The goal of this article is to provide some long term goals for athletes to pursue in their training for athletic enhancement. With all the various types of training, set/rep schemes, periodization models, exercise techniques, so on and so forth, there are a thousand different options for training. All those choices can be overwhelming. So to simplify the situation, I want to establish some high standards in the various areas of training. As long as you are moving toward these standards, your training is successful. So it does not matter if all the “experts” say that low-rep lifting is better for vertical jump training. If your max squat is increasing with sets of 25, then sets of 25 are great. And it doesn’t matter if people say you have to do three workouts a week. If one workout is making you better, then by all means keep doing it.

Now we know that flexibility, strength, explosiveness, reflexive contributions, and skill are the abilities that must be trained for increased athleticism. But without some standards in those areas, athletes are left in the dark as far as what actually constitutes a high level of ability. I’ve had someone tell me he was strong because he could leg press 400 pounds. Another guy thought he was explosive, because he “felt really fast” when he moved around the basketball court. And another said, “I consider myself to be flexible.” In light of this, I am providing some high standards to shoot for in the different areas of sports training.

FLEXIBILITY

All athletes should be able to pass both tests in the video below.

In addition to these, any weak areas in flexibility should be addressed. For example, it is possible to pass these tests and still have tight adductor muscles. Basically, you want to have all around flexibility. Some sports may demand even higher levels of flexibility, but these tests apply to pretty much everyone.

UPDATE: I handle hamstring flexibility on an individual basis rather than trying to force everybody into a mold. Some athletes, particularly in running sports, will never be able to place their palms on the ground with straight legs, and that is ok. You do not need to be THAT flexible. A more reasonable standard I like to look at is the ability to perform a good barbell hip hinge, lowering the bar to mid shin with a straight back.

STRENGTH

I have two standards for strength.

1. Deep squat 2-3 times body weight.
Simply put, you cannot reach your athletic potential without being very strong. That does not mean that the stronger athlete is always the better athlete. It means any athlete who is not very strong still has potential for significant athletic enhancement through increased strength. This standard has a range of strength levels on it, because a double body weight squat will be a lifelong goal that is never reached for a lot of taller athletes but be very achievable for some shorter athletes. Increased strength beyond a double body weight squat should continue to yield athletic improvements for shorter athletes, so triple body weight is a better lofty lifetime goal for them.

2. Max deadlift more than max squat.
First, let’s make it clear that we’re talking about deep squats. Looking at the positions of the two exercises, the bottom of a squat is a weaker position due largely to the greater knee flexion. The deadlift relies almost entirely on hip extension strength and does not test the strength of knee extension. With that in mind, barring some freakish mechanical advantage at the knee, it really does not make sense for anyone to squat more than deadlift. If you do, it is likely that you are not performing one or both lifts properly. As far as how much higher the deadlift should be, I’ll say something like 10-40% higher. Different people have different ratios based on the mechanical characteristics of they’re bodies, and that is ok.

3. Don’t worry about other nonsense.
My last standard for strength is not having any other standard. Don’t worry about how heavy your lunges or pistol squats are. Unilateral exercises should not be done with heavy weight. Don’t worry about how many sit-ups you can do in a minute or how long you can hold a plank. Full body strength and power movements (squat, deadlift, jerk, snatch, etc) make the torso stronger than any exercise done specifically for the “core.” Don’t worry about your ability in any fancy exercises done with some combination of resistance bands, a bosu ball, one leg up in the air, and a kettlebell. If you squat and deadlift well, you are wholly and completely strong. That doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t do any other exercises, but increasing squat and deadlift strength are the strength goals to pursue.

EXPLOSIVENESS

Hang power snatch 75% of max squat.
In the hang power version of the snatch, the bar is pulled from above the knees and the thighs are above parallel when the weight is caught overhead. Completing this movement requires a high bar acceleration and velocity. Achieving this with a higher percentage of the maximum weight one can lift indicates a better ability to generate force quickly. Hitting 70% is an indication of an elite level of explosiveness. But understand that explosiveness is somewhat specific to the time frame of the movement. There is definitely a disconnect between the snatch to squat comparison and explosiveness in an approach jump or top speed sprinting. So what you don’t want to do is reach this standard just by doing hang power snatches all the time. Rather you want to reach this standard because you sprint and jump a lot.

Let’s assume you play an explosive sport and are adequately flexible. Just looking at the standards we have so far, if you squat double body weight and hang power snatch 70% of your squat, that means you hang power snatch 1.4 times body weight. There’s no way to not be a great athlete with that kind of power level. We could easily keep things simple and end this article right here.

