Sometimes, even advanced athletes screw up the most basic skills.
Every athlete is taught the athletic position at some point. It might've been when they first started playing sports or even in gym class.
It's the fundamental stance, the starting point of almost every athletic movement. It puts you in an optimal position to move quickly in any direction while keeping your eyes on the field of play.
But odds are, you are doing it completely wrong.
But it's not their fault. There's a good chance they weren't taught how to do it correctly from the start.
"Even coaches I've consulted with at the university level don't understand this basic biomechanical position," adds Scarpulla.
The most common coaching tips for the athletic stance are (1) bend your knees, (2) keep your weight on your toes and (3) keep your chest up. The resulting position looks something like this:
To the untrained eye, this position might look perfectly OK. However, it has some critical mistakes.
"When you see an athlete break down into an athletic position, everyone wants to drive their knees over their toes. If you put your knees over your toes, you place all your weight on your quadriceps," says Scarpulla. "That's the worst thing you can do."
Loading your quadriceps disengages your glutes and hamstrings. These powerful muscles on the backside of your body are responsible for extending your hips, or straightening your hips from a bent position. This is the single most powerful joint movement in your body, and it allows for explosive movements like jumping and sprinting.
Yes, the quadriceps help with these movement, but they're responsible for simply straightening the leg. They are a contributor, but not the primary driver like the hips. If you rely too much on your quads, you severely limit your ability to produce force from the athletic position. The result is a slower and less explosive athlete.
Worse, this improper position is a cause of knee complaints among young athletes. Scarpulla frequently hears these complaints from athletes as young as 12, who shouldn't yet be complaining about bad knees.
"Their knees are protruding forward and that causes inflammation in the knee," Scarpulla says. "Their poor biomechanics never allow that inflammation to go down." The result is pain that's often characterized as "growing pains" or simply attributed to having bad knees.
Over time, the quads overdevelop from so much use while the hamstrings remain weak. The resulting imbalance is a recipe for poor athletic performance, hamstring injuries and ACL injuries.
Use the correct technique for the athletic position, and all these problems go away.
Fixing the Athletic Position
Learning the athletic position isn't rocket science. It's pretty simple; you just need to know a few essential cues.
First, focus on driving your hips back. As your hips move back, your knees will bend but your shins should remain nearly vertical. Your shoulders should be directly over your toes. If you do it correctly, you will feel tension in your hamstrings and glutes. It will look like this:
This is the same position you would assume to perform a Hang Clean if you're familiar with the exercise. Brad Arnett, J.J. Watt's strength coach and owner of NX Level (Wauwatosa, Wisconsin), provides a great explanation of getting into the athletic position based on the Hang Clean form in the video above.
To feel the difference between the incorrect and correct positions, stand up and bend your knees forward. You will feel it in your quads, and if you hold this position, your quads will begin to fatigue. Now stand up and drive your hips back like you're sitting on a barstool. You should feel it in the muscles on the backside of your body, not your quads. Once again, shift your knees forward and immediately feel your quads engage.
To help athletes learn the correct athletic position, Scarpulla prescribes a five-step process that reinforces proper technique.
Step 1: He first teaches his athletes why the athletic position that's so commonly used is wrong and why they need to fix it, which hopefully you understand after reading this article.
Step 2: Stand with a bench behind you and sit down on the bench, focusing on driving your hips back and keeping your chest up. Repeat 25 times.
Step 3: Do the same thing, but stop an inch above the bench to learn what the athletic position feels like. Do this 25 times.
Step 4: Try the wrong position a few times between reps so you can feel the difference and teach your nervous system to know the difference between the correct and incorrect position.
Step 5: Perform your speed drills as you normally would. Stop and reset any time you feel your knees shoot forward rather than your hips driving back. Try to get into the correct position every single time.
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