Transferable Strength Training for Athletes

Strength training exercises can be classified into two categories for athletes - those that transfer to better performance in your sport, and those that do not.

Athletes, quite obviously, want to focus on the first group.

So how do we classify which exercises belong in each category?

This is a critical question for athletes training to improve in their sport, because you want the time and energy you devote working out to actually, you know, help you play better.  

Too often training programs focus on weight room performance or conditioning only while losing track of the main goal of sport performance enhancement.  It can be quite seductive to chase bigger numbers, bigger muscles or a leaner body once you start to see changes in yourself, but you must always keep in mind that if what you're doing doesn't translate to better performance its value in athletic development is limited.

Clearly this is open to interpretation and discussion, but the following is my opinion based on over 20 years of coaching athletes of what 3 rules you should follow when determining if an exercise will help you play better in your sport, or not.

RULE #1 - Exercises Transfer To Athletic Performance If They Simulate Sport Movement

This is not breaking news, but it does bear mentioning.

Football players pushing weighted sleds.    Hockey, baseball, softball and tennis players doing rotational medicine ball throws.   Basketball and volleyball players doing vertical jump drills.   These all directly transfer to the needs of that sport.

This does open up the question of 'If an exercise doesn't match a sport movement, does it transfer?'

I'd argue that depending on the need of an athlete, yes many other exercises that don't exactly match a sport movement can still transfer to better performance if chosen based on the next 2 rules.

RULE #2 - Exercises Transfer To Athletic Performance If It Integrates Core Stability

Exercises where the muscles in your midsection and hips must activate to keep you in the proper position, or contribute to the exercise itself, transfer well to athletics.   This is because you must coordinate core and hip stability with arm and leg strength movements when playing a sport all the time.

One example would be a standing landmine press (shown above) which forces you to absorb & project force with your entire upper body, not just your chest and arms.   A pushup does the same.   Bench pressing, although valuable for other reasons explained later, doesn't transfer as well to athletic performance because it isolates arm strength in a way that doesn't happen in sports.

Some other examples:

  • Squatting and lunging versus leg pressing.   The first two force core stability along with balance, while the leg press doesn't


  • Taking that one step further, a single leg exercise like a lunge or step up may be more transferrable in sports where there is less of a two leg jumping aspect (like volleyball and basketball).


  • A dumbbell row can be done with your hand and knee supported on a bench, but that removes almost all of the core stability aspect of the drill.  I'd argue that, if it can be done well enough, a row out of a pushup position on the floor would transfer far better due to the intense core stability component.
RULE #3 - Does It Fill A Gap?

We got into this in a previous post, but essentially an exercise will transfer to game performance if it improves an area you currently do not excel in but need for your sport.

One way to look at this is to use the Speed-Strength Continuum below.

  Instead of thinking of an exercise as just a strength exercise or just a speed exercise, it is better to think of them as falling along a continuum as shown here.

Without going too deep here, an athlete who possess excellent strength but poor speed should train more on the speed side of the curve.   Yet the quick and fast athlete who lacks strength should land on the other side.

And there are other examples.   An athlete who is powerful but lacks endurance would benefit from aggressive interval training.   Those who lack mobility would benefit from more stretching exercises.   (A deeper understanding of this can be found on our other recent blog post)

So essentially any exercise that fills a hole in your game and actually makes you better at that skill will translate, provided the skill you're building is necessary for success in your particular sport.   


Isolation exercises that only work one muscle on its own, without coordinated integration of other muscles.   A bicep curl is a classic example here, because even if it does build a little arm muscle it could have been replaced by a pull-up or modified pull-up which would build upper back strength along with shoulder stability.

Exercises where movement is guided along a track with no stabilization needed won't transfer either.   Leg extensions, leg press, pressing and rowing machines fall into this section.

Exercises that train an area you're already elite won't transfer much benefit.   Those with a very stable core would get little from doing isolated core work like planks and such.  


The bottom line is that with limited training time, younger athletes should always prioritize training exercises that will get them to play better on the field, ice or court.   Not every exercise transfers over to sport performance equally, so use your time and effort wisely!

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