5 basic bodyweight strength test/exercises for every athlete

We can measure the strength in many different ways. First of all there are many different types of strength: maximal strength, explosive strength, strength endurance, strength speed, speed strength, relative strength. Along with so many different types of strength, we have even more exercise modalities for testing and developing each of different strength qualities.

However, here I want to talk about something completely basic, something that not only every professional athlete must be capable of doing, but also young athletes who are involved in regular sport activities. In my opinion, the most important type of all strength types is called fundamental relative strength (FRS) or how effectively can you control your own bodyweight. What I mean is that every athlete, regardless of age and gender, should be capable of doing this kind of exercises properly and with 100% control.

To avoid confusing you, here I’m not talking about classic relative strength. Example of relative strength is when you can deadlift 200kg with 90kg of your body weight, your friend can also deadlift 200kg but with 85kg of his body weight so his relative strength is higher because he can produce more force per kilogram of body weight. Here I’m talking about pure bodyweight type of strength where we are not using the external weight. I know what you are thinking now: calisthenics! Calisthenics indeed use only body weight for resistance, but when practicing calisthenics, exercises are done in more dynamic way most of the time using momentum when exercises or part of the exercises are too difficult to perform. Here we don’t want a momentum! These tests are done with a maximum control during movement, always with short pauses between eccentric and concentric part of the movement. These pauses are done to emphasize movement control and kinaesthetic awareness and to avoid the stretch-shortening cycle. Many times we neglect the ability to slow down the movements. In my opinion, we have to earn our right to be fast.

So let’s talk about FRS tests:

1. Test – Front Plank for 2′
When we are talking about athletic performance, we are actually talking about how efficient is the central part of the body in order to be able to transfer energy down and up through the kinetic chain! Period!!! We need to have well-organized core so that extremities could move freely and efficiently and this is the reason why modern training approach is moving more and more proximally. But what does that mean? It means that every exercise properly done must use the “core” to CONTROL rather than initiate the movement! From an injury prevention perspective, getting the athlete closer to the neutral position (front plank is one of basic exercises for that goal) takes the stress off the low back, hips, and knees. I know that if I can improve athletes’ posture, alignment, and stability in the sagittal plane first, this will have positive influence on frontal and transverse stability too! There is no better way to test how we control our core in sagittal plane than the old, simple front plank.

Why for 2’?
Dr. Stuart McGill (PhD), who is considered a leading authority in spine biomechanics and core development, says that in order to protect the spine, two minutes is a good goal to aim for a standard abdominal plank on your elbows. Holding the plank exercise for that long indicates that you have a reasonably strong core. It can also reveal if an athlete can control this perfect posture even when under fatigue. Another good point of view is Dr. Kelly Starrett’s. He is teaching about 20% constant tension concept or enough abdominal tone to keep braced neutral core position while playing, walking, standing or sitting. If an athlete can’t keep a good front plank for 2′, I doubt that he/she will have this 20% tension during playing or practicing when he/she is actually not thinking about the position of his/her core.

To perform the standard front plank, start by putting your elbows directly beneath your shoulders, forearms parallel, wrists and palms on the floor. Create double neck and pull your head back, push your elbows to the ground to open your mid scapula region, press your sternum down together with slightly posterior pelvis rotation in order to create neutral spine position. Legs are spread shoulder-width apart with knees locked and ankles dorsiflexed. In this position you should have the straight line along the ankles-hips-shoulders-ears. If someone would put a stick on your back, there should be 3 points of contact, sacrum-thoracic spine-head, with little or no space between lumbar spine and the stick. Try to breathe normally. Stay like this for 2′ please.

2. Test – Side Plank for 1′
If the front plank is telling us how good is the core control we have in sagittal plane, a side plank can tell us how good we are in frontal plane. Side plank can also reveal where the major problem exists in lateral component of stability. If it is more the core problem or maybe it is also the hip problem. In fact, during the side plank, a big role is played by three gluteal muscles too, minimus, medius and maximus. The frontal plane instability in the hips will lead to the excessive knee caving in during running, jumping or during regular lower body training in the gym (squats, lunges, step ups…). Furthermore, in my opinion, when we are talking about the side plank we are not talking only about the frontal plane stability, but about the component of transverse stability as well. Everyone who has tried the side plank had noticed smaller or bigger loss of balance whilst holding the position. To prevent falling down to the front or backside automatically include the anti-rotation stabilization movements – transverse plane!

