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Top 5 Lifts Every Athlete Should Master

Just like there are 5 tools that every carpenter should have (hammer, screwdriver, saw, pliers, and a tape measure), there are 5 key exercises you should have in your training tool box or workout plan. You can’t accomplish every project with these tools, but they will get the job done most of the time! Each of these tools has their own progression and regressions. For instance some hammering jobs call for a sledgehammer, whereas others a mallet. Below, you’ll find a great workout plan for athletes.

Why These 5 Lifts in a Workout Plan?

  • Injury prevention: These 5 exercises strengthen every muscle while maintaining muscle balance thereby stimulating joint stability. After all, injury prevention should always be the number one reason to train.
  • Performance enhancement: Getting stronger in all directions is key for all athletes. This is true total body strength.
  • Fast and effective: These are the only 5 exercises you need when short on time, giving you a total body lift. These exercises are multi-joint and have very high motor unit recruitment, thus “big bang for your buck”.
  • Fundamental patterns for advance exercises: These are all fundamental patterns for more advanced exercises down the road.

1. Barbell Front Squat


  1. This pattern is a vertical lower body push and is a fundamental movement pattern of life in and out of the gym.
  2. The front squat minimizes forward lean of the torso since the load is high and in the front, thus changing the center of gravity of the lifter. This helps even long femured athlete’s squat deep and minimizes low back injuries. 
  3. If you want your athletes performing cleans, than this is a precursor to catching the bar correctly.
  4. This is the exact position you jump in, train this, and you will jump higher.
  5. Squatting has very high muscle recruitment. The squat tends to be the king of all lifts. According to the book “Explosive Power and Jumping Ability” almost every muscle is active in the body in a squat.  Squatting 90-93.5% of a 1rm (back squat in this case) will lead to % activation of the following muscles: 
    • Gastroc = 90%
    • Anterior tibialis=70%
    • Hip Abductors= 60%
    • Hip adductors=80%
    • Glute=90%
    • Quad=100%
    • Lateral core stabilizers: 80- 100% (depending upon which muscle)
    • Anterior core: 30%
    • Low Back: 90%
    • Upper back: 50%

Athletes with long forearms will have trouble holding the bar. Tricks for this are:

  1. Slightly wider grip, and cue “elbows up and in.”
  2. Stretch the wrist flexors
  3. Tie wrist straps to the bar and use those instead

2. Barbell Deadlift


  1. Almost every muscle in the body is active.
  2. This is a hinge pattern and is a fundamental pattern of life. Both in life and in the gym, you will have to pick up objects off the ground. You need to hinge for both light and heavy loads. Therefore, you may as well learn how to do it right.
  3. Lower body hinge patterns create high activation and development of hamstrings, low back, glutes (and quad when the knee extends).
  4. This pattern is a precursor for all pulls from the floor, whether doing cleans, or snatches.

3. Barbell Overhead Press


  1. This exercise is categorized as a upper body vertical push and is a fundamental pattern in life.
  2. This exercise will activate and develop the shoulders, upper traps, and triceps. Pressing a load overhead also requires tremendous core stability.
  3. This pattern is a precursor to many other lifts such as push press, push jerk, and clean and jerk.

4. Pronated Grip Pullup


  1. This exercise is categorized as a upper body vertical pull and is a fundamental pattern in life. Climbing up ladders or climbing up objects involves this pattern.
  2. This exercise stimulates a very large amount of muscle mass. Your latissimus dorsi, elbow flexors and forearms, rhomboids, rear delt, rotator cuff, and more are recruited.
  3. Athletically, being strong in this pattern is very important for any grappling sports. Having a strong pullup is associated with a powerful slapshot and any sport movements involving rotation. Strong lats are important in overhead throwing. Lat activation creates a tremendous amount of stability to the spine and reduce injuries there. The list could go on and on.   
  4. There are many versions of pull-ups: supinated grip, parallel grip, etc. This one is by far the hardest as your stronger when your elbows are in front of your body as opposed to pointing out.

5. Plank- alternating leg / arm raise


  1. This exercise is categorized in the core stability pattern. This exercise is extremely unique as traditionally a plank will recruit primarily anterior and lateral core with some co-contraction of the erector spinae.  However, since you are lifting one arm and an opposite leg you will also be getting additional posterior chain.  The opposite arm-leg action also has a high oblique recruitment.
  2. Training this exercise will enhance the core stiffness needed for the other 4 exercises included in this program as well as any ground based multi-joint exercises down the road.
  3. Being strong in this exercise will help with doing suspension fall-outs, roll-outs, and any plank variation down the road.  
  4. Since the entire core is active from all angles (and all layers) this is the ultimate core exercise you can do for injury and performance.
  5. This exercise is best performed in an alternating pattern, with isometric pauses of 1-10 seconds.

Use this workout plan for athletes as a way to prevent injury and increase performance. Please comment below if you have any other lifts to add to this list!


  • Jason Ivesdal

    Jason Ivesdal is the founder and CEO of Higher Power Training. He started Higher Power Training in 2004 and launched the current facility in 2008. Prior to founding HPT, Jason Ivesdal was the director of training at Flagship Athletic Club where he oversaw 20 trainers. Higher Power Training is a 15,000 square foot facility in Eden Prairie, Minnesota. HPT offers sports performance training, personal training, nutrition coaching, group exercise classes and relaxation services. Jason’s currently trains clients and athletes, coaches nutrition and detox, and is directs day-to-day operations and the training of HPT’s staff of personal trainers. Jason consults with other coaches and trainers on HPT’s Metabolic Detoxification and Accelerated Performance Nutrition program, and shares his knowledge of strength and nutrition, through local lectures and classes. Credentials: B.S Corporate Community Fitness, Minor Nutrition NSCA-CSCS, USAW L1 Sports Performance Coach Contact Info: Jason Ivesdal (952) 942-6320

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