Let me start by saying I don’t focus on training muscles specifically but rather focus on training and improving movement patterns. Because of this, I love to incorporate “full-body” exercises into sessions such as turkish get-ups (TGU’s), cleans, crawling, and jumping drills just to name a few.
That being said, I do separate exercises out based on their muscle-area and movement emphasis. I’m big on “templates” and “categories”…I love to have a menu of movements and then I just “plug & play” so to speak. Meaning, when I’m putting workouts together and creating a program, I will refer to this menu and plug the appropriate movements in to the routine based on the unique needs of the client.
My templates are forever-evolving; however, there are main “categories”, or movement patterns, that have been the foundation of my routines for years.
The main categories include:
1. Lower Body Training
2. Upper Body Training
3. Torso Training
4. Conditioning Exercises
5. Extra – pre-hab movements that include activation, mobility, and stability drills
Within each of these 5 categories, the movement patterns are further broken down:
a. Hip dominant
b. Knee dominant
5. “Extra” — Pre-hab
c. Feet/anklesLet’s look a little deeper into the lower body movements that typically make the cut.
a. Hip Dominant
Trap Bar – I view this version as a hybrid exercise between a squat and a deadlift. This is a great place to start when first introducing deadlifts into a program. Since the load is more in line with your body’s center of gravity when compared to the traditional deadlift, it’s a safer option for beginners.
Traditional Bar – Without question, one of my top exercises for clients and athletes. Once proficient with the trap bar version, my clients and athletes will receive a healthy dose of straight bar deadlifts.
1-Leg Variations – I like to use barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebells when performing single leg variations. Typically, if we are performing 2 lower body movements in a session, one will be bilateral and one will be unilateral. For example – If you’re first exercise for the lower body is a goblet squat, then your second exercise might be a 1-leg deadlift. Whenever you are on one leg, there is a balance component; and I love to incorporate “balance” and “stability” into certain movements.
Weighted – I’ve included bodyweight bridge variations into my routines for years as a warm-up movement to help activate the glutes. After incorporating the weighted hip thruster (Thanks to Bret Contreras: https://twitter.com/bretcontreras) into my routine, it’s now a staple movement for building strength in the posterior chain of my athletes.
1-Leg Bridges – I love single leg bridges to help work on lower body imbalances and to further challenge core stability.
Stability Ball – I like the ball to add a little instability into the movement. These can be performed with one or two legs.
TRX – These seem to activate your hamstrings more than any other variation I’ve tried; especially if we add in the hamstring curl movement.
Slider – Depending on the surface you have, these can be the most challenging of the three listed. I really like sliders to work on the eccentric portion of the bridge (or curl) for injury prevention purposes.
3. Kettlebell Swing
2-Arm Swing – Depending on load and your reps/sets scheme, this is one of my favorite hip dominant movements for creating power and endurance in the body. I love to use this versatile exercise in circuits, finishers, or as a stand alone movement in a strength training session.
Variations – If you want to mix up your swing routine, here is an article showing a few alternatives: ‘Swing Variations’.
b. Knee Dominant
With my MMA athletes, 99% of them have shoulder mobility issues so I opted for the more shoulder-joint friendly front squat version as opposed to the back squat. For the record, I like back squats, I just feel the risks don’t outweigh the rewards with my MMA athletes. (Additionally; many “general population” clients have thoracic spine and shoulder mobility restrictions as well so make sure the exercises you choose are the most appropriate for your client).
Barbell Front Squat – Getting used to the bar position will take a little time, but once we are comfortable with it, this is a great movement for developing strength in the quads, glutes, hamstrings, and core.
Goblet Squat – My current “squat” variation of choice. The goblet squat allows you to get deep into your squat which helps open up the groins and hips. We typically use a kettlebell, but a single dumbbell works fine as well.
1-Leg Squat – This includes a number of variations; from the full bodyweight pistol to the less challenging equipment-assisted versions such as the 1-leg bench squat or the 1-leg TRX squat.
Walking – If you have the space, I like “traveling” lunges. Either traditional walking lunges to work the sagittal plane or lateral lunges to focus on frontal plane strength, these involve a great deal of leg strength and core engagement.
Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat (RFESS) - My current “lunge” variation of choice. These are one of those exercises that I see on my program every week and I try to think of an excuse not to do them. It’s a definite “love-hate” relationship. I love that they incorporate unilateral balance and strength, but I hate how challenging they are. These are staying in my routine for a long time and I recommend you include them in yours as well.
Reverse – I don’t include too many forward lunges (lunging forward and back in the same space) into programs anymore. Instead, I opt for the much more knee friendly reverse lunge. This is a great alternative to walking lunges if you are tight on space.
3. Lower Plyos
Box Jump – Like the ‘trap bar’ deadlift, the ‘box jump’ is the first jump that we do. There is simply less distance to cover on the descent so it’s a safer variation. It’s important to point out that I never have my clients or athletes JUMP down off the box or bench. I always have them step down as it’s that return trip where 99% of the injuries will occur.
Depth Jump – A great jump to work on developing power and speed off the ground. I cue my athletes to get off the ground as fast as possible to minimize the “amortization phase” on the ground.
Broad Jump – I use this exercise in my testing sessions. It’s a great way to track one’s power and monitor progress. It’s also a great way to bring about a little friendly competition within a group by sharing everyone’s measurements.
Of course there are thousands of additional lower body exercises to choose from. I wanted to share with you my “go to” movements and explain how exercises are selected for a program. This article isn’t so much a “how-to-do” piece, rather; it’s more of a “these-will-yield-results” piece.
This clip will show you the variations listed above in action:
Doug Balzarini, CSCS, MMA-CC, is the owner of DB Strength, which provides fitness training, education, and resources. He is also the strength and conditioning coach for Alliance MMA where he works with UFC Champion Dominick Cruz, Phil Davis, Brandon Vera, Travis Browne, Ross Pearson, Alexander Gustafsson, and more. Prior to starting his own business, Doug worked at Fitness Quest 10 as a personal trainer, strength coach, and Operations Director for Todd Durkin Enterprises (TDE).
He has completed some graduate work in Biomechanics at SDSU and has obtained multiple certifications including ACE, NSCA-CSCS, MMA-CC, TRX instructor training, EFI Gravity instructor training, LIFT Sandbag Certification, and FMS training. He has produced his own 2-DVD set on strength training for combat athletes, appeared in many fitness videos and articles, and was recently a coach on “The Ultimate Fighter” TV show.
For more information please visit www.dbstrength.com.