The Unfortunate Reality of Training for Young Athletes

Way to often I see young athletes and kids being put through so called sport performance training or strength & conditioning programs and all in all it may actually be doing them more harm than good. Not barking at the average high school weight room coach but, the workout formats and programming or lack thereof, is outdated and unacceptable. This isn’t necessarily the coach’s fault for being uneducated in the manner but if we want to see our kids succeed and perform at their highest ability, we must provide them with training that will decrease their risk of injury and allow the normal bio-mechanics of the body to work in its desired form and greatest potential. The same could be said for the general population as well but we’ll save that for another day. It’s never a good sign when you see a tremendous athlete with a potentially bright future suffer a traumatic injury that could cost them their career. It’s also sad to see kids that have the ability to become great athletes but are never really taught how to use their bodies. We may think that kids with natural talent will ultimately reach their full potential and be able to showcase their skills, but that isn’t always the case. Depending on how we train our body rather intentionally or incidentally in nature, we can develop bad habits and bio-mechanics that limit our body’s ability to perform such moves through the kinetic chain, and the agonist and antagonist muscle relationship.

In most high school weight rooms, kids come in having never worked out before and the first thing coaches do is throw them under a barbell to perform a squat or bench-press while loading the bar with enough weight to get a 1 rep maximum or other low rep maximum. The problem with this is that most kids at this level can not even hold a static body weight squat or lunge with correct posture for upwards of 30 seconds without fatiguing. The stabilization muscles around the supportive joints have not been trained for the stress of their own body weight, yet here we are loading them under hundreds of pounds to move through ranges of motion. Over time the primary muscle groups such as the quadriceps, hamstrings, pectoralis muscles, or latissimus dorsi will become very strong from these workouts, however the stabilizer muscles still have yet to be targeted creating the ultimate recipe for disaster. The tensile force applied to the tendons and ligaments of the joints that these large muscle groups connect to, is to great of stress. The overload or instability of these joints lead to tears of the Anterior Cruciate ligament commonly found with football, basketball, and soccer players. Or ruptures or tears of the biceps tendon, rotator cuff muscles or the ulnar collateral ligament common with baseball players. Injuries to the biceps tendon or rotator cuff muscles are also common in the general public due to the similar causes. An example of how this works would be hypertonicity or overuse of the pectoralis muscle and hypotonicity or deactivation of the rhomboids, which is a stabilizer for posture. The rhomboids are weak due to lack of recruitment therefore are not capable of keeping the shoulders rolled back in good posture. Along the other spectrum the pectoralis muscles are overly contracted pulling the shoulders forward and putting stress on the biceps tendon and rotator cuff muscles during certain overhead motions. These are some of the more common sports injuries we see, and while we can’t completely prevent all injuries, correct functional training can play a pivotal roll in helping decrease the risk of injury.  The below chart by Michael Boyle shows the joints that are suppose to be stable vs. those that are mobile.


In addition to being at a high risk of injury, we also find many athletes are not capable of translating their strength or dissipation of forces in active movements that apply to their sport. For example, if a basketball player has a strong lower extremity primary muscle group or quadricep group, but his hip flexors and hip extensors are weak, then in real time he will not be able to land a movement stabilized and exert a maximal opposite force needed to make the next move or jump. In order for our explosive forces to be maximally dissipated, we must have a solid stabilized foundation and core. Like a trampoline for example, for Newton’s third law which states “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction” to fully be applied, reversing the force downward maximally, requires that all springs be attached and functional. If a spring is missing, we do not get the full rebounding force of the downward pressure exerted on the trampoline, and the more dysfunctional or missing springs we have the less opposing force that can be exerted by the trampoline. The same works for our body, if our stabilization and firing muscles are dysfunctional then they cannot appropriately absorb the force applied on them by primary muscle groups and dissipate that force with an equally opposing force. One of the biggest determining factors in identifying young athletes at risk for lower extremity injuries or instability is knee position when in an athletic stance. Many kids present with knee valgus as a result of lower cross syndrome. Knee valgus is abduction and external rotation of the knee with the hips are in flexion. This usually results due to tight rectus femoris, adductors and iliotibial band, as well as a weak vastus medialis obliques, gluteus medius and maximus, and biceps femoris. This knee action is very noticeable usually when landing a jump.

So as for training to improve these weaknesses in stabilization and instability, it is important to take a step back from general weight lifting and assess the needs of each individual athlete. Or for younger athletes that have yet to start weight lifting, it is a good idea to start with body weight conditioning exercises to prepare their bodies for resistance training. Exercises such as a body weight loaded squat or lunge stance for time is a great start. With instability or weakness, body shaking will occur, overtime the stabilization muscles will get stronger and athletes will be able to noticeable hold positions longer. Next you can move into active movements such as landing depth jumps or bounds onto single legs and paying attention to the balance and stabilization upon landing as well as the knee valgus or varus. The foundation of training for an athlete is pivotal to performance and the limit of growth athletically. We all want to be bigger, faster, stronger but in order for that to happen we must train our body to be able to adapt to such changes.


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