Why for 1’?
Simply because in the front plank position we have 4 points of contact to create stiffness and stability, in side plank 2 points or 50% less…
To perform the left side plank, put your left elbow directly beneath your left shoulder, elbow at 90° with wrist and palm on the floor. Push your left elbow and forearm into the ground with your right arm resting on the right side of your body. Again create a double neck position pulling your sternum down together with slightly posterior pelvis rotation to create neutral spine position. Left foot is on the ground with right above it and the position of the both ankles at 90°. Knees are locked. Your body must be in a straight line with your chin-navel-2 medial malleolus. If someone would put a stick on your back, there should be 3 points of contact, sacrum-thoracic spine-head, with little or no space between the lumbar spine and the stick. Try to breathe normally. Try to stay like this for 1′. Then repeat on the right side. Here we also want to check if there is some asymmetry between the sides. Not only by checking if someone can keep the position for the same period of time on both sides, but also if the technic/alignment is the same for both sides.

3. Pistol Squat – 5 reps w/1” down position hold
I remember couple of years ago in my old gym when I was asking some strong guys who were squatting more than 150 kg to show me whether they can do a pistol squat. None of them was ever able to do even 1 solid rep. What is that telling us: you can be strong like a bull bilaterally and it means nothing unilaterally! And I honestly hope that everyone is already familiar with the fact that almost every sport is played on a single leg! Conclusion: athletes need single leg strength much more! Let’s educate their bodies to be able to have control, balance and strength to perform a single leg squat. Pistol squat is not only about the strength, but is more about building perfect interaction between mobility-stability-motor control in our lower extremities. Pistol teaches us how to properly load the hip and this is one of the most important athletic manoeuvres.

Perfect pistol is done standing on the flat floor and this is not very demanding for the working leg, but it’s also a good checking point for hip flexor on the non-working leg.

This 1” pause in the bottom position is only because we want to avoid rebound; on the other hand, the goal is to have control in the most difficult position. Pistol squat is an excellent indicator for proper acceleration, deceleration and change of direction movement capacity!
To perform a single leg pistol, stand with weight on your heel and your other leg slightly out in front of you. Push your hips back and bend your knee to slowly lower yourself; ideally you will be able to touch your heel with your butt; the knee should be over your mid-foot and the other leg extended in the air. Stay in this position for 1” and then stand up, do 5 reps and then try it on other leg. Here again we want to check for any kind of asymmetry between legs: heel off the ground, knee caving in, hip flexion on other leg, amount of spinal flexion.

4. Push Up – 10 reps w/1” down position hold
This test represents a simple way of checking whether an athlete has enough:
– basic strength and endurance in upper body musculature responsible for pushing
– core control during dynamic movement in sagittal plane
– interaction between scapula and GH joint
Why 1” down position hold? Simply because I want to avoid momentum, and you will be surprised how many of your athletes will struggle with this test. This one-second floor touch with the sternum (neck needs to be retracted) will completely avoid the stretch-shortening cycle and put much more stronger stress on core and scapula stabilizers to control the movement. You also want to check the scapula movement because the push up is a closed chain exercise and scapula needs to move freely on the rib cage. For example, many times you can find both or only one scapula in retracted position all of the time, which puts a lot more stress on GH joint. Secondly, this position of the scapula puts you in extended posture where the core will be inhibited.
To perform standard push up test lie on the floor, put your feet shoulder width apart, hands are set up so that middle fingers point straight up, forearms are perpendicular to the floor, elbows at 45°. Before starting, outstretch your legs by contracting your quads, rotate your pelvis underneath you, pull your head back and create the so called “double neck” by tucking in the chin. In this position the only thing that touches the ground is the lower part of the rib cage and upper abdominal wall; push up from this position.
Again 1” pause with the lower part of the rib cage touching the ground is only because we want to complete the control during the movement with no use of momentum at any time. We can also put a stick on athletes’ back to have better view on what is going on with his/her core during the execution of the test. Do 10 repetitions. As soon as the athlete loses its initial position, the test is over. For example, the head touches the ground first, hips are dropping down, changing position of the arms or legs.

