Top Strength Coaches Used to Love These Exercises—Now They Know Better

'Just because we've always done it that way,' is no reason to keep doing it that way.

As a trainer, progression is everything. Just as exercises have progressions, it's your responsibility to continually evolve your education, methods, beliefs and mindset to throughout your career.

One thing I've noticed about the best coaches in the industry is that they are forever refining their coaching toolbox—adding tools that work better, removing tools that no longer apply and sharpening the all-purpose tools that never left.

I figured I'd ask some of those top coaches about some of the exercises they've grown apart from over the last few years. I asked them point blank: "What is an exercise or method that you have previously used, but no longer believe in as a coach?"

Their answers proved to be tremendously revealing and should prove helpful to both athletes and the people who train them!

1. Barbell Overhead Presses

Dr. John Rusin is the renowned owner of John Rusin Fitness Systems and The Pain-Free Performance System. He cites Barbell Overhead Press exercises as a movement that's fallen out of favor with him in recent years, largely due to widespread postural issues and the existence of safer options.

"While I absolutely have nothing against barbell overhead pressing, this is the one single exercise that rarely makes it into my programming for my athletes and general fitness clients, alike. Why? It all comes down to the preparedness to press overhead, and the cost-to-benefit ratio of programming this movement," Rusin says. "Since we live in a piss-poor postural pitfall of a society, a vast majority of people cannot access authentic overhead range of motion, let alone load it. And for those people who can, there are usually far better ways to program shoulder stability, mobility and hypertrophy as a goal without the barbell going overhead. It all comes down to your goals, well, that and your willingness to stay healthy. Potential replacements include Half-Kneeling Landmine Press, Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press or Viking Bar Press."

2. High-Rep Plyometrics

Kevin Warren is a strength and conditioning coach at Paradigm Training Center and the co-host of the Saved by the Barbell Podcast.

When it comes to large group training, Kevin believes there are often two types of coaches:

  • Those who make athletes better
  • Those who make athletes tired

"Unfortunately, when I started coaching my class, I sometimes fell into the latter category. I'm not saying that you can't make your athletes better by pushing them past their limits and physically exhausting them, but I am saying that there's a right way to do it. Plyometrics for cardio is not the right way," Warren says.

"I used to program exercises like Box Jumps, Broad Jumps and Burpees in high-intensity circuits for high reps and long durations. While this definitely made my athletes tired, it didn't do much else. Even worse, it put them at risk of injury. I now know that plyometrics are intended to display maximum force in minimum time, and should be done in lower rep ranges with adequate rest periods. Properly programmed, these exercises are great for increasing power and can greatly improve performance in all sports."

3. Marathon-Length Planks

Mitch Gill is the owner of Gill Training Systems and the head athletic trainer at Dacula High School. Although he once relied on marathon-length Planks to try to build muscular endurance in his clients' cores, he's since realized quality beats quantity for this exercise.

"For injury prevention purposes, it is important to train the core to have great endurance. The core musculature is constantly working to keep your upright and keep your spine in a neutral position. In the past, I would use the Plank exercise for a minute or more, in hopes of building this endurance," Gill says.

"It may have been effective but I began to see the form break down as the seconds ticked on with many people. I began to shift my thinking to 'harder instead of longer' when it came to Planks. Adding in small movements can make things much harder. For instance, adding a band row to a Side Plank or adding a "body saw" to a standard Plank can really increase the demands of the exercise...So instead of doing Planks for minutes on end, make it harder to maintain a neutral spine by adding in movement of your limbs. Plus, it makes the movement much more "functional," as the core must create stability as your limbs move."

4. Barbell Deadlifts

Matthew Ibrahim is the co-owner and lead performance coach of TD Athletes Edge and the co-founder of the The Hip Hinge 101 Workshop. While the Barbell Deadlift has long been considered a key exercise, Ibrahim believes slight variations on the exercise are often the better option for many individuals.

"The Barbell Deadlift (conventional and sumo) simply isn't for everyone. That might be one of the hardest pills to swallow for a young, up-and-coming strength coach. To be extremely transparent, the Barbell Deadlift absolutely has a place in training and performance. However, we as coaches must take into consideration multiple elements prior to programming this exercise for our athletes, such as: injury history, hip anatomy, load tolerance and dosage, training goals and movement skill level. Most importantly, we must always be considering what the minimum effective dosage is for the maximum effective outcome," Ibrahim says.

"At the end of the day, it truly comes down to a completely individualized approach per each athlete. Powerlifters definitely need to perform the Barbell Deadlift, since that is a lift necessary to compete in the sport. However, when programming for competitive athletes in field/court-based sports and lifestyle athletes competitive by nature in the general population, it's important to always measure the overall risk vs. reward of each exercise your prescribe."

Ibrahim often utilizes these exercises in place of the Barbell Deadlift:

  • Trap Bar Deadlift
  • Barbell Rack Pull
  • Barbell RDL
  • Barbell 1-Leg RDL
  • KB 1-Leg RDL
  • KB Deadlift
  • Cable or Band Pull Through

"If/when the Barbell Deadlift does not apply to an athlete I'm working with, there are many other hip hinge exercise variations out there that do a pretty good job at developing a robust posterior chain and resilient strength in the backside that you can sub in," Ibrahim says. "Case in point: there are many ways to achieve the desired goal in training. Avoid a dogmatic, one-size-fits-all training approach to ultimately put the health and longevity of your athletes at the forefront."

5. Side Planks

Erica Suter is a soccer performance coach and the strength coach for the Baltimore Celtic Soccer Club. In her experience, Side Planks are often more trouble than they're worth.

