Today I have an outstanding guest blog for you from Dynamic Strength and Conditioning coach Matt Skeffington. I met Matt almost a year ago during his internship at Cressey Performance and we’ve been good friends ever since. Luckily, we were able to hire him at Dynamic a few months ago before another facility scooped him up. As you will see, Matt is a very smart guy and an exceptional up-and-coming coach in our industry. Look out for him in the future! Enjoy his post and have a great weekend!
There are many things to consider when it comes to training young athletes, especially female athletes. Over the past several years I have had the opportunity to work with a wide variety of young athletes at the middle school, high school and collegiate levels. Although, most male and female strength programs are very similar, there are certain areas that need special attention when it comes to programming for females. For instance, roughly 1 in 50 female high school athletes will suffer ACL injuries in a given year. These numbers are even higher in sports that demand high speeds and quick
changes of direction seen in sports such as soccer, basketball and volleyball. Another factor to take into consideration is that females tend to have more laxity or flexibility than males, which can certainly increase their risk of injury. So, how do we train female athletes to prevent these and other injuries from happening, while improving performance? Well I can tell you it doesn’t involve pink dumbbells and long distance running.
1) Progress Slowly
One of the biggest mistakes I see coaches make is having their athlete progress too quickly. Now, before I go on, let me make something clear. I am ALL for variety and progression when it comes to exercise selection and I truly believe that is very beneficial for an athlete. After all, action in sports is very random and our athletes’ program needs to reflect this. At the same time I wholeheartedly believe that a young athlete needs more time mastering the basics. How are they ever going to excel at a particular movement if it changes every few weeks?
Changing things such as load, volume, tempo etc., will maintain variety in the program; however, until they have mastered the basic movements (squat, hip hinge, push-up, and chin-up, etc.) and have actually gotten STRONG with those movements, there is no need to introduce new movements.
Month 1 – Pause Goblet Squat 3 x 10-12 (pause in bottom position for 1 second)
Month 2 – Goblet Squat 3 x 6-8
Month 3 – Barbell Front Squat 3-4 x 5
As illustrated in the example above, the first month is used to introduce the exercise and allow for the athlete to improve upon their technique with a higher volume and lighter loads. The pause in the bottom forces the athlete to own the position while working on proper depth and positioning. The second month the exercise stays the same to allow more time for technique improvements but reps decrease to challenge the athlete with heavier loads. Finally, in the third month the athlete has the appropriate strength and technique to handle a more challenging squat variation.
- Training a young athlete, especially a young female athlete is a marathon, not a sprint. A 12 year old soccer player will not be playing in the upcoming Olympics, so give her time to develop.
- When in doubt progress slowly. Do not be afraid to make certain exercises easier if necessary.
Follow this advice and reap the rewards when the time comes.
2) Dominate the Sagittal Plane First
Another big mistake I see coaches making is thinking that their athletes need to train in all three planes right away. Yes, I understand that sports and the real world are 3-D, but that does not mean we should train in 3-D right away. We must master the basics first.
Watch most young female athletes run, jump, sprint, skip and decelerate in the sagittal plane (think front to back). I guarantee you will see a lot of faulty movement patterns like jumping and landing in the valgus collapse or knock-knee position. If our athletes cannot demonstrate adequate motor control and stability in the sagittal plane, how do we expect them to do it in the frontal and transverse planes (think side-to-side)?
Does this mean we need to only train in the sagittal plane? No. But we do need to spend a considerable amount of time mastering the fundamentals of the sagittal plane. Before doing crazy, multi-directional agility drills, spend time teaching your athletes the basic mechanics of sprinting, jumping, landing and decelerating, all in the sagittal plane. Master sagittal-plane strength exercises like split-squats, push-ups and deadlifts before introducing more high-speed, tri-planar exercises. When you feel your athlete is ready for more demanding multi-directional drills and exercises, do them a favor and progress them slowly.
This brings me to my next point: CRUSH single-leg exercises (split squats, step-ups, lunges, single-leg deadlifts, sled marches/drags, etc.) The beauty of these exercises is that they are all done within the sagittal planebut the athlete must display control in the frontal and transverse planes to prevent the working leg from slipping into adduction and internal rotation. What is the mechanism for an ACL injury? Hip internal rotation, adduction and knee hyper-extension. Single-leg exercises train the muscles and neural system that oppose those motions; hip external rotation and abduction. Can you now see why the old thought that our athletes can get by on the basic bilateral barbell lifts is complete bullsh*t? We play on one leg at time; please train that way.
