To start I want to readily admit I am stealing directly from Mike Robertson’s article. So credit goes to him. I recommend you take a look at his article as it is a great place to gain some great insight into why athletes are dropping like flies. With that said I wanted to expand on his article and make it more directed towards a younger population, specifically high school aged athletes.
As someone who shares floor space with a physical therapy clinic and operates under the OAK Orthopedics umbrella I can say without hesitation we see way too many injured high school athletes. There is nothing worse to me than a high school athlete getting their season taken away from them because of an injury. We all know someone who has been directly affected by this and it’s never fun.
If you know me it is quite difficult to give out just a yes or no, black or white statement. Typically you will get a…it depends or, it’s not as simple as that, or there is more to it than that. And with injuries this pattern remains. I completely believe there is no one reason why injuries occur in young athletes. But with that said, I do believe there are absolutely a few common themes we see with these athletes.
- Young athletes don’t learn how to flex and bend (in the right places)
- Young athletes don’t learn how to stop.
- Young athletes are not well conditioned.
#1- Young Athletes Don't Learn How to Flex And Bend (in the right places)
When it comes to movement, position predicts performance, and in many cases position also predicts risk for something bad to happen. When we look at athletic movements it’s really all about two things: 1) putting yourself in position to produce force or 2) putting yourself in position to absorb force. So we are either accelerating of decelerating when it comes down to it. The position of our body and angles of the specific joints required of those movements will predict what the end outcome is going to be.
So with that said there are joint positions that predict good outcomes and joint positions that predict poor outcomes and sometimes even injury. When it comes to dealing with the high forces that sports require our bodies perform their best when we are aligned.
So what do we mean by aligned?
When we say alignment most often you will think about posture standing tall, shoulders back head high. But from a performance standpoint it is the body’s ability to maintain joint integrity throughout the entire body so that it can absorb or produce force efficiently and safely. Basically we mean it’s your body’s ability or inability to keep every link in the chain strong. And for high school athletes the weak links in the chain are the hips and back.
- Watch a high school athlete do a pushup.
- What happens to their back?
- It droops to the ground as the fatigue.
- Watch them perform a squat.
- What do you see?
- Often times you will see their low back round as they get to the bottom of the movement.
- Watch them perform a deadlift.
- What do you see?
- Rounded back throughout the movement.
These are all common examples of "bad bending"
What should we see…?
- During the pushup the spine should stay aligned, in the same position as if your were standing with good posture, we call this a neutral spine.
- During the squat the low back should remain rigid as all of the range of motion should come from the hips, knees and ankles.
- During the deadlift the spine should start and remain neutral throughout the movement.
When athletes depend on their spines for too much movement problems occur.
1) The obvious is a potential for back injury. The back is unquestionably strongest when it is aligned properly, when it is asked to do high stress, high force tasks while in overextended or flexed positions is when injuries occur. Unfortunately low back pain is not just reserved for adults as so many youth athletes regularly experience low back pain from too much flexing and bending of the back.
2) The second problem is the athlete never learns how to move through the hips, which is critical for strength, power, speed and ultimately success. Look at any high level athlete and I can guarantee you they know how to flex and bend through the hips knees and ankles while keeping the spine stable. This equates to high forces and faster athletes. The inability to utilize the hips equtes to athletes who always look unsteady in their movements and lack explosive strength.
3) The third problem that arises from bad bending and flexing mechanics is the inability to absorb force. This is the biggest cause of knee injuries and has debilitated so many high school athletes. We will go in depth on stopping in part 2 of this series.
So what is the solution to bad flexing and bending?
First of all it is important to know that having good mobility and range of motion are very important but not everything needs to be stretched. So here are a few rules for high schools athletes to work on.
Rule 1: Stop stretching your back. Especially your low back. If you do this you are feeding the problem. If it feels tight it is because you have poor core strength and your low back muscles are working ovetime to pick up the slack so the stretch you are doing is providing it temporary relief but not fixing anything. Instead work on more hip and ankle mobility. These are the areas of the body that you probably need to stretch.
Rule 2: No more sit-ups or crunches. In fact no more ab exercises that require you to sit up or flex or if we reverse that, no exercises that cause you to hyperextend your low back either. Once again we are feeding the problem. Instead become legendary at planks. Front planks, side planks, hip bridges and all variations. You need to train your core to resist motion around the spine not produce it, you already have that ability. For young athletes, as far as the back is concerned, they should be better at resisting movement rather than producing it.
Rule 3: Start paying more attention to how you are doing your exercises in the weight room. Pay attention to your back position, in the weight room it shouldn’t change much at all from exercise to exercise. One good idea is to get a 3 or 4 foot PVC pipe and during your warm-up place it against your back touching the back of your head, shoulders and tailbone. Then perform some squats, split squats, hip hinges and try to maintain those points of contact. During pushups and planks have a teammate put the stick on your back to see how you’re aligned. Simple drills like this will start to build better body awareness.
Bending and flexing are fine but it is so important for athletes to learn how to bend and flex in the right places. There health and performance are depending on it. Stay tuned next month as we talk about reason athlete’s get hurt: They don’t learn how to stop.
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