Drop The Dumbbells And Pick Up The Bar To Improve Athletic Movement

How many of you have a biceps day?  A shoulders day? A chest day?  Maybe you just have an arms day...

The truth is that there are thousands of workout programs out there pitching the same form of training to improve strength...isolated overload.  The theory is that by taxing the muscle it will promote growth.  Yes, this is true but too many assume this has to be done in isolation.  

That is how many come to have a specific day devoted to biceps.  Sure, your biceps will get larger and stronger but is this the best way to improve functional strength

Ultimately, the goal of working out for athletes is to improve fitness and strength to enhance athletic movement and drive performance. 

If improved fitness, strength, and functional movement skill is the goal of strength training than it is essential to develop a workout plan that progresses towards those goals. 

Having a biceps day, arms day, or chest day fails to address the key goals of strength training for athletes.  Let me explain why...

Single Joint Vs. Multi-Joint Exercise

There is a reason you see CrossFit athletes constantly doing dead lifts, cleans, and snatches.  There is a reason you see professional athletes doing rope drills, squat presses, and wall balls. 

Hormone Production and Priming!

In order to sufficiently gain strength your body needs to produce testosterone (males) and growth hormone.  Without these two building blocks of muscle your body lacks the capability to repair and build.  It's like adding a bunch of logs to a fire without the match!

To start the production and secretion of testosterone and growth hormone your body needs enough stimulus.  There needs to be enough action in the muscular system to tell the body "we need help".

What stimulates and drives anabolic (building) hormone production??

  • Sufficient weight lifted (80-85% of 1 Rep Max)
  • Multi-joint exercise to recruit enough muscle mass
  • Large muscle groups (quads, back, buttocks, chest, shoulders) used together

This is the reason why having a biceps day is generally a waste of time.  The biceps alone, which only works over 1 joint (the elbow), is unable to generate enough work to stimulate hormone production.

Multi-joint exercises using higher weight and larger muscle mass is the key ingredient to muscle growth.  Plus, multi-joint exercises help enhance functional sports movements such as squatting, lunging, pressing, and pulling. By adding complex lifts to the beginning of your workout  you also prime the body and get the furnace revved up.  For instance, doing a clean to start your workout will stimulate the body to secrete muscle building hormones which will be circulating around your body during the remainder of your workout.  

The result...improved muscle building capability for every other exercise in your routine!

Using the Barbell to Improve Sport Performance

Unfortunately, compound lifts such as the clean, snatch, and jerk are not taught in weight lifting classes or sports conditioning (outside of maybe football). 

These foundational lifts should be a part of almost every athletes training.  Endurance athletes, soccer players, and gymnasts should all perform compound multi-joint lifts to enhance sports performance.

If you have never performed these lifts, be sure to find a strength and conditioning specialist or athletic trainer who has experience and can show you proper technique. Mastering correct movement for lifts such as the clean and jerk takes time and practice. Due to the complex nature and typically high weight of these lifts, injury prevention and execution is key.

Many athletes fear they will get "bulky" and experience a drop in performance from strength training.  
This is a myth!  Bodybuilders become bulky from doing multiple reps of a single exercise to get the "pump" feeling.  It is called "hypertrophy" training and the goal is to enhance muscle size.

Multi-joint lifting at 80% of 1 rep max, or higher, is designed to improve strength and power which aim to improve the ability to generate muscular force quickly.  This skill is demonstrated in actions such as jumping in basketball, pitching in baseball, doing a flip in gymnastics, performing a header in soccer, or pushing a lineman forward in football.

Strength training always should look at the goal first.  What are you trying to accomplish?  If your goal is to enhance athletic performance, speed, and power than training multi-joint complex lifts with barbells is a much better use of your time than having a "arms day."


Written By: Kevin Vandi DPT, OCS, CSCS
Serving: San Jose, Los Gatos, Almaden, Campbell