A scenario that comes up quite often in high school athletics: An elite athlete meets up with a new trainer. Despite the athlete’s on-field success, nagging injuries like pain in the lower back or constant aching in the knees are starting to take their toll. It’s taking the athlete longer to get warmed up before games and longer to bounce back afterward.
The trainer notices that despite being incredibly fast, explosive and dominating, the athlete has a number of glaring imbalances in posture and mechanics that could potentially lead to serious injuries.
Could all the practicing, playing, and hours in the gym actually be doing harm? And how does the trainer get the athlete, who’s already excelling at a high level, to heed the warnings and buy into a radically different approach to training?
Sadly, such situations are becoming more common, thanks in large part to the continuing trend toward early specialization. This approach develops sport-specific skills more quickly than general physical abilities such as systematic strength, coordination and flexibility. The result is that despite poor movement quality, young athletes are able to go out and domiante their competition.
But their deficits will catch up with them eventually. You can’t just keep piling excessive training volume on dysfunctional movement patterns and expect kids’ bodies to withstand it.
If you’re a young athlete, how do you figure out where your weaknesses lie and begin the process of bringing yourself back into balance? And if you’re a strength coach, how do you essentially overhaul an athlete’s approach to physical conditioning without negatively impacting his or her already impressive skills?
A Four-Step Plan
The following is a blueprint for achieving these objectives. It’s an approach I’ve used countless times with athletes from a wide range of sports, and one that I feel is beneficial to kids and coaches alike. Be forewarned though: it takes time, patience and a “big picture” mentality.
1. Get a movement screening
This is a must. My test of choice is the Functional Movement Screen (FMS), developed by physical therapists Gray Cook and Lee Burton. This easy-to-administer, seven-step assessment can give an athlete, as well as his or her strength coach, some keen insights into where their physical deficiencies lie.
For an athlete, the test can be a real eye-opener. It crystallizes how restricted your movement patterns have become and/or how much you lack core strength and coordination.
For a coach, the test is an excellent starting point, allowing you to hone in on the areas that are causing the most trouble—such as restricted ankle mobility or strength imbalances between one side of the body and the other.
You can get more information and find a certified movement assessment coach here.
2. Get back to basics
Here’s where things start to get a bit dicey for a star athlete. If you’re already the fastest and most explosive person on the team, why would you want to take a step back? You don’t necessarily care if you run with sloppy mechanics (leading to poor movement economy), or change direction with lousy positioning and land improperly from jumps (increasing your risk for any number of lower body injuries.)
It’s also a tough sell for the strength coach, who has to persuade the athlete to take a perceived step back. It can help to explain that poor movement economy is a big reason why they’re always gassed at the end of games. Or how faulty change of direction and landing mechanics are at least partially to blame for their knees and ankles hurting all the time.
Going back and doing fundamental drills to improve sprinting and change-of-direction mechanics, and performing plyometric exercises that stress proper body alignment on takeoffs and landings, will reduce injury potential by teaching the athlete to move with greater efficiency. Check out the video playlist above to watch the best basic yet challenging exercises.
Some of my favorite drills in this category include:
- Wall Accelerations
- Seated Arm Swings
- Linear Decelerations
- Lateral Decelerations
- Box Jumps
- Speed Skaters
And don’t overlook the importance of diaphragmatic breathing drills. Learning how to breathe from deep in your abdominals instead of being a “chest breather” (as so many athletes are), confers numerous benefits to both overall health and athletic performance. It leads to greater relaxation and mental focus, allows you to supply your muscles with more oxygen-rich blood while enhancing the removal of metabolic waste, and decreases the amount of tension carried in the muscles around the shoulders and neck. The latter can play a key role in your ability to avoid chronic shoulder injuries.
3. Re-evaluate your approach to strengthening
Most serious gym rats are reluctant to change their current workout program. When a gym rat is also a successful young athlete, expect even more reluctance than usual.
Telling a kid who’s been pounding the iron pretty hard that he’s going to have to give up some of his favorite lifts—at least for a little while—is not something he wants to hear.
The truth is, though, as great as traditional lifts like Squats, Cleans and Bench Presses are, doing them too often and with too much weight probably contributed to the need for a new strength program in the first place.
For example, if the movement screen shows an inability to perform a simple bodyweight Squat without several bio-mechanical “issues” cropping up, what do you think happens when you add extra weight? I’ll give you a hint: things don’t suddenly get better.
Feet that pronate (arches collapse) and knees that pinch inward don’t magically correct themselves when you place a couple of hundred pounds of iron on your back. If anything, the stress being exerted on your joints is made worse!
Although every athlete is different, here are some guidelines that apply to the majority of young athletes in this category:
- A greater focus on unilateral strengthening exercises that emphasize the posterior chain—e.g., Single-Leg Romanian Deadlifts, Reverse Lunges, Step-Ups, etc.)
- Lots of rowing, Reverse Flys and External Rotations, paired with a de-emphasis on chest work.
- More core stability work (anti-extension/anti-rotation drills) and less forward flexion of the spine (e.g., Crunches, Sit-Ups, etc.)
- A de-emphasis on lat training and overhead pressing until thoracic spine mobility and core strength have improved.
- Adding mobility drills and active isolated stretching between sets to further increase range of motion in restricted muscle groups while keeping nervous system activation high.
4. Cover your bases outside the gym
When you add up all the time you spend in the gym training to correct the imbalances uncovered by the movement screen, it will pale in comparison to the amount of time spent practicing, playing and engaging in poor postural positions that just feed into the problem.
Athletes need to appreciate the importance of paying attention to posture throughout the day; stretching and foam rolling on a regular basis; and making sure their bodies are properly fueled and hydrated with whole foods and water. Because although they are not as “cool” as the idea of using the hottest supplement on the market or hitting the gym with reckless abandon, these relatively simple daily habits can ultimately have a much greater impact on your health and performance.
By the same token, coaches need to preach the value of these principles by constantly keeping athletes accountable. When they come in to train, ask them if they did their stretching and soft tissue work the previous evening. Quiz them on what they’ve eaten so far that day, pointing out any poor food choices and offering healthier alternatives.
I realize that the plan laid out here may be a radical departure from what many of you are used to, but I urge you to give it strong consideration—because heeding this advice might make the difference between being a high school standout whose body couldn’t make it to the next level and successfully playing in college and possibly beyond.