5. Inverted row – 10 reps w/1” up position hold
For me, inverted row is nothing else than the reverse push up! So if someone is capable of doing 10 push ups, then in order to have optimal upper body strength and symmetry he/she should also be able to do 10 inverted rows, but unfortunately this is a very rare case. In my experience, 9 out of 10 athletes will fail to do this! But why is that important?
Many sports require from athletes to use their upper body to perform a throwing motion (baseball, softball, handball, basketball, swimming) or use a racquet (tennis, squash, badminton) in order to propel an object. Sports like football, soccer, wrestling, martial arts involve pressing and pulling with the upper limbs against an opponent. Imbalances in strength between agonist and antagonist must be analysed due to their association with injury and performance.
“Muscle imbalances have been defined as faulty relationships between the antagonist and the agonist muscles that will result with an effect upon the joint they cross.”- (Sahrmann S. (2002) Diagnosis and treatment of movement impairment syndromes. Mosby, St. Louis).
So in this case we are talking about the shoulder joint. In order to protect the shoulder, we need to have symmetry between pushing and pulling musculature. I choose inverted row and not pull up for example, because during the pull up you need to lift the whole weight of your body, in the standard push up you lift between 65-70% of your bodyweight, the same happens for inverted row when your body is parallel to the floor.
To perform parallel inverted row you ideally need the Smith machine or you can do it on the squat rack just be sure to block the barbell so it can’t move. As your complete body must be parallel to the floor (like in down push up position) you need the box at least 10-15cm high where you can put your both heels. Grasp the bar with overhand grip at the same width like during the push up test, raise your body from the ground and if you have the barbell on the correct height, your position should be parallel to the floor. Retract your neck, pull the ribcage down, contract your abs and gluts, your legs must be straight. Pull yourself up until your sternum (the same as during the push up test) touches the bar, stop for one second. Do 10 reps. As soon as the athlete loses its initial position, the test is over, for example forward head posture, hip sagging (the body doesn’t stay in a straight line), changing positions of arms or legs.

Fundamental relative strength test chart:

Fundamental Relative Strength Tests Score Notes
Front Plank 2′
Side Plank – Right 1′
Side Plank – Left 1′
Pistol Squat – Right 5 / 1” pause
Pistol Squat – Left 5 / 1” pause
Push Ups 10 / 1” pause
Inverted Rows 10 / 1” pause

After inserting results in the above table, you have an easy insight and know how to program your future strength training. If the score of an individual is low on some test, spend some extra time on that movement. Of course, if you have worked with athletes who are involved with sports or positions where strength is a dominant capacity, you will need to test squat, deadlift, bench press etc., but if you find that these athletes fail in one or more of the above mentioned FRS tests, involve that during the strength training too. You will find that these big lifts will improve working on fundamental relative strength. The same is true for power lifts like cleans, snatches or swings.
Someone can argue about these tests being too static and every sport is dynamic. At the end of a day this is true, but like I sad at the beginning, these are the basic tests that can show us elementary limitations in mobility/stability, inadequate motor control, asymmetries left/right and front/back or lack of strength. We all easily forget that everything must have a foundation. According to my training philosophy, if someone is not capable of holding static front plank for at least 60”, it will be very hard for him/her to control his/her core during a set of push ups, which is nothing else than a dynamic front plank. Moreover, so many coaches force athletes to do squats or lunges with a lot of weights on their backs to make them stronger and more athletic although none of these athletes has the capacity to perform a single leg squat. These guys don’t understand that pistol squat is a true indicator of athleticism! Develop the capacity to perform a single leg squat and then, if you need, load that pattern or every other with regard to the leg training and your athletes will explode!
Hopefully I have succeeded with the intention to ask yourselves at least a few questions about how to approach to the strength training in the future. Because at the end of the day, asking yourselves the tough questions and bringing your principles into dilemma, is the only way we can improve and become better coaches for our athletes!