The first step can make or break an athlete. The first step determines whether an athlete is an all-time great at their sport or floundering in mediocrity.

There is no athlete out there who says, “uh, actually, I’d rather have a slower first step.”

From soccer to football to rugby to pro-wrestling to MMA to tennis to badminton to long-distance running; everyone wants an explosive first step.

There are some elements to address when improving your first step. Like with the vertical jump you need:

  • a high rate of force development
  • a brusque triple-joint extension
  • rapid motor unit recruitment
  • type IIb fast-twitch muscle fiber contraction
  • co-ordination
  • knee flexion

But there are few exercises which directly target the first step with sufficient resistance. It’s difficult to load up 400lb to transfer over to your first step.

So we will look at a few gym exercises that will help you get there.

Say you’ve been hitting the Box Squats for months and seen little-to-no improvement, you will have to get slightly craftier.

As we wrote in our article on how to improve your vertical jump, to get faster overall, you must reduce the total load you’re lugging around.


1. Lose Fat

Keto King: Vince Gironda

Yeah, yeah; I know this isn’t an exercise, but it’s the very best way to improve your first step.

Excess bodyfat not only increases the total weight load you have to propel upwards, but its distribution is always poorly balanced, taking away from your ability to push yourself off the ground quicker, even if you do make significant progress in your squat numbers.

As we wrote in our article how to become more athletic as quickly as possible:

The number one best way to get more athletic — and fast — is to lose fat.

And thankfully, Herculean Strength has a growing reserve of free resources to help you achieve your fat loss goals and athleticism forged in the weight room.

That’s it.

Granted, some people are natural athletes, while others may need years of dedication and hard training to get there, losing fat is the best way to get there.

Wanna sprint faster, jump higher, do more pullups/dips, become more agile?

Well, lose fat.

Most people underestimate how fat they are, in my experience.

Think you’re 15% bodyfat? The chances are that you’re 5-10% higher.

Say you’re 200lb and 20% bodyfat; you’d need to lose 24lb to get down to 10%!

Around 10-14% bodyfat is the best place to be for athletes, depending on their sport. You’d need a little more natural cushioning for some contact sports such as rugby.

Imagine how much more athletic you could be by losing a good portion of those 24lb?

The problem with fat is that it is very mechanically inefficient, unlike muscle.

Losing fat helps with generating a greater rate of force development when sprinting or jumping as there’s a lighter total load.

In my personal experience, I was a lot quicker at around 215lb bodyweight with a max squat of 350lb in my early 20s than weighing 270lb and squatting 600lb for reps a few years ago — even though my potential rate of force development through a significantly greater squat total was a lot higher.

One study, that had participants don a weighted vest while running, showed that a 5% reduction in weight improved 3,000 meter run times by 3.1%, while a 10% weight reduction improved times by 5.2%.

Another study found that for a 170lb athlete, a fat gain of 3.4 pounds (2%) drastically reduced their athletic output, potentially resulting in a vertical jump height loss of 2 inches and a 40-yard dash time increase of 0.26 seconds after a fat gain anybody could easily sustain over a Christmas Holiday period — night and day!

A rough weekend on the beer and eating junk food could result in a noticeable drop in performance.

Therefore, a combination of strength training and fat loss will optimize athleticism while the athlete attempts to abstain from overeating or indulging in the “good” life.

We have a growing compendium of articles and FREE eBooks to help you lose fat and become more athletic.

Unfortunately, I learned the hard way that keeping the body fat percentage down was far more effective at athletic expressions than doubling my squat.

Fat is extremely mechanically inefficient and it’s also highly estrogenic — both of which you want to avoid like the plague if you’re a young man in search of a good physique.

The chances are, your favorite NFL offensive linesman is not as estrogenic — for reasons that can’t be discussed here — as the average person of a similar body fat percentage.

Your vertical jump will suffer as you gain fat or even too much bulk. But, having said that, if we were to get two men who weighed 240lb — one 22% bodyfat and another 11% — who could squat the same amount, I would bet my bottom dollar on the leaner athlete to accelerate faster with a zippier first step than our chubbier friend.

2. Bulgarian Split Squat

Why the Bulgarian Split Squat is a fairy tale – YPSI - Wolfgang Unsoeld

This exercise has the most direct carryover to improving your first step — since it literally trains that movement head on.

Keep the weight light and the intensity high. Descend slowly then explode as quickly as possible, while being cautious not to hyperextend the knee.

Knee flexion is crucially important to improve your first step, and the Bulgarian Split Squat targets just that.

Finding the correct balance can be hard at first.

You can use the Smith Machine if you’re not too confident.

Or, alternatively, you can try our brutal remix of the Bulgarian Split Squat called the “Herc Squat” which is a supramaximal version that I used to great effect in the past to take my numbers into the stratosphere and build a baboonish behind.

