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Future Fit Traning

Best strength and conditioning workouts

Which strength and conditioning workout is best? I am about to put the cat against the pigeons here…because there isn’t one. If executed correctly, every strength and conditioning workout will be as good, as appropriate, as specific, and as effective as all others.

The problem is the number of occasions when this idyllic scenario doesn’t happen.

Firstly, what is ‘strength and conditioning‘, and what is so special about it?

According to ‘thestrengthandconditioningcoach.com’ Strength and conditioning, hereafter abbreviated to S&C, is…

“the practical application of sports science on athletes working towards developing;

1 – An athlete’s speed, strength, and power through the use of various training principles,

2 – A structured, detailed training programme that makes use of times throughout a seasonal cycle whereby functional-overtraining, tapers, and rest can all be strategically used to optimise the athlete’s performance”

If you are a personal trainer, you would be forgiven for thinking that this sounds familiarly similar to personal training. And it is. Very similar. But not the same. A Transit Van is similar to a Ferrari. But not the same.

I am not disparaging personal training in the slightest because it has been my bread and butter for the last 16 years, but continuing my vehicle analogy, personal training is a generic workhorse that keeps the vast majority of the population ticking over, whereas strength and conditioning is a specific racehorse that keeps the minority of the population in world-class condition.

Similar, but different.

Although there are huge crossovers, there are also major differences which lay mostly within the minor nuances that are the difference between a couch potato and a casual gym-goer, between a casual gym-goer and an amateur athlete, between an amateur athlete and a professional athlete, and between a professional athlete and a world-class athlete.

If personal training is the cake, strength and conditioning is the icing, and great strength and conditioning is the cherry on top.

weight training in a gym

Almost all of the time, personal training is generic, and for obvious reasons. During their daily lives our clients will have a varied mix of squatting, hinging, pushing, pulling, rotating, carrying, reaching, moving, stabilising, and much more. They could be performing any of these movements in random combinations either on their feet, on their knees, on their back, on their front, on their side. They could be doing them on one leg, or two, with one arm, or two. They might have a load, they might not. The number of potential boxes to tick to help clients find their daily lives easier to endure is infinite.

But S&C has to be more specific to be effective. Success and failure within the world of professional sport are dictated by inches and milliseconds, so an S&C Coach must learn to take something as generic as a squat or a deadlift, and be able to prescribe them in very specific ways for very specific reasons.

Similar, but different.

Before looking at some practical stuff, it is important to point out that an S&C coach will only benefit from developing the delivery and interpersonal skills of a personal trainer and a personal trainer will only benefit from developing the prescription and specificity skills of an S&C coach.

As a personal trainer, being able to provide a more effective service, to a wider audience, is only going to have a positive impact financially.

Here is a taste of the detail required for some familiar exercises:

Back Squat

The back squat exercise is often a cornerstone in any athlete’s training programme and is fundamental to developing lower body strength. In order to achieve a full range of motion, there is a high mobility requirement at the hips and ankles; therefore, the back squat also enables mobility improvements in these key joints when trained over time. Given the strong association between maximal lower body strength and acceleration, speed, and rate of force development, the back squat is a foundation exercise for any performance-orientated training programme.

Benefits of strength training

1. Equipment set-up

  • Squat rack bar supports are set below shoulder height so that the bar can be collected in a strong quarter squat position
  • Clips or collars are used with bumper plates

2. Collecting the bar

  • Facing into the rack, place hands around the bar in a claw grip, equidistant from the centre and just outside shoulder width
  • Keeping a strong grip, move in underneath the bar so that the hips and knees are flexed in a quarter squat position with feet approximately hip to shoulder-distance apart. The bar is now resting evenly across the upper trapezius muscle, below the prominent C7 vertebrae
  • Stand upright extending the hip, knee and ankle to lift the bar clear of the rack and step backwards away from the uprights

