Why Proper Exercise Form Is Crucial for Young Athletes

STACK Expert Mike Mejia details issues affecting young athletes who train without first mastering proper form—then advises how to correct them.

 

Youth baseball player

With so many training tools and exercise choices available, athletes can be stronger, faster and more explosive than ever before. This is true not only for collegiate and professional level competitors. Kids 10 and 11 years old are already following training programs aimed to give them a competitive edge on the playing field.

Although there's nothing wrong with young athletes training to improve their physical abilities, problems occur when they don't make proper exercise form a priority. I routinely see young athletes performing exercises beyond their current level of physical ability and skill—whether it's loading a movement too soon or failing to develop the coordination, mobility and stability necessary to properly execute certain drills. Too often, coaches and trainers rush kids into drills the youngsters have no business doing. The athletes suffer a greater risk of injury and develop poor movement mechanics, which can become a problem later.

The scenarios below offer examples of such problems along with proposed solutions.

Running and change-of-direction mechanics

Common Errors: Performing resisted running drills by hooking athletes to sleds and parachutes before first working on proper sprinting mechanics. Allowing sloppy directional changes during conditioning drills.

I'm all for making athletes stronger—just not by inhibiting their ability to move efficiently. Resisted running exercises can teach athletes the importance of driving force into the ground, but if they don't already have decent running form, these techniques could potentially backfire.

Loading up a kid whose arms swing across his torso—or who runs with a short, choppy stride—won't necessarily fix his flawed technique. Instead, work on improving his core strength (more on this below) and incorporate drills like High Knees, Seated Arm Swings and Wall Accelerations.

You see similar problems when kids run through several agility drills without first learning the basics of changing direction. Allowing athletes to change direction with rounded backs or improper foot spacing can hurt their ability to effectively load their muscles to drive the necessary force into the ground. Whether you're teaching them how to change from a sprint to a backpedal, or shuffling from one side to another, take the time first to build systemic strength, and work on cueing them on proper foot spacing so they create better shin angles in relation to the ground.

Saying something as simple as "get your foot outside of the box" (the box being the athlete's shoulders and hips) when doing a side shuffle direction change can create the kind of awareness that leads to better foot placement and weight distribution.

Lower-body strength and power training

Common Errors: Loading weight for the Squat, Deadlift and Lunge before athletes demonstrate proper technique using their own body weight.

This one is becoming a real problem. I've seen kids put up ridiculous amounts of weight while performing various types of Squats and Deadlifts, despite the presence of some rather glaring movement problems. Feet that pronate, arches that flatten and knees that pinch inward near the bottom of the movement are sadly too common. So is unnecessary strain on the lower back from tight hamstrings and a weak core—not to mention the increased shearing force that occurs when knees drive too far forward during Forward Lunges, or the way tight hip flexors contribute to yanking the torso forward during Reverse Lunges.

Don't get me wrong. These are all great exercises—when an athlete possesses the type of mobility, spatial awareness and strength to execute them properly!

Instead, make exercises like bodyweight Squats more challenging by performing them at a demanding tempo. Lower down for three or four seconds and hold the bottom position for another two or three seconds before firing back up. This will make the exercise much harder and help set the motor programming the athlete needs to be able to execute the movement correctly.

And as long as we're talking about ingraining good lower-body movement mechanics, can we please refrain from the practice of making kids do plyometrics before they can even execute a proper bodyweight Squat? If they can't decelerate their body weight at a controlled tempo without several things breaking down along the kinetic chain, what do you think will happen when you throw speed into the mix? A tailbone that tucks under or a back that rounds will only worsen under the impact of landing improperly.

When it comes to plyomterics, here's a progression that takes several weeks, which I've found to be especially effective:

  1. Teach athletes how to execute a proper Squat (both unilaterally and bilaterally).
  2. Teach good landing mechanics (usually by having them jump up onto a box or platform).
  3. Proceed to drills where they have to jump over a small object and "stick" the landing.
  4. Finally, move on to bounding drills.

Upper-body strength training

Common Errors: Shortening range of motion to use more weight or perform more repetitions. Using momentum and/or lousy form to propel weight through the range of motion.

I see these all the time when kids do Bench Presses and Pull-Ups, which, not coincidentally, are two exercises routinely used to assess an athlete's strength. Whether coming only halfway down on Pull-Ups or bouncing the bar off their chests when benching, young athletes tend to be overly concerned with the quantity, rather than the quality, of their strengthening exercises.

My solution is to first test the athlete's ability to perform basic movements like Push-Ups, Pull-Ups and overhead pressing with little or no weight to assess proper mechanics at the shoulder joint and lumbar spine. If they can't do a basic Push-up without their elbows flaring out to the side or their lower back caving in, I'm going to correct these weaknesses before I move them on to an exercise like the Bench Press. The same holds true if they can't perform a proper Pull-Up. I start them with a band-assisted version of the exercise, stressing a full range of motion and the absence of momentum. Once they can execute a predetermined number of repetitions with good form, I move them to a lighter band, which gives less assistance, until they're finally able to perform the drill with their own body weight. This way, we stress optimal movement mechanics throughout the learning process.

Core strengthening

Common Errors: Progressing exercises before mastering basic form.

The best example I can offer here is the Plank. Easily the most popular core exercise (replacing the long-favored Abdominal Crunch), the Plank, along with its many variations, is simultaneously one of the best and worst things to happen to athletic conditioning in the past generation.

It's good because it teaches athletes the concept of "bracing" their core to serve as a platform for more efficient movement of their limbs. The problem is the drill is often butchered. Doing a plank with your head hanging down like a bowl does your neck no favors. Nor is having your shoulders separated a mile apart so your upper back is rounded or your lower back is caved in like a hammock.

Worse yet is when one or more of the form deviations described above serves as the athlete's base for the drill—and then in an effort to intensify things, they add limb movement to the equation! It just doesn't make any sense.


Photo Credit: Getty Images // Thinkstock

Topics: LOWER BODY | CORE | PULL-UP | PUSH-UP | UPPER BODY | BENCH PRESS | PLANK | RUNNING | EXERCISE | DRILL | MECHANICS