I prefer to use dumbbells for this exercise as it follows a more natural range of motion and it is easier to remain balanced throughout the completion of the movement.

Check out our article on the “Herc Squat” to take your first step to new heights.

3. Russian Step Up

The Russian Step Up is a great exercise to help work on your first step. You may have seen this one used in various training compilation videos.

It genuinely is a potent exercise if you’re an athlete, and it does carry over significantly to a whole range of other athletic movements.

Another benefit of the Russian Step Up is that it also prepares you for the execution of a second step as well as giving you extra pep in your first step.

It will help develop your entire lower body as well if you lack mass in this area.

4. Hang Power Snatch

THe Hang Power Snatch - YouTube
The Hang Power Snatch

This is probably my favorite movement to forge raw athleticism and a gnarly Flash-like first step.

It’s violent, brusque, brutal, technical — it’s awesome, and everything you need as an athlete, let alone for a powerful first step!

Now, this exercise might be daunting to newcomers — and that’s fine. In the meantime, you can do Banded Kettlebell Swings to build strength and get used to this intense hinge pattern movement.

And although the Hang Power Snatch is a hinge pattern movement, like the Box Squat or Box Jump, it requires:

  • a high rate of force development
  • a brusque triple-joint extension
  • rapid motor unit recruitment
  • type IIb fast-twitch muscle fiber contraction
  • co-ordination

All of which contribute towards an lightning-fast first step.

And like with the weight box jump, it can be dangerous to perform in a state of fatigue, which is why it’s advisable to keep the rep ranges low.

Anywhere between 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps with a weight 70-90% of your one rep max will suffice.

This is a better choice to its less technical cousin the Powerclean because it requires a greater rate of force development and faster motor unit recruitment, making it a better choice of exercise.

It will also hammer your forearms, traps, and posterior chain harder than anything else if done correctly.

5. Box Squat/Dead Stop Box Jump

5 Reasons You Should Box Squat | Breaking Muscle

These exercises just have to be added into the fray.

The box squat is one of the very best exercises for athletes, period.

Not only will this improve your first step, but it will add mass to your legs, butt, and entire posterior chain.

Make sure you come to a dead stop before exploding off the bench/box. Use a high bar stance without making your feet width excessively wide.

A high bar stance is more knee-dominant than a low bar squat. A low bar squat recruits the hips more when knee flexion is more desirable for athletes.

Check out our article on the difference between high bar and low bar squat for more information.

Like with the weighted box jump, the box squat improves your first step through the following.

It requires:

  • a high rate of force development
  • triple-joint extension
  • rapid motor unit recruitment
  • type IIb fast-twitch muscle fiber contraction
  • co-ordination
  • knee flexion

You can, of course, add bands and chains to the movement to increase the resistance as you complete the movement. This, in turn, will increase the rate of force development required — similar to a first step.

The front squat variation is just as valuable, if not, more, as it mimics athletic movements more closely than a back squat variation. Moreover, the risk of buttwink or your lower back rounding is lower, plus there’s reduced spinal loading if you have concerns about your spine.

Check out our article on spinal decompression to protect your back from injury and to increase athletic longevity.

A weighted box jump — preferably from a dead stop — will tick all the necessary boxes for a high first step.

It requires:

  • a high rate of force development
  • a brusque triple-joint extension
  • rapid motor unit recruitment
  • type IIb fast-twitch muscle fiber contraction
  • co-ordination

The ideal rep ranges for this movement are between 3-5 reps for 3-5 sets.

This isn’t Crossfit and box jumps are dangerous — especially when fatigued.


Adding an extra weight into the equation ups the risk of injury, too.

And you’re not training for endurance or hypertrophy so there is ABSOLUTELY NO NEED to take this exercise to high rep ranges.

Start with a light dumbbell or weighted vest, say, a 10-20lb total and increase the weight until you can safely land 5 box jumps.

DO NOT do this exercise with a barbell. If you butcher the execution, it’s harder to bail when you have a barbell on your back and your risk of serious injury skyrockets.

Alternatively, you can perform Quarter Squat Jumps from pins if you have safety concerns about executing weighted box squats.

On the power rack, set pins around 3/4 of the way up on your squat and jump as high as you can with the weight across your back.

This exercise can be overloaded more safely than the Weighted Box Jump and will go a long way to improving your first step.

Bonus: Train Your Hamstrings!

You need strong hamstrings to reduce the risk of injury from potential muscular imbalances that may arise from overtraining your quads.

Strong hamstrings will also contribute towards a quicker first step.

The best hamstring exercise for the purpose of improving your first step would be an Explosive Single Leg Swiss Ball Hamstring Curl. It’s quite a mouthful, I know, but this unweighted exercise specifically requires you to contract your Hamstrings as quickly as possibly with the goal of bettering your leg speed when you run.
How to do the explosive hamstring curl

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