3. Start Position

  • Heels should be shoulder-width apart and feet pointed out slightly
  • Hips and knees are fully extended with the whole body upright. The gluteus maximus, quadriceps and muscles of the trunk are braced under the load
  • A ‘pulling down on the bar’ facilitates thoracic extension, scapula retraction and depression – the elbows should remain underneath or slightly behind the bar

4. Descent

  • Inhale and brace the trunk, then flex the hips and knees simultaneously, lowering the barbell under control
  • Knees should track in the direction of the feet and the weight should move from mid-foot towards the heels
  • The trunk should remain as upright as possible throughout the movement with a normal lumbar curve evident in the back

5 Bottom Position

  • The bottom position is reached when the midpoint of the hip is just below the midpoint of the knee *
  • The trunk should be as upright as possible with a normal lumbar curve evident
  • The weight should be towards the heels

* When participants cannot achieve full depth, coaches should encourage them to squat as deep as is manageable, maintaining an upright trunk position with natural lumbar curve. Knees track in the direction of feet and weight distribution through the heels

6. Ascent

  • Drive through the heels to return to the standing position
  • The trunk should be as upright as possible throughout the movement with a normal lumbar curve evident in the back
  • Knees should track in the direction of the feet, with equal weight distribution on both feet
  • Exhale at the top of the lift
  • Pause in the top position, inhale and repeat for the required number of repetitions
  • As participants gain confidence and experience in the lift, the intention will be to make the ascent increasingly explosive in intent

7. Racking the bar

  • Keeping the grip on the bar constant, walk into the rack, position the feet bilaterally and then lower carefully into the bar supports in a strong quarter squat position

Release and step out from underneath the bar

Common errors:

  • Bar set at an inappropriate height
  • Excessive forward trunk lean
  • Stance width too narrow or too wide
  • Spinal flexion
  • Poor knee alignment
  • Poor range of motion
  • Asymmetrical movement
Phase Joint Joint Action Major Muscles Contraction
Downward Hips Flexion Gluteus maximus Eccentric
Hamstrings Eccentric
Knees Flexion Quadriceps Eccentric
Hamstrangs Eccentric
Ankles Dorsiflexion Gastrocnemius Eccentric
Soleus Eccentric
Scapula Retraction Rhomboids Isometric
Trapezuis Isometric
Trunk Trunk alignment Erector spinae Isometric
Rectus abdominus Isometric
Obliques Isometric
Upward Hips Extension Gluteus maximus Concentric
Hamstrings Concentric
Knees Extension Quadriceps Concentric
Hamstrings Concentric
Ankles Plantarflexion Gastocnemius Concentric
Soleus Concentric
Scapula Retraction Rhomboids Isometric
Trapezuis Isometric
Trunk Trunk alignment Erector spinae Isometric
Rectus abdominus Isometric
Obliques Isometric

Overhead Squat

The overhead squat is commonly used as a tool to gain an impression of movement quality during screening protocols because it challenges the mobility of all key joints in the kinetic chain. Similar to other squat exercises, it develops strength and mobility for the lower body, but it will also improve thoracic spine mobility and shoulder stability with the load positioned above the head throughout. As an additional benefit, this exercise teaches the position required for the catch phase during the snatch (Olympic lift).

Barbell overhead squat

1. Set-up – Hand Width

  • Hand width for the overhead squat is best determined by holding the bar in front of the body with arms hanging straight
  • Slide the hands outwards, keeping the elbow extended until the bar is level with the front of the hips
  • Note the position of the hands-on the bar (to be referred to as the overhead squat grip)

2. Set-up

  • Squat rack bar supports are set below shoulder height so that the bar can be collected in a strong quarter squat position
  • Clips or collars are used with bumper plates

3. Collecting the bar

  • Facing into the rack, place hands around the bar in a claw grip, equidistant from the centre and just outside shoulder-width
  • Keeping a strong grip, move in underneath the bar so that the hips and knees are flexed in a quarter squat position, with feet approximately hip to shoulder distance apart. The bar is now resting evenly across the upper trapezius muscles, below the prominent C7 vertebrae
  • Stand upright to lift the bar clear of the rack and step backwards away from the uprights

