What’s good folks, my name’s Rory. I play for two of Australia’s best club teams, Friskee (Mix) and Colony (Mens), and have done since 2010. Over the bulk of that time, I’m perfectly okay with stating that weightlifting has been the primary athletic driver behind my successes on-field.
I love lifting. I started initially in order to recover from a lower back injury and have never stopped. I very quickly found that it made me better about what I care about. To me, lifting is fundamentally a self-improvement activity, a process of continually pushing and expanding your limits. It clears my mind, invigorates my body, lifts my spirits. It’s good stuff - in the same way a cheeky bit of flatball is.
I firmly believe that a structured and technique-focused lifting program is, in the majority of scenarios, the most impactful adjustment that could be added in order to improve a healthy individual’s athleticism. This segment is targeted at Ultimate players who wants to get better at lifting in order to get better at Ultimate, rather than just improving lifting itself. Each nugget will be a condensed piece of advice that I will expand throughout the article.
In the interest of setting expectations early, I am not a sport science or S&C ‘expert’ with any degree of accreditation. If your mighty thirst for knowledge will only be slaked by cold, hard data, I recommend trawling or querying any of the resources linked at the end of this article.
So, with that out of the way, onwards to Nugget #1.
Master the Basics
Master the fundamentals of an activity before you move into the complex stuff. This is very simple advice, and near-universally applicable.
This isn’t just for novices to lifting. Many very experienced lifters, especially those in the ultimate community, will benefit from validating your fundamentals. Don’t let your own preconceptions of any kind of mastery dictate your approach. Film yourself, criticise, find out what you can improve. You can always improve. Mastering the basics is a process, and a process that you will get value out of going back to again and again whether you’re just starting out, plateauing on your current program, restarting during an offseason, or towards the end of a strenuous 6 months of heavy lifting.
To pick probably the most outstanding example, bilateral vs. unilateral. Unilateral (single limb) exercises are fantastic. Over time, they’re the optimal resistance training you can do for power development for Ultimate. However, especially when starting a new program, or being new even to the process of having a program, are they the best thing to start out with?
There are plenty of experts who will recommend the optimal without regard for the practical. They probably should be opting for the optimal training solution every time. Good on them - someone has to. However: you, the punter, actually have to do the stuff. Jumping straight into doing rear-leg elevated split squats because they’re optimal for single-leg stability and power is not practical if you have not built your fundamentals of the split-squat, or the bilateral squat for that matter. Beginning pounding out power cleans because they’re optimal for hip power development is not practical if you have not yet built your deadlift, front squat, or barbell row.
I’d recommend training specifically with the aim to master the basics, for instance your basic bilaterals: front/back squat, deadlift, or bench/shoulder press, before trying to scale up into the equivalent single leg/arm exercises on for size - for the following reasons:
Accessibility: Starting out with the truly difficult stuff runs the risk of you feeling like the components of a lift are too hard, or too far beyond your experience, which can easily become a perceived obstacle that stalls or discourages you when starting out.
Reinforcement: Gains along the basic exercises will occur in leaps and bounds, with fewer technical constraints on progress than complex exercises. Having this tangible representation of progress is super reinforcing as a participant, and the power of this reinforcement is huge. My own opinion is that if you’re starting out as a relatively inexperienced lifter and your first few programs are any good at all, your success is largely dependent on how well you can make lifting, and lifting well, a habit - and constant positive reinforcement from steady gains in simple and effective exercises is excellent for this.
Troubleshooting: When mastering the basics of lifting, it’s more likely that you will be able to get immediate and sufficient form feedback from any relatively experienced lifter, as it’s much more likely they have experienced the same feedback loop - not to mention it will be far easier to find credible sources online. You’re better able to modify your form, and quicker.
Some Lifts to Master the Basics With:
Alright, so this section is going to be pretty tame when compared to the lawless wastelands of Nuggets #2 & #3. You will roll your eyes, say ‘deadlift, squat, and biceps curls LMAO’ and off you yeet. So, here’s a little outline why you should do them and how you can jazz them up a notch - for fun, specificity, or to break plateaus. I’m staying away from form advice - this is a) something that I will inevitably get at least partially wrong on paper biomechanics-wise and b) something best learned as tailored to an individual.
