From flipping tires and pushing sleds to grinding away in the weight room, more young athletes are training for improved sports performance than ever before. In fact, these days you'd be hard pressed to find a serious athlete who isn't currently doing some type of supplemental conditioning for his or her sport—a stark contrast from just a generation ago.
Yet as important as improving things like strength, speed and power are to athletic performance, athletes need to pay attention to reducing their injury risk. Because whenever kids have been specializing in a single sport for years and/or are just generally tight and don't move all that well to begin with, injury usually isn't far behind.
However, given all of the things that need to be addressed in a typical training session, it's often hard to squeeze in everything a developing young athlete needs. Unfortunately, this usually means that things like mobility work and firing up chronically underused muscles often get the short end of the stick.
The following five drills aim to solve this problem. They can be used as a comprehensive warm-up for older, more experienced athletes, or serve as a standalone workout for younger athletes. And since they involve little more than body weight and resistance bands, the entire sequence can be done just about anywhere. Go through the sequence one time for the perfect pre-workout movement prep, or go around twice as your off-day conditioning.
1. Half-Kneeling Hip Flexor Stretch with Band Pull-Apart
Purpose: Opens up the front of the hips while simultaneously firing under-utilized upper back muscles.
Relevance to sports performance: Tight hip flexors can impair proper running and jumping mechanics, potentially making athletes slower and less explosive. Whereas activating the muscles that are responsible for retracting, or pulling the shoulder blades back, can promote more balanced upper-body development and contribute to the reduction of shoulder injuries.
- Get onto the ground in a half-tall kneeling position with one leg bent approximately 90 degrees in front of you and your back knee directly under your hips with a large resistance band positioned up in your hip crease.
- Holding a light-to-moderate-tension resistance band in front of you with your hands spaced about 12-18 inches apart, begin by contracting the glute of your back leg to feel a slight stretch in the front of your hip.
- Once you've got that, start driving your hips and front leg forward to slightly increase the stretch.
- As you're doing this, use the muscles of your upper back to pull the band apart by pinching your shoulder blades together, maintaining a very slight bend in your elbows.
- Pause for a second and return to the starting position. Repeat for the prescribed number of reps and switch sides.
Coaching Cues: Keep your ribcage down and avoid arching your back and sticking out your chest as you pull the band apart—focus on squeezing your shoulder blades together. Adjust the difficulty level by spacing your hands apart according to the tension of the band you're using. Keep your front foot flat on the ground as you drive into the stretch.
2. Lying Mini Band Hip Flexion/ Extension
Purpose: Activates powerful hip extensor muscles (glutes and hamstrings), as well as the hip flexors.
Relevance to sports performance: Athletes working these muscle groups in opposition and focusing on increasing strength through a large range of motion can achieve better hip separation (one leg being extended, while the other is being flexed) which directly correlates to improved sprinting mechanics.
- Place a mini band around your feet and lie down with a bench placed approximately 2-3 feet in front of you.
- Begin by placing your heels up on the bench, with your legs fully extended and lie down on the ground. The objective is to keep one leg straight by pushing down into the bench (hip extension), as you draw the other knee up toward your waist.
- Once your bent leg reaches a 90-degree angle, pause for a second and return to the starting position and repeat with the other leg.
- Continue alternating for the prescribed number of reps.
Coaching Cues: Lightly brace your core as you think of crushing the bench with your support leg. Also focus on keeping your toes pulled toward your face with both feet. Not only will this keep the band in place, but you'll strengthen a position called dorsiflexion, which is an integral part of proper sprinting mechanics.
3. Upper-Body Low Step Walk-Ups with Thoracic Rotation
Purpose: Improve scapular movement on the ribcage, thoracic rotation and core stability.
Relevance to sports performance: Possessing good shoulder mobility, as well as the ability to rotate the upper torso (without compensating by relying on the lower back), is key in rotary sports like baseball, hockey and golf.
Execution: Assume a push-up position with your hands spaced just outside of a low step positioned beneath your chest. With your feet spread approximately shoulder's width apart, begin by bracing your core and first placing one hand, then the other, up onto the step. As soon as both hands are positioned on the step, bring them both back down in the same order, keeping your hips as still as possible while doing so. Once back on the ground, lift one hand and rotate your arm and upper torso up toward the ceiling. Hold that position for a second, then come back down and repeat the rotation with your other arm. Continue this entire sequence for the prescribed number of reps.
Coaching Cues: Strive to keep your hips as still as possible when walking your hands up and down off the step—most of the movement should come from around the shoulder blades. Use a controlled rotation and concentration "packing" your shoulder blades together at the top of the movement. Avoid simply flailing your arms up towards the ceiling.
4. Pallof Step-Outs
Purpose: Increase core stiffness while working on putting force into the ground.
Relevance to sports performance: Being able to change directions when moving side to side is important in a wide variety of sports. Athletes however, need to be able to accomplish this, without losing stability through the core.
- Stand aside an adjustable cable station or band with the resistance set at about chest height.
- Grab the resistance with both hands and square your hips, shoulders and feet to face forward.
- Begin by bracing your core and extending your arms directly out in front of you.
- With your feet approximately shoulder's width apart, take a controlled stride away from the anchor point with your outside leg first, followed by your inside leg.
- Once there, control the resistance as you first return the inside leg, then the outside to the starting position.
- Continue repeating this sequence for the desired number of reps, then repeat to the other side.
Coaching Cues: It's important to keep your hips, shoulders and feet squared straight ahead. If you can't, the resistance is probably too heavy. Once your core is braced, focus on initiating the movement with your lower body by driving into the ground to produce force when moving away from the anchor and decelerating, or absorbing it as you step back.
5. Mini Band Wall Shoulder flexion
Purpose: Improves overhead mobility (and core stability) for sports like swimming, basketball, volleyball and baseball.
Relevance to sports performance: Shortened, tight lats can make it difficult for athletes to get their arms overhead without compensating by excessively arching the lower back. This drill can help by increasing lat length, while also keeping athletes aware of proper core involvement.
- Place a mini band around your wrists and lean against a wall, with your feet spaced about a foot away from its base.
- Begin by trying to flatten the arch of your lower back into the wall. Once in this position, with your core and glutes contracted, push out slightly on the band to create some tension in your shoulders.
- Maintaining that tension, begin lifting your arms as high overhead as possible, without your lower back coming off the wall.
- Pause there for a second, then lower back down and repeat for the desired number of reps- trying each time to lift your ams a little bit higher.
Coaching Cues: Think about keeping your ribcage down as you lift your arms up overhead and try to feel the lats being stretched.
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