By: Mark Watts, M.Ed, MS, CSCS, USAW-SPC, NASM-PES, SCCC
When an athlete enters their first year of college, there are usually some major areas of concern with these young men and women. Most of these college freshmen have substandard strength, flexibility, and knowledge. Specifically, there are 3 major areas we feel must be addressed in our programming to properly prepare these athletes for collegiate athletics. They are Mechanics, Exercise Technique and Muscular Imbalances.
Young people do not how to run, specifically sprint, correctly. The bigger problem is there is very little that can be done to change this. By the time, our athletes are in college, they have some either bad or good habits they have developed and have been reinforcing for years. It is important that sprint mechanics are addressed with our athletes. We understand that spring mechanics are only a small part of speed enhancement training. But, this is an area that needs to be taught and reinforced.
We have a basic linear speed mechanic progression we institute in our training. There are three basic areas we address: Posture, Arm Action and Leg Action. Posture is simply addressed by having the athlete execute a forward lean without breaking posture, especially at the hips. With arm action, we want our athletes to keep the elbow locked and move at the shoulder joint by pushing the elbows back. This is often an area of concern. Finally, leg action is divided into front-side mechanics and back-side mechanics. An integral part of each is triple flexion and triple extension in the hip, knee, and ankle joints respectively. Proper mechanics need to be addressed as a separate training entity and also during every drill.
Change of Direction Mechanics
Improper change of direction mechanics and specifically deceleration mechanics can lead to poor performance on the field or court and can also lead to injuries. Almost all of non-contact lower extremity injuries on the field or court happen during the deceleration or eccentric phase of changing direction. Acute injuries to ligaments, tendons, and muscles almost always happen when an athlete is stopping, planting or landing. These injuries rarely happen when an athlete is “pushing off” during the concentric phase of the movement.
Along with improper mechanics, another issue that can inhibit performance and increase the chance of injury is lack of lower body and core strength. There is an estimated 2-8 times an athlete’s bodyweight which is applied when changing direction at full speed. This is why overall relative strength is vitally important even for non-contact sports. It is imperative that the athlete not only possesses enough yielding strength to stop their momentum while maintaining good posture, but also the inter-muscular coordination to recruit the proper motor units in the correct sequences. In other words it is important to have proper glute & hamsting to quad & hip flexor strength ratio when changing direction. Muscular imbalances can be as detrimental to COD mechanics as lack of overall strength.
Changing direction is a teachable skill that should be addressed. We include lateral and linear deceleration along with landing mechanic drills in our speed and agility training. Coupled with strength training, this can assist the athlete in changing direction more efficiently.
Anytime there is a discrepancy in exercise technique, there are generally only a few different causes: lack of knowledge, postural alignment, and improper loading. The first reason an athlete cannot execute a movement properly is lack of knowledge. The coach must ask: Does the athlete know what the proper technique is? And if so, can they properly execute that movement
This is why it is important to implement exercise technique progressions. Every athlete that is introduced into your program should have an orientation period to learn how to execute the basic movements in your program. We have several teaching progressions we cram into two days the first week we have athletes for each particular team. This in no way suggests that these athletes are experts at the end of one week of teaching. But they should be proficient enough to execute the basic movements.
After the athlete is taught how to perform and exercise properly and still cannot perform it correctly with good form; then the strength coach must address postural alignment discrepancies and indentify tight and weak muscle groups. Once these issues are identified, corrective exercise strategies must be implemented. Please don’t overanalyze this. For the squat in particular; solving these problems can simply mean adding posterior chain work, foam rolling the hip flexors, or adding a band around the knees during warm-up. This will all depend on what is causing the technique flaw in the first place.
Squat Technique Discrepancies
A good portion of the first-year athletes we see cannot execute a proper parallel squat. If an athlete has trouble squatting to parallel, it is our job to make sure the athlete knows what a parallel squat is and what it feels like to execute it properly.
An athlete’s ability to perform a parallel bodyweight squat may be the most telling task he/she can perform. A parallel squat is not only the most effective exercise to develop lower body power; it can also be the most efficient way to identify weak or tight muscle groups as an assessment tool.
Regardless of the specific type of squat we will institute, all variations are performed slightly below parallel. We have identified 5 distinct benefits for having our athletes squat parallel which include superior posterior chain development, better reduction of injuries, the ability to gain more lean muscle, increase functional flexibility, and finally it is a safer movement. For a more comprehensive list, please click here: Why we Squat Parallel at Denison University.
The overhead squat in particular is one of the most important assessment tools we institute for our incoming athletes. The overhead squat can allow the coach to identify weak and tight muscle groups by examining such discrepancies such as foot pronation, knee valgus & internal rotation, core instability, anterior pelvic tilt, instability in the posterior shoulder girdle, pectoral tightness, etc. Our movement assessment can be found here: Denison University Movement Assessment.