4. Start Positon

  • In the back squat start position, move the hands to the overhead squat grip
  • Using assistance from the hips and knees in a ‘push press action’, drive the bar overhead, to a point above or slightly behind the crown of the head aligned with the centre of the feet
  • Elbows should be fully extended and pointing down the length of the bar

5. Descent

  • Heels should be shoulder-width apart and feet pointed out slightly
  • In the top position, hips and knees are fully extended and the trunk is upright, with the gluteus maximus, quadriceps and muscles of the trunk braced under the load
  • Inhale and brace the trunk, then flex the hips and knees simultaneously into a squat position
  • Keep the elbows fully extended and pointing down the length of the bar
  • The bar should remain above or slightly behind the crown of the head
  • Knees should track in the direction of the feet and the weight should move from mid-foot towards the heels
  • The trunk should be as upright as possible throughout the movement with a normal lumbar curve evident in the back

6. Bottom Position

  • The bottom position is reached when the midpoint of the hip is just below the midpoint of the knee*
  • The trunk should be as upright as possible with a normal lumbar curve evident
  • The weight should be towards the heels

* When participants cannot achieve full depth, coaches should encourage them to squat as deep as is manageable, maintaining an upright trunk position with natural lumbar curve. Knees track in the direction of feet and weight distribution through the heels

7. Ascent

  • Drive through the heels extending at the hip and knees simultaneously, to return to the standing position
  • The trunk should be as upright as possible throughout the movement with a normal lumbar curve evident in the back
  • Keep the elbows fully extended and pointing down the length of the bar
  • The bar should remain above or slightly behind the crown of the head and aligned over the centre of the feet
  • Knees should track in the direction of the feet, equal weight distribution on both feet
  • Exhale at the top of the lift
  • Pause in the top position, inhale and repeat for the required number of repetitions
  • As participants gain confidence and experience in the lift, the intention will be to make the ascent increasingly explosive in intent

8. Racking the bar

  • Lower the bar behind the head under control to rest on the upper trapezius
  • Slide the hands into the narrower back squat position
  • Walk into the rack, position the feet bilaterally and then lower carefully onto the bar supports in a strong quarter squat position
  • Release and step out from underneath the bar

Common Errors:

  • Poor trunk alignment
  • Bar falls forward
  • Excessive shoulder extension and trunk flexion and/or internal rotation
  • Poor knee and ankle alignment
  • Elbow flexion during the descent and/or ascent
  • Reduced range of motion through lower body action
  • Asymmetrical movement
Phase Joint Joint Action Major Muscles Contraction
Downward Hips Flexion Gluteus maximus Eccentric
Hamstrings Eccentric
Knees Flexion Quadriceps Eccentric
Hamstrings Eccentric
Ankles Dorsiflexion Gastrocnemius Eccentric
Soleus Eccentric
Shoulders Abduction Deltoids Isometric
Elbows Extension Triceps brachii Isometric
Trunk Trunk alignment Erector spinae Isometric
Rectus abdominus Isometric
Obliques Isometric
Upward Hips Extension Gluteus maximus Concentric
Hamstrings Concentric
Knees Extension Quadriceps Concentric
Hamstrings Concentric
Ankles Plantarflexion Gastrocnemius Concentric
Soleus Concentric
Scapula Retraction Rhomboids Isometric
Trapezuis Isometric
Shoulders Abduction Deltoids Isometric
Elbows Extension Triceps brachii Isometric
Trunk Trunk alignment Erector spinae Isometric
Rectus abdominus Isometric
Obliques Isometric

Front Squat

The front squat also develops lower body strength and mobility in the hips and ankles. Due to the change in the loading position, there is an increased emphasis on using the quadriceps to perform this lift, as well as maintaining postural integrity around the trunk. Of further benefit, the front squat teaches athletes the required position when learning how to ‘catch the bar’ during the clean (Olympic lift).