The first is definitely the Deadlift. You should probably be deadlifting, by default, unless a medical professional has instructed you not to. It develops your triple extension (hips, knee, ankle all extending, as they do pushing off at a sprint or a leap), trunk stability, and grip strength for ripping fat flicks directly cross-field into the stack - all crucial athletic indicators for flatballers.
So go out and deadlift, but you can mix it up with the following adjustments:
Sumo deadlift: decreased lower back load, smaller range of motion (ROM). This is great if your constraint in progress is your flexibility, or you’re finding your back rounding out too much. Also just an insanely powerful stance to be in, aesthetically.
Stiff-leg or Romanian deadlift: decreased quad load, greatly increased eccentric (muscle lengthening under tension), hamstring load, more reliance on glutes for the pull. This is great for improving the resilience of your hamstrings and isolating the snap through the hips joint. I was told once that there’s a difference between the two in that the Romanian version actually has a slight knee bend as compared to the stiff-leg, where the knee is locked. The ACL survivor in me would counsel in favour of the slight knee bend. Good on you Romania.
Trap bar deadlift: decreases shoulder and lower back load. The trap bar decreases ROM, so is more accessible for the flexibility challenged amongst us. This is a favourite. Mechanically almost the same as the olympic bar deadlift, but using the trap bar turns your shoulder sockets to a more natural angle - akin to a farmer’s carry, another great exercise - which in turn also reduces the risk of your lower back rounding out. This is great if you want to minimise the risk of lower back strain and still move the same (or greater) amount of weight around.
The second, to capitalise on my dramatic foreshadowing, is the Squat. Much the same as the deadlift in its mission to reinforce your gams, it differs in loading your quads and calves a bit more, and demands less of your arms and shoulders.
Every variation on the squat that I would recommend to someone looking to master the basics is nasty as hell. Foremost of these are:
Box or Pause Squats: Increased concentric demand (muscles shortening in order to generate force), decreased ROM (Box), increased stability demand (Pause). I’ve kind of lumped these together because they both eliminate your ability to ‘bounce’ up out of the descent (this is an example of what’s known as the stretch-shortening cycle, SSC) in a squat - thereby demanding a lot more explosive force to push yourself upright. This comes from coming to rest either on a box, or at the bottom of the movement for a few seconds. Doing 3-second pause squats is truly a terrifying experience that will nonetheless improve both your confidence & stability under the bar and your ability to quickly muscle out of the hole.
Goblet Squats: decreased overall load, increased ROM, increased frontal/decreased rear trunk load. These are a super potent tool for both practising your form and increasing your squat depth, using a front loaded dumbbell or kettlebell held in both hands. If you’re working an A-B program, I would recommend doing these on any day you’re not doing conventional back squats.
Front Squats: Increased quads load, increased core load. This is borderline advanced stuff, but it’s always fun to deload a bit and crack a few of these open. It takes a bit of the load off your lower back but requires more of your frontal core as stabilisers. Start light - this one can be hard to kick off if you’ve got shoulder impingements from rotator cuff strains, which are unfortunately pretty common in flatballers. This is a crucial lift for any athletes moving into the far more radical Olympic-style lifts such as cleans and snatches.
One of the best resources I’ve found for the basics of resistance training has been ExRx. It looks like a 1997 GeoCities website and is a huge repository of information for those just starting out. It has an enormous library of form videos, a by-muscle analysis of the focus of each lift, a Beginner’s Page, as well as very detailed explorations of nutrition, rest and periodisation that you can save for later.
Another less GeoCities-y one is Stack. This site owns. Its strength section takes all the depth of knowledge from sites like T-NATION but frames weightlifting in the context of a deeply complementary pursuit to sport, rather than the sport itself.
Elitefts: This is where the good stuff is at. Wide range of articles that go into specific topics in depth. Something for everyone, but not everything for somebody. Linked is their sports performance articles section, but the curious will find heaps there to excite them.
Ren Caldwell: http://skydmagazine.com/author/rentime/
Morrill Performance: http://www.mpfpt.com/ - also check out his video archives on YouTube.
I would also recommend in a more generic sense scanning the archives of Skyd and Ultiworld for anything lifting-related. I’ve read a lot of great content over there recently.
Like all pieces of not-super-scientifically-validated advice, there may be counterparts or complements to any of this - should you be so emboldened by the passions this article has stirred deep inside you, please don’t hesitate to leave comments.
If you liked this stay tuned for Nugget #2 on ‘Doing what’s most important’. Cryptic, I know.