If you asked ten people in the gym what the most important exercise is, you’d receive ten different answers. Obviously, there are lots of variables to take into consideration; what are your fitness goals, how much experience do you have, do you have any previous injuries, etc., but when you deconstruct nearly all workouts, they are formed from following foundational movement patterns:
- Push (upper body)
- Pull (upper body)
- Hip hinge
While these core movements are valuable for anyone, implementing them into youth athletes’ workout routines sets them up for future training success.
Upper Body Push
No upper body routine is complete without some version of a push. From the bench press to triceps pushdowns, being able to press resistance away from your body is crucial as an athlete. The most basic movement pattern that should be mastered before progressing to external resistance would be the pushup. Even though it is overlooked as a complex exercise, the pushup challenges not only the upper body but also core strength. A few coaching tips:
- The body should remain in a straight line, from the back of the head to the ankles
- Modifications can be made in-depth and hand width to reduce shoulder strain
- Performing from an elevated surface can help improve technique while reducing difficulty
Perfecting the pushup, considered a horizontal pushing exercise, allows for a progression to other pushing opportunities, such as using dumbbells or a barbell. It also allows athletes to explore vertical pushing or moving weight overhead. The baseline exercise to explore would be a single-arm shoulder press for several reasons. First of all, the exercise can be scaled up (or down) in a variety of ways. It can be performed in sitting, standing, or in a lunge stance. You could hold the weight in a neutral grip or in external rotation to accommodate the shoulder, and not using a barbell allows for an emphasis on the overall motion quality (from head and neck positioning, shoulder range, and avoidance of lumbar compensation).
Upper Body Pull
Where the push targets most of the chest and shoulder musculature, the pull is all about the back. Just as there were two push variations, upper body pulling can be done in both the vertical plane (as in a pull-up) or in the horizontal plane (as in a row). Vertical pulling does require a bit more equipment than some of the other foundational movement patterns, considering most youth athletes will not have the baseline strength or endurance to perform a pull-up appropriately. Starting with an exercise such as the lat pulldown will provide a bit more structure to the motion. By providing the athlete the opportunity to sit down, there is less demand on the core to provide stability (and therefore, more emphasis on the actual pulling motion). A few coaching tips:
- Avoid pulling the bar behind the head/neck
- Pull through the desired range of motion, not beyond it
- Limit the amount of momentum needed to perform the exercise
Once the athlete can perform the lat pulldown with the necessary control, try progressing into a total body exercise such as pull-up variations.
Horizontal pointing tends to work a slightly different part of the back known as the scapular retractors (i.e., the rhomboids and middle trapezius muscles). These muscles are some of the primary “stabilizers” of the scapula and can be targeted through a rowing pattern. When working on the rowing motion, it all depends on what kind of equipment you have available. One of the easiest ways to incorporate a rowing motion is by using an elastic resistance band. Simply find a way to anchor the band at roughly torso height, and progress the exercise’s resistance by stepping further away. A few coaching tips:
- Make sure the front of the athlete’s shoulder does not tip forward
- The back muscles should be driving this motion, not the biceps
If you do not have access to resistance bands but have some type of free weight, the single-arm bent-over row is a great alternative.
If one movement pattern was consistently made incorrectly, it would probably be the hip hinge. All it takes is watching someone swing a kettlebell or do a “deadlift” to see people shift the exercise’s emphasis to their low back or knees, which can result in all sorts of repercussions. Teaching your youth athletes how to appropriate bend at the waist will set them up for later lifting success. For that reason, starting without resistance (like in a bodyweight Romanian deadlift) would be a good choice. A few coaching tips:
- There are a variety of drills to reinforce the hip hinge, and finding the one that works for your athlete is key
- “When in doubt, stick your bottom out.”
- Squeeze the glutes to help return the torso upright
Once they have mastered the hip hinge, progressions can be made by adding resistance or even doing a single-leg version of the motion.
While the hip hinge helps initiate a squat, they are two different movement patterns. Squatting is a much more “knee dominant” activity and allows for a biasing of more anterior thigh musculature than a hinge. We’ve all probably seen someone attempt to squat, which makes you cringe deep down inside, which is why perfecting a bodyweight squat to a box is a great starting point for young athletes. A few coaching tips:
- Cue the knee to stay in line with the second toe (instead of caving inwards)
- The hips must initiate the motion, don’t start by bending the knees
Once the athlete can perform the exercise perfectly, feel free to progress by taking away the box/bench, having them perform a goblet squat, or playing with a barbell-loaded motion.
What separates the lunge from the previous two exercises is that it is single-leg in nature. This unilateral loading opportunity allows an athlete to incorporate more stability training into their routine and, at the same time, discover any compensations that they may have on one side compared to the other. Instead of having the athlete start with dynamic lunges, begin in a split stance lunge. This allows for the width of the stance to be optimal, more control throughout the motion, and the ability to scale it up as needed. Check out the following video for not only a lot of good cues for the split-stance lunge but for other lunge variations as well:
Are these the only exercises a youth athlete should perform? Of course not, but emphasizing a few of these functional movements in each of their workouts will set the stage for a successful athletic career.