Strength and conditioning coach training

1. Set-up

  • Squat rack bar supports are set below shoulder height so that the bar can be collected in a strong quarter squat position
  • Clips or collars are used with bumper plates

2. Collecting the bar

  • Facing into the rack, place hands around the bar in a claw grip, equidistant from the centre and just outside shoulder-width
  • Move-in underneath the bar so that the hips and knees are flexed in a quarter squat position, with feet approximately hip to shoulder distance apart. Relax the grip and flex the shoulders so that the bar is resting evenly across the anterior deltoids, with fingers under the bar just wider than shoulder-width
  • Stand upright to lift the bar clear of the rack and step backwards away from the uprights, keeping the elbows pointing forward

3. Start Position

  • Heels should be shoulder-width apart and feet pointed out slightly
  • Hips and knees are fully extended and the trunk is upright, with the gluteus maximus, quadriceps and muscles of the trunk braced under the load

4. Descent

  • Inhale and then flex the hips and knees simultaneously, lowering the barbell under control
  • Keep the elbows high and the barbell resting on the front of the shoulders
  • Knees should track in the direction of the feet and the weight should move from mid-foot towards the heels
  • The trunk should remain as upright as possible throughout the movement with a normal lumbar curve evident in the back

5. Bottom Position

  • The bottom position is reached when the midpoint of the hip is just below the midpoint of the knee *
  • The trunk should be as upright as possible throughout the movement with a normal lumbar curve evident in the back

* When participants cannot achieve full depth, coaches should encourage them to squat as deep as is manageable, maintaining an upright trunk position with natural lumbar curve. Knees track in the direction of feet and weight distribution through the heels

6. Ascent

  • Drive through the heels extending at the hip and knees simultaneously, to return to the standing position
  • The trunk should be as upright as possible throughout the movement with a normal lumbar curve evident in the back
  • Keep the elbows pointing forwards and the barbell resting on the shoulders
  • Knees should track in the direction of the feet, equal weight distribution on both feet
  • Exhale at the top of the lift
  • Pause in the top position, inhale and repeat for the required number of repetitions
  • As participants gain confidence and experience in the lift, the intention will be to make the ascent increasingly explosive in intent

7. Racking the bar

  • Keep the elbows high and the barbell resting on the shoulders, walk into the rack, position the feet bilaterally and then lower carefully onto the bar supports in a strong quarter squat position
  • Release and step out from underneath the bar

Common errors

  • Bar set at an inappropriate height
  • Holding the bar in the hands, rather than resting on the front of the shoulders
  • Forward trunk lean and/or spinal flexion
  • Elbows lower excessively during the movement
  • Poor knee and ankle alignment
  • Limited range of motion in the descent
  • Asymmetrical movement
Phase Joint Joint Action Major Muscles Contraction
Downward Hips Flexion Gluteus maximus Eccentric
Hamstrings Eccentric
Knees Flexion Quadriceps Eccentric
Hamstrings Eccentric
Ankles Dorsiflexion Gastrocnemius Eccentric
Soleus Eccentric
Shoulder Flexion Detoid anterior Isometric
Trunk Trunk alignment Erector spinae Isometric
Rectus abdominus Isometric
Obliques Isometric
Upward Hips Extension Gluteus maximus Concentric
Hamstrings Concentric
Knees Extension Quadriceps Concentric
Hamstrings Concentric
Ankles Plantarflexion Gastrocnemius Concentric
Soleus Concentric
Shoulder Flexion Detoid anterior Concentric
Trunk Trunk alignment Erector spinae Isometric
Rectus abdominus Isometric
Obliques Isometric

That is just three versions of one exercise, with one piece of equipment. There are thousands more.

An S&C coach needs to focus heavily on ‘how’ and ‘why’, rather than just ‘what’ their athletes do.

Prescribing one group of exercises, in one particular way is just not going to be effective enough to make the miniscule differences between first place and everyone else. Even if your clients aren’t competing at the Olympics any time soon, they will still benefit from a more thorough, more specific, and more effective personal training programme.