One of the most rewarding aspects of working with young athletes is helping them gain a greater appreciation for how their bodies are designed to move. And a big part of that involves cueing them on proper exercise form.
Here are five effective workout cues that can help improve the movement efficiency of the athletes you work with. These cues not only promote proper exercise form, they also greatly reduce injury potential by making athletes more aware of how to recruit underused muscles.
1. Rip the Floor Open on Squats
Many young athletes have a tendency to overpronate when they squat, meaning they allow the arches of their feet to collapse and their knees to cave in. This results in a lot of unnecessary stress on the knees.
Besides flat-out not knowing how to squat properly, athletes may have weakness in their medial glutes (i.e., the muscles on the outsides of the hips). In an effort to get these muscles to fire and promote better knee alignment, cue your athletes to try to rip the floor apart with their feet.
In fact, have them try it even before they start the descent of their Squat, and watch what happens to their knees. If they're doing it correctly, they will feel their medial gluteus engage, and you will notice their kneecaps moving laterally a bit, becoming more properly aligned with their hips and feet.
2. Keep Your Ribs Down During Upper-Body Pulling Movements
Staple upper-body exercises like Rows and Pull-Ups are very popular with young athletes—especially Pull-Ups, which are often used to test strength during team assessments. Unfortunately, this often leads athletes to do whatever they can to complete as many reps as possible.
In instances like these—or when their upper-back muscles are just plain weak—kids often allow their rib cages to flare up and out as they pull. This does several things. Most notably, it places unnecessary strain on the lower back as the athlete hyperextends in an attempt to complete the full range of motion.
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Instead of having athletes use weight they're not yet ready for on rowing movements, or crank out as many Pull-Ups as possible, put the emphasis on proper pulling mechanics. Encourage rowing movements to begin with keeping the shoulders and rib cage down, and staying down through the completion of each repetition.
For Pull-Ups, try using a band assist to allow athletes to develop sound movement patterns. As they get stronger, substitute a band with less tension, then remove it entirely when they're ready. Once you do, you'll see some of the cleanest, most joint-friendly Pull-Ups you can imagine.
3. Push the Ground Away During Sprinting and Change of Direction Drills
It's frustrating to watch athletes go through "speed and agility" workouts where they just spin their wheels. Instead of concentrating on putting force into the ground to create longer, more powerful strides, they run through the drills as fast as they possibly can with no regard for proper technique.
Whether they are just overeager or because of how they're coached, too many kids wrongly emphasize moving as quickly as possible—without understanding the importance of developing a strength and power base to drive that movement.
When you coach your athletes through these types of drills, stress the importance of "punching" the back leg down and pushing the ground away during sprints. For change of direction training, cue them to use their stored-up elastic energy to drive into the ground and explode in another direction—rather than simply "running on top of it."
4. Maintain a "Core Neutral" Position
This cue is most useful for Planks and Push-Up variations, but it also applies to any exercises performed in a standing position. It's not uncommon to see kids executing these types of moves in a pronounced swayback position.
The fix? First, consider modifying both drills. Start young athletes planking with their knees on the ground and performing Push-Ups on a slightly elevated surface to combat the effects of gravity. Next, to reduce arching in the lower back, cue them to squeeze their glutes and tighten their abs—bracing as if expecting a punch to the gut.
Don't have them round their lower backs; you just want them to avoid excessive arching. Identify this as the "core neutral" position you want them in, and continue to enforce it during standing drills like squatting and overhead pressing.
It seems silly to think you have to tell kids to breathe when they're exerting themselves, but that's exactly the case! Many either forget to breathe altogether or take shallow breaths—predominantly through their mouths—which limits their oxygen intake and only serves to tighten up their necks and shoulders.
I'm a huge fan of diaphragmatic breathing for young athletes, but that topic warrants a whole article unto itself. For our purposes here, simply getting athletes to engage in some type of rhythmic breathing during physical exertion will work wonders.
It doesn't have to be complicated, like matching their breath to a certain number of steps when they're running, or breathing in on the negative and out on the positive of every rep of strength training they do. Just get them used to the idea of some type of regular air exchange going on, so they can avoid tensing up too much.
These cues may not seem particularly groundbreaking, but trust me when I tell you they have a profound effect in cleaning up sloppy movement habits. Give them a try and watch your athletes' form on virtually every exercise improve practically overnight.
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