3) Develop Strength (Especially Eccentric Strength)
Most strength and conditioning programs rarely take the time to develop eccentric strength. This is where a muscle lengthens while producing tension (think the lowering portion of a bench press). Eccentric strength is crucial for staying healthy and getting strong as it is the strength needed to decelerate and absorb force. The research on this topic is very relevant when it comes to preventing injury, especially ACL injuries. Click HERE and HERE for more information.
One of the simplest ways to address eccentric strength and decrease the risk of non-contact injuries is with low-level plyometric drills. I learned a great deal while working at Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning. One of the biggest things he stressed was to make sure EVERYONE went through basic plyometric progressions and everyone was strong enough eccentrically to land softly with correct joint centration. We spent months teaching our athletes how to decelerate and change directions with proper technique. After all, that is where our young female athletes have the most trouble and become injured.
Many of our young female athletes are very ligament dominant, meaning they rely heavily on their ligaments for stability and control. The great thing about these drills is that they teach the athlete to shift the stress of decelerating away from their ligaments and bones and shift it to their neuromuscular system.
Month 1&2 – Box Jumps (technique focus)
Month 3- Low Hurdle Jumps (stick each landing)
Month 4- Continuous Hurdle Jumps (elastic focus)
Month 1&2 – 1-leg Lateral/Medial Box Hop (technique focus)
Month 3 – Low Hurdle Lateral/Medial Hops (stick each landing)
Month 4 – Continuous Lateral/Medial Hurdle Hops (elastic focus)
Another way to gain strength through eccentric training is with tempo training. To do this, have your athletes slowly control the lowering (eccentric) portion of the exercise. These tempos force the athlete to control their movements, all the while really dialing in their technique. Another great aspect of tempo training is that it can force athletes to spend time strengthening a particular area of weakness. For example, if you were to program a trap-bar deadlift for a high school female athlete, the majority of the athletes would lower the weight by relying heavily on their quadriceps and fall into the bottom position with no eccentric control. Slow them down with a longer tempo and get them focusing on sitting back to get them using the appropriate movement pattern and musculature such as the hamstrings and glutes and you get exactly what you want out of the exercise . These tempos can be applied to almost any exercise. My favorites are the chin-up, split-squat, step-down, push-up and goblet squat.
4) Coach, Coach and Coach Some More
You can create the greatest program in the world, but unless it is coached and coached well, you’re just spinning your wheels. Say you cover all the basics in your program after a thorough assessment of your athlete. You attack ACL prevention, with low-level plyometric drills and crush exercises that develop a strong posterior chain. You program for strength, posture and stability with various structural and corrective exercises. That is all fine and dandy, BUT unless you coach the hell out of those exercises you’re only making matters worse.
So, why is this? Our athletes love to take the path of least resistance when performing an exercise. In other words, they complete the movement any way they can with compromise. For example, the push-up is an awesome exercise for females. Not only does it build a strong upper body but it also crushes core and scapular stability, as well as glute activation, all of which females NEED. Unless you’re there cueing the crap out of the exercise, most of our young athletes will compensate by slipping into an exaggerated lumbar extension (think over-arching), humeral abduction, scapular elevation/upward rotation and forward head posture. They enter that dreaded path of least resistance by hanging on their passive restraints (bones, ligaments) and not using their active restraints or muscles to stabilize them in a good neutral spine position. After all, the goal of the exercise is to strengthen their musculature in proper positions, isn’t it?
We have now just fed into our problems with poor technique and reinforce their poor stability patterns. This is just an example of how even the best exercises on paper can cause further harm if not coached and performed correctly. SO START COACHING!!
Matt Skeffington is a strength and conditioning coach at Dynamic Strength and Conditioning in Nashua, NH. He is a recent graduate from the University of New Hampshire, with his Bachelor’s degree in exercise science. Matt has spent the past several years working and interning with the University of New Hampshire’s strength and conditioning, Mike Boyle Strength and Conditioning and Cressey Performance.
Matt can be contacted at MattSkeffington@gmail.com.