and wearable resistance is more art than science. While we know a lot about the evaluation and demands of COD, we’re less familiar with supportive exercise prescription.
One element I love about lateral movement is the option to include ricochet style jumps and bounds, forcing athletes to add speed to overload the exercise’s deceleration qualities.
The Heavy Reverse Leg Press
Once we had access to reverse leg presses, we stopped using heavy sleds. If you’re profiling low on horizontal force, literally cut the line and only work on this deficit directly and aggressively. If an athlete gets enough peak velocity sprinting, they’d better be getting some acceleration work, thus adding load to the equation seems redundant.
Video 5. While countless variations of leg presses exist, the ones that incorporate more knee extension will help with acceleration. Models that are more hip-extension-driven seem to help peak velocity, but we need research and time to figure this out.
Because the variants of the reverse leg press make an actual prescription tough, staying in the conventional strength repetitions and sets is a good start. Maximal strength and even power may not be very transferable, but that’s why we balance out general neural adaptations with supramaximal speed and other similar methods.
I’ve found that floating sprints and a good lifting program outperform sleds by a wide margin, but the logistics of resisted sprinting are why I still include them in a program. Although heavy sleds are more specific and perhaps better than reveres leg presses as a singular intervention on paper, a real training program is a composite of multiple modalities and exercises. Reverse leg presses are one of my staples and are arguably a primary movement in the weight room, but they’re still not on top of the podium.Reverse leg presses are one of my staples and are arguably a primary movement in the weight room, says @spikesonly. Click To Tweet
Arguments that sleds hurt technique are old news, and I advocated the potential benefits of sled sprinting decades ago. I’ve seen athletes adopt such disturbances to their technique as sitting, so while the average athlete may not respond negatively or positively, you should individualize the preemption based on what you see.
I’ve found that sled sprints improve the mechanics slightly if we maximize the load for overall outcomes, not optimized for narrow variables that don’t make much of a difference in the real world outside short research studies.
If resources and politics make the weight room a problem, I understand why you would keep force training on the field. One warning: as soon as you compromise or give up access to the weight room, you not only paint yourself into a corner but also feed the cultural tiger of the sport for everyone else.
Stadium Hops and Jumps
When it comes to acceleration, the cream of all box training is stacked or stadium plyometrics. And even though using box jumps in sports training is highly overrated, they are part of a complete picture. Low box training also is a great medium.
To ensure we’re on the same page, I’m talking about using a stair, stacked and secure boxes, and stadium. I love stadium-style jumps because the movement is both elastic and repeated, which undoubtedly builds athleticism. Acceleration generally emphasizes pushing, a quality that stadium hops and jumps develop. You can bound up the stairs, hop up boxes, or jump up like Werner Gunthor, if you please.
Video 6. Single-leg hops up a small stair is an option if you don’t have structures that fit your needs. Remember safety first, and don’t chase volume or hero-type workouts.
Now for the safety of running or jumping up concrete and other stair structures. They need to pass a test drive inspection by walking up or jumping on the stairs or boxes. If you elect to create a stadium by stacking boxes, realize that you’re responsible if someone gets hurt because it breaks down or falls apart.
Finally, running or jumping up stadium stairs or bleachers is not a Frans Bosch exercise because the movements are about applying force down and pushing up repeatedly. Running up a few stairs after a single-leg clean or with water jugs is not my cup of tea. While they have commonalities, the exercises are completely different. Still, I like some of the thinking behind using stairs as it drives the knee up and forces a rapid contact down and back.
Backward Descending Jumps
I warn you, this exercise is potentially dangerous, but it’s not as risky as playing a sport where more chaos is present. You must ask these questions: Is the athlete prepared to handle a backward depth jump, and are you able to progress them properly? Are they physically prepared, not just skilled or exposed to different jump challenges?
I’m not discouraging anyone from doing jumps off a box, but when you start adding rotation or landing in different patterns, the risks of injury may increase. Conversely, adding calculated risk simulates demands with more closed parameters, enabling an athlete to become more robust without unnecessary exposure.
Video 7A & 7B. You can do various landings and single-leg actions, but remember the key is stiffness or overload, but not both at the same time. I love the low box exercises by Lee Taft, but I wish more rotational and backward options existed in the compendium of exercises.
My experience with athletes jumping backward stems from diving. The sport has various approaches to the board and tower and involves “disorientation” options like entering feet first or head first. Reading a biography about Greg Louganis was especially eye-opening, as he would constantly struggle with juggling gymnastics and diving and was plagued with bloody noses. Landing face-first into the ground occurred more often than he wanted, thus forcing a need for specialization.
This incompatibility is why I find that too much jumping forward or sideways creates way too much comfort for athletes who need to challenge pathways that are not biased toward going forward or laterally.
Combine Fun, Coaching, and Science the Right Way
There is no best way, but there could be a perfect fit with exercise selection. All of the above exercises range from basic strength training to skilled drills and workouts. Don’t limit yourself to the exercises I found work for me. Use what works well for you.
My final point is to remind you to test and measure when it’s possible and logical. Some exercises are straightforward, while others require experimentation to ensure the workout is jiving and the data is streaming. Don’t compromise either. Work within your confines, but don’t give up evaluating the qualitative and quantitative values of the training. Coach up the exercise like your life depends on it, and make sure you record what you need so the next generation is better.
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