There are several of our athletes that do don’t know how to perform a proper bodyweight squat when they arrive here. Out of the ones that do know how to perform the squat, they may not be able to perform the movement correctly due to postural alignment, tight muscle groups or weak muscle groups as identified previously. It is our job to 1.) Educate the athlete on proper technique and 2.) identify how to improve squat form by addressing weakness and lack of mobility.
Our squat progression is very basic and we include a short circuit of drill to reinforce proper technique. Our basic coaching points for the squat are:
1.) Feet slightly turned out at about 15-30 degrees with the weight on the heels and the knees aligned with the toes
2.) Back Arched and Shoulders retracted with the head back
3.) Descend by pushing the hips back and maintain an upright posture by keeping the head back, shoulder blades retracted. Ascend by pushing the knees out to the side and leading up with the head.
Teaching Progression Group Work
Teaching Progression Stations
1.) Assisted Rack Squat
2.) Facing Wall Squat
3.) Concentric/Eccentric Box Squat
4.) Four Position Dowel Rod Squat
Hands Free, Back, Thigh, OH
For a much more detailed video or our Squat Teaching Progressions, click here: DU S&C Squat Progression.
Pulling Technique Discrepancies
Pulling exercises can include Olympic lifts, deadlifts, RDLs, etc. These exercises can be dangerous is performed improperly. This is often a point of concern with teaching these lifts to our athletes. We keep our pulling exercise teaching progressions fairly simple.
1.) The shoulder blades should be retracted, the lats contracted, and the low back should be arched.
2.) The hips should be slightly higher than the knees and the shoulder slightly higher than the hips. The shoulders and hips to rise at the same rate of speed initially.
3.) The shoulders should be slightly in front of the bar with a clean, snatch or RDL and slightly behind in a deadlift.
Our Olympic Lift Teaching Progression can be found here: DU S&C OLY Lift Progression. Our Deadlift Technique Clinic can be found here: Deadlift Technique Clinic.
Pressing Technique Discrepancies
First-year athletes usually assume they know how to perform a bench press, incline press or an overhead pressing movement. We found this not to be the case. If fact it is rare for us to find a majority of our athletes that truly understand how to perform a simple push-up let alone a pressing movement. Pressing a barbell or dumbbell improperly can not only jeopardize shoulder health and risk injury; it can also cause the athlete to accentuate sticking points and plateau in training much easier.
We use a few simple techniques to assist our athletes in keeping healthy and produce more force when pressing. Basically, we illustrate 3 checkpoints when teaching our athletes how to press.
1.) Retract and depress the shoulder blades through the entire repetition
2.) Tuck the elbows as you descend the bar during the eccentric phase of the movement and flare your elbows as you press the weight up during the concentric phase
3.) Keep your upper arms at 45 degrees during the press so your elbow is directly underneath and aligned with your index and middle fingers. In order to keep this position you should bring the bar down to your upper abs or xyphoid process for the bench and the clavicle for the incline press. For a more detailed explanation of how we teach the overhead press, press click here: DU S&C OHP Teaching Progression. For a more detailed explanation of bench press technique, click here: DU S&C Bench Press Technique.
Muscular imbalances are usually the root of problems such as improper running mechanics and poor lifting form. Muscular imbalances will include a weak muscle group coupled with a tight muscle group. This can affect posture and performance. There are two major areas that we see the most common postural alignment issues cause by imbalances.
Often referred to as the upper crossed syndrome or the Neanderthal syndrome, a large portion of our first year athletes have severe discrepancies in the anterior to posterior shoulder strength ratio. Most athletes we see are much stronger in the muscles they can see in the mirror and weak in the ones they can’t. For male athletes, this can often be attributed to programming errors which leads to extensive pressing movements, especially the bench press, and a lack of upper back exercises such as rows and chins. This rounded shoulder issue is prevalent in female athletes as well. Poor posture not only leads to inferior performance but also injury. When the shoulders are rounded forward due to pectoral tightness and weakness is the upper back, other joints must compensate. For example, the upper crossed syndrome usually includes a lack of thoracic spine mobility which in turn can put undue stress on the gleno-humeral joint and the elbow.
Almost all of our incoming freshman exhibit an anterior pelvic tilt. This is usually a problem with a weak muscle coupled with an antagonistic strong muscle which causes this posture. This anterior pelvic tilt is cause by one of or a combination of having tight hip flexors, weak hamstrings, and weak lower abdominals. In basic terms, tight hip flexors essentially “pull” the front of the pelvis down. The weak lower abdominals fail to “pull” the front of the pelvis up and without the hamstrings to “pull” the posterior of the pelvis down; we have an anterior pelvis tilt. This leads to the hamstrings always being in an elongated position when sprinting. This can lead to hamstring pulls. Also an anterior pelvic tilt inhibits the athlete from a full triple extension when sprinting or jumping and the inability to achieve a parallel squat.