The 5 essential movements for building athletic strength

For an athlete or coach who’s just beginning to dive into the world of strength and conditioning, the topic has arguably never felt more confusing.

As the internet continues to get flooded with a seemingly infinite amount of information on the topic, sorting the facts from the fiction has become increasingly difficult.

Sometimes, the confusion can be due to seeing a star athlete perform an unusual exercise or workout. “Should I do that, too?” the athlete or coach wonders. But more often than not, this leads to wasted effort and wasted time.

There are five essential movements that need to be present in athletic strength training programs. Performing these five movements will meet the vast majority of needs for most athletes. Together, they will develop the entire body and enhance many manners of athletic performance. Failing to perform these five movements means your program won’t be as effective as it could be.

The five essential movements of athletic strength are:

  • Squats
  • Lower-Body Pulls
  • Presses
  • Rows
  • Olympic lifts

Let’s dive into each to further discuss their importance.


Squats are first for a reason. For me, this is the most important exercise for athletes to perform. Squats are done up on your feet, just like sports. They involve exerting force against the ground, just like sports. They teach you to move your lower body in a coordinated manner. They strengthen your muscles, ligaments, tendons and bones. In addition, they are tough. So performing Squats helps to toughen athletes, develops character and reveals a lot about mental and physical toughness.

At the least, most athletes should perform Back Squats. If there is enough time, they should add a variation of Front Squats, as well. It may take some work until the athlete is ready to back squat, but doing so should be a top priority from the start of their training. I believe the basics can serve an athlete very well for their first couple years in the weight room. After that, we can progress to include Split Squats and advanced variations (like Pause Squats, Eccentric-Emphasis Squats, the addition of bands and/or chains, etc.)

Lower-Body Pulls

Lower-body pulls involve a hip extension and heavy weight. They are second on my list, because, in my opinion, they are almost as important as Squats. The hip extension movement is incredibly important for sprinting, jumping, landing, starting, stopping and many other sport skills. In other words, including these can have a huge impact on both performance and injury prevention.

In this category, you have exercises like Deadlifts, Romanian Deadlifts and Good Mornings (I know, the bar’s on the back of the shoulders for Good Mornings, but it still fits here). Once capable, beginner athletes should perform Deadlifts and Romanian Deadlifts in their programs. More advanced athletes can supplement with Good Mornings and their variations.

I try to keep Deadlifts and Romanian Deadlifts comparable to squat weights for balance. So if our athlete is Squatting with 275 pounds, I’d like them to be Deadlifting or Romanian Deadlifting close to 275 pounds, as well.


Presses develop the muscles of the chest, shoulders and triceps in a manner that forces them to work together. While you will most likely never play sports lying on your back and pushing things off you, pressing strength is a key component of sports performance.

In this category, you have horizontal presses like Bench Presses, Incline Presses and Decline Presses, as well as vertical presses like Dips, Military Presses and Kettlebell Presses. You can also perform several pressing exercises from a standing position via bands or a cable machine. Skullcrushers and Tricep Extensions would also qualify as pressing exercises.

Once capable, I believe beginning athletes should be performing Bench Presses and Standing Military Presses in their programs. More advanced athletes can branch out beyond this and include bands and chains, do exercises with dumbbells and kettlebells, and even use pause/eccentric emphasis variations.

Upper-Body Pulls

Upper-body pulls are just as important as Presses. They do for the back of the body and biceps what presses do to the front of the body and triceps. This helps balance out your upper body, improve pulling strength, reduce your risk of injury and enhance posture. Many fitness experts now believe most people could benefit from programming two pulls for every press in their program.

Included in this category are any type of Row (Bent-Over Rows, Kettlebell Rows, Dumbbell Rows, One-Arm Dumbbell Rows, Inverted Rows, Seated Rows), Pull-Ups, Chin-Ups, Band Pull-Aparts, Face Pull and Curls. Once capable, I believe beginner athletes should perform Bent-Over Rows in their programs. With time, the exercise performed can be expanded upon.

Olympic-Style Lifts

The four categories of exercises listed above all develop strength. The Olympic-style lifts teach an athlete how to apply that strength rapidly, which is an important skill for athletes. These exercises include variations of the Clean, the Snatch and the Jerk. Full Olympic lifts can be very technical and mastering them requires a lot of time and good coaching. With that in mind, I think the focus for most athletes needs to be on the Clean or Snatch Pull. It gives you the speed and explosiveness without requiring too much technique or special equipment.

It’s important to realize that the ability to be strong is a skill. Strength is about focusing your effort on one moment and mobilizing your body to be able to perform an all-out effort. This takes practice to become good at it. With that in mind, it’s important to train for strength on a weekly basis close to year-round.

Strength and conditioning for athletes doesn’t have to be confusing. By building your workouts around these five essential movements, you’re well on your way to becoming a better athlete. This is a sample 12-week workout I’ve built around these powerful movements. If you’re not quite ready to tackle the big barbell movements off the bat, this list of progressions can help you quickly work your way up to them.

Photo Credit: Pekic/iStock

Read the original article in by John Cissik

John CissikJohn Cissik – John has worked with athletes at all levels, produced four videos, written 10 books and published more than 70 articles on strength and speed training. He currently teaches special education and coaches baseball, basketball, and special needs sports.