REFLEXIVE CONTRIBUTIONS

This is a difficult quality to measure, because it is not evident by itself. As I have written over and over, the level of proficiency in athletic movements is determined by a combination of abilities, not just springiness. Any movement that is potentially useful for evaluating reflexive contributions is going to be an athletic movement, so finding an indication that isolates it is quite difficult. One recommended test involves depth jumps from various heights. It makes sense in theory, but in my experience the test simply doesn’t work. I believe a more reliable indicator is the difference between a standing and running vertical jump. A bigger difference indicates greater reflexive contribution. This test is useful in the sense that if the figure increases it does indicate an athletic improvement. However, because all the components of athleticism factor in, that improvement may be the result of a number of different things. Also it’s entirely possible that an athlete will make training improvements, run faster, jump higher, but not see any change in this number. Thus, I wouldn’t put too much stock in this test.
If I had to set a lofty goal, I’d go with a 9-inch (22.86 cm) difference for 2-foot jumpers and a 15-inch (35.56 cm) difference for 1-foot jumpers. But I will not cling tightly to those numbers or even attempt to defend them. Reflexive contributions seem to be the least trainable component of athleticism, and you should not spend too much time and effort trying to pursue¬†this ability. That’s chasing after the wind. Focus on power development.

STRENGTH UTILIZATION

This phrase basically refers to all facets of training other than strength. Athletic ability is basically comprised of two things: (1) strength and (2) the ability to use that strength for athletic movements. The latter is a combination of flexibility, explosiveness, reflexive contribution, and skill.
After playing around with the numbers from various athletes that I’ve trained and whose abilities I am very familiar with, I have devised an equation. The equation takes your height, weight, and strength (max squat), and calculates what I’m calling the strength utilization factor (SUF).

Here’s the equation:
AV = approach vertical
BW = body weight
MS = max squat
H = height

The SUF is on a scale up to about 1.00 in explosively gifted athletes. Anyone near 1.00 is a genetic freak. A good goal for the less gifted is 0.80. As a reference point, thinking back to my training history my SUF has been around 0.75 when I am in the thick of lifting hard. With years of explosive training it has progressed to being above 0.85 when I am not training strength and at my most explosive. SUF increases through establishing proper flexibility, jumping a lot and other explosive training, taking breaks from strength training, and rest. If you can combine squatting at least 1.5 times body weight with an SUF of 0.80, you’re going to be a good athlete. Increase either of those numbers beyond that, and you’ll be heading toward the realm of the elite.

A disclaimer about all these standards. They are dependent on a decent level of skill in the movements in question. For example, if you’ve never squatted, you could end up thinking that your strength utilization is off the charts when it is not. Or if you’ve never snatched you might conclude that you have horrible explosiveness when you don’t. Keep that in mind.

APPLICATION

Of the tests listed above, the indicators I like to look at are the max squat and the SUF. With those tests I’m asking two questions.

1. How strong is this person? If an athlete is not squatting at least 1.5 times body weight, there is no mystery about what needs to be done. Get stronger. That doesn’t mean that’s the only thing that needs to be done, but it is likely the most influential. For people with higher strength levels, continuing to get stronger may still be the most important piece, but we have to start considering the tug of war between strength and explosiveness and make sure the athlete does not turn into a weightlifter.

2. Is this person as athletic as he or she should be at the current strength level? Here things like genetics and body type and proportions have to be considered. So to be honest, answering this question tends to be less about actually calculating anything and more of an art. But let’s say we are calculating, and someone has an SUF of 0.90. I would not expect that athlete to have potential to get more athletic without getting stronger, unless of course they have had a higher number previously. Someone else may have an SUF of 0.75, but based on their gifts maybe that’s as high as they can expect to be. (Most people are not gifted enough to get near 1.00 and should not get caught up trying to chase that number. Rather the goal should be to make tiny improvements or even just return to the same level with the use of explosive training phases after periods of strength training.) In both these cases, the approach would be to get stronger first. This will lower SUF. Then try to get SUF back or slightly higher while maintaining strength to some degree. On the other hand if someone has a good body type for athleticism and squats let’s say 1.8 times body weight, but has an SUF of 0.70, the approach might be to not touch a weight for a few months and just jump, do plyos, and stretch.

In the long run, flexibility and skill should not be an issue. Reflexive contribution will be a natural by-product of explosive training. And training can really be simplified down to a pursuit of strength and explosiveness. If you are improving one of those two qualities, you are headed in the right direction.