"Right off the bat, I'm sure this sounds controversial. This isn't to say I've omitted Side Planks completely from my programs for clients/athletes, but I've found other exercises better. The biggest complaints I get about Side Planks are things like:

  • 'I don't feel this enough.'
  • 'My shoulder is unstable.'
  • 'This hurts my upper body more than my core.'

"These are all valid complaints, no doubt, and I'm sure many can relate. So, this made me ponder better ways to train anti-rotation and anti-extension of the internal and external obliques. Exercises like Pallof variations, Half-Kneeling Chops, medicine ball rotational power exercises, resisted lateral crawling and Pallof Sled Drags were things I began to turn to when it came to programming. My clients 'felt' their core working and were much more challenged by these movements. Moreover, they felt these movements translated to performance better on the soccer field."

6. Parallel Bar Dips

John Papp is a sports performance coach at Xceleration Fitness. Although he sees the strength benefit of Dips, he believes performing them on parallel bars is risky business.

"After some thought, I will have to go with Parallel Bar Dips. While this may be a controversial pick to some, in my experience with the average Jane or Joe, Dips tend to make cranky shoulders crankier. Even if you don't have a cranky shoulder, there are safer alternatives, as Dips are pretty easy to mess up if you're not careful. As far as athletes? It's no different in my eyes, I would rather do a few other movements than risk it," Papp says.

"I know Dips are highly regarded by the bodybuilding community as a go-to for the upper body, but we have to remember just because an exercise is great to build muscle, doesn't mean it's the best option for average folks or athletes who prioritize long-term health. For the very advanced trainee, if you can do them perfectly and have no shoulder issues, go for it. But usually, this is not the case. Variations like Push-Ups against chains and bands, Landmine Presses, and TRX Triceps Extensions are much safer options which hit similar muscle groups."

7. Barbell Back Squat

Brett Cummins is a performance coach at 180 Sports Performance. Although he once believed every one of his clients needed to be able to Barbell Back Squat, he's since learned that approach is often akin to pounding a square peg into a round hole.

"One of the hardest things to do is admit you are wrong. In this industry, it's inevitable—at some point you will be wrong. When I first started training, I wanted to make sure all my clients could Back Squat. Being a great back squatter is almost a rite of passage in every gym community, and I wanted to ensure each one of my clients could do it and do it well," Cummins says.

"As you could probably guess, problems arose. These problems included lower-back pain, long femurs, the inability to get thoracic spine extension, or the inability to get shoulder external rotation, just to name a few. These clients had a very hard time with this lift. No client is the same, and their program and exercise selection should reflect their individual needs."

Cummins began implementing alternatives to the Barbell Back Squat such as Goblet Squats, Zercher Squats, Kettlebell Front Rack Squats, Barbell Front Squats and Safety Bar Squats.

"I realized that even though I thought it was important for clients to squat well, this didn't mean they had to Back Squat. Being able to go through a proper squatting pattern was much more important than their need to load up plates on the bar for a Back Squat," Cummins says.

8. Unmeasured Sprints or Jumps

Jake Tuura is a strength and conditioning coach at Youngstown State University. Although he's long known the importance of sprinting and jumping in an athlete training program, he believes doing the movements without some form of measurement lessens their effectiveness.

"Jumping and sprinting with no intention is a prominent mistake. How do athletes sprint faster and jump higher? Most importantly, they practice sprinting fast and jumping high. Pretty simple. However, just because coaches tell an athlete to sprint fast from A to B or to jump high in place doesn't mean they will," Tuura says.

"The solution? Make sprinting and jumping intention-based. This will ensure effort level is maximized during a training session. For sprinting, use a stopwatch or make it a competition between teammates. For jumping, coaches can use Hurdle Hops, Box Jumps, Broad Jumps/Vertical Jumps (measuring height on the jump so progress can be tracked), or any jump variation where performance can immediately be seen and recorded. Training with intention leads to more motivation, greater effort level, and a more 'game-like' atmosphere—enhancing results from training."

9. Cleans in a Group Setting Tight on Space

Nate Wadley is a strength and conditioning coach at Ball State University. Although he sees the merit of Cleans, he quickly came to realize the movement wasn't a great fit for his team training settings. Instead of insisting all his athletes clean, he sought out more time and space-efficient options.

"When I first took over the head strength coach duties for Ball State women's soccer, one exercise I was sure I wanted to implement in my program was the Clean. With the facilities at Ball State, I quickly learned that the Clean was not the most effective or time-efficient movement to include in workouts," Wadley says.

"With 25 girls on the roster and only six platforms, plus having to share the weight room with other teams, it became difficult to maneuver that many athletes around such a confined space, especially with only 45 minutes to complete a workout. As a substitute for the Clean, I started using different variations of KB Swings, Box Jumps, Band-Assisted Jumps and Squats/Trap Bar Deadlifts for speed. These movements still required the athletes to put force into the ground and drive their hips forward in order to get that powerful hip and/or triple extension that we see in the Clean. There is still an acceleration/deceleration aspect, as they have to control the load and demonstrate eccentric strength in the landing portion of the jumps and the "lowering" phase of the Squats and Deadlifts."

Takeaways

Take a look at some of your methods and see where you can improve, refine, remove or add any of these useful thoughts!

As for me, I'll keep it simple. Many of the methods that I no longer use are those that coaches rely on simply because "that's how we've always done it." If the reasoning for programming a certain exercise or method is because it's common, popular or historically habitual, I'll reconsider it and search for more effective options. There isn't always a better option, but in many cases, there is. And using those better movements can unlock so much potential for your athletes. Don't confuse this with being different for the sake of standing out. Simply keep your options open and the best interest of the athlete always at the forefront of every decision you make.

Photo Credit: TeoLazarev/iStock

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Topics: SQUAT | CORE | PLYOMETRICS | PLANK | DEADLIFT | INJURY PREVENTION | STRENGTH COACH