Christian McCaffrey has been one of the best NFL running backs since 2018. Coming out of college scouts and “fans” made a fuss about his ten rep bench press test, eluding that he can’t play in the NFL. What does a bench press have to do with running a football? Pro athletes don’t get paid to lift weights; they get paid to play their sport well. The gap between the workout facility and the playing field has been exploited with the success of McCaffrey, Tiger Woods, and many other athletes. Modern-day athletes should train for stability and mobility, movement patterns, and strength and sport-specific power. As an industry, we must change the way we train athletes to further their success. I’ve identified these areas of development over the last five years by researching the best programs and experimenting with the concepts personally and with clients. Let’s talk about the most critical stage of training.
STABILITY AND MOBILITY
First, sufficient stability and mobility of the joints must be established. Recently I covered compensatory movements and how they derail an athlete’s progression. Refer back to the article to fill in the gaps. I’ll cover the joints starting from the most important joints to the least.
Foot Stability and Core Stability
Foot stability is literally at the base of any athletic foundation. The foot is the first point of contact in the majority of motions executed for their sport. Stable feet are less likely to experience abnormal pronation or supination. Strengthening the feet also influences natural elasticity, prevents fallen arches, and sets the ankle up for mobility success.
Core stability has been covered extensively in an earlier post. The whole reason for creating a strong trunk is to promote proper movement patterns throughout the body. The lumbar part of the spine is one of the most abused areas of the body. The American Chiropractic Association states, “one-half of all working Americans have admitted to having back pain symptoms each year.” The ACA says that up to 80% of the population will encounter back issues in their lifetime (Back Pain, 2020). Competitive athletes are at a higher risk of developing back issues because of the repeated motions of their sports combined with added resistance.
It’s best to take a core and foot first approach to train athletes more efficiently and avoid future injuries. The body is the most complex machine in the world, but if the two most essential joints are stabilized first, then the chances of injury are significantly reduced.
Ankle Mobility and Scapulothoracic Stability
The ankle is at the base of the body, and its mobility should be addressed once the foot is stable. Stiff ankles will reduce the range of motion to the kinetic chain up to the base of the neck. In dorsiflexion, the ankle acts like a spring storing kinetic energy. Stiff ankles usually lead to compensatory movements at either the knee or lumbar spine.
Broadening out from the thoracic spine, the Scapulothoracic (S.T.) joint acts as the next stabilizer. The (S.T.) joint is an articulation of the scapula with the thorax. Any movement of the scapula must happen because of action at either the acromioclavicular (A.C.) joint, sternoclavicular (S.C.) joint, or both. The (S.T.) joint acts as a stabilizer for all accompanying joints and thorax in a closed chain. The (A.C.) and (S.C.) joints maintain the scapula’s stability on the thorax and contract movement of the scapula by pulling and pressing.
Knee Stability and Glenohumeral Mobility
The stability of an athlete’s knee is essential because the knee articulates between the two longest levers in the human body. The knee is surrounded by the two largest muscle groups in the body; this is why the knee only flexes and extends. If the knee is forced to be more mobile (valgus), then a torn MCL/ or ACL is bound to happen.
The glenohumeral (G.H.) joint is a more traditional ball and socket joint that is part of the shoulder complex. The (G.H) is the most mobile and least stable joint in the human body. Due to the size of the humeral head and the shallow glenoid fossa, injury is more likely at this joint than any other. I’m not in the business of resizing bones, so the best way to avoid dislocation is to ensure that athletes understand the limitations of their (G.H.) joint and to stabilize the (S.T.) joint.
Second, Once an athlete has proper stability and mobility at the appropriate joints, we can explore and perfect movement patterns. There are six movement patterns that athletes must master before they can safely progress to the next stage of training.
- Bend and Lift patterns involve squats, deadlifts, and anything related to an athletic stance. Quality bend and lift movements reduce the chances of compromising the lumbar spine. To become proficient in this movement, an athlete must possess adequate glute and quad strength to keep the knee stable throughout exercise. Mobility at the hip and ankle joints is necessary to ensure proper movement in the sagittal plane (left and right), depth of squat, and explosion through the hips.
- Single-Leg Proprioception is more of your single leg and balancing exercises that challenge an athlete’s perceived position in space. Single leg squats, crossovers, and multi-directional lunges are appropriate exercises for training proprioception. (Williams, 2018)
- Lunges challenge the ankles range of motion while in dorsiflexion (which is vital for delivering power while running). I believe this is one of the more undertrained patterns from coaches. Lunges build strong legs, train proprioceptors, and are directly transferable to the playing field.
- Apley’s Scratch Test evaluates the range of motion of the shoulder by measuring abduction, adduction, external rotation, and internal rotation. Shoulder mobility improvement requires testing to decide where the issue lies. The most common exercises and stretches that I program for involve movements that promote shoulder abduction and external rotation for the rotator cuff.
- Toe Touch applications explore the complicated relationship between the lower back and the hip-hinge. To improve deep squats, the lower back must relax and proprioceptors should be able to shift weight from the heels to the flawlessly. To improve toe touch patterns, athletes will attempt to touch their toes with either toes or heels elevated.
- Primitive Movements are demonstrated in toddlers. As people grow and go through life, mobility is lost because of sedentary lifestyle habits. Ground to standing exercises is emphasized (Turkish get up), with various quadruped movements, like the bear crawl.
STRENGTH AND POWER
Third, once the athlete has demonstrated proficiency in movement patterns, strength and power exercises can be introduced. Traditional isometric movements are still utilized to build strength, but not at the volume that was made famous in the 80s. Movement is still the athlete’s priority, but the raw strength still needs to be developed to produce force. Remember power = force x velocity.
- This training stage involves heavier loads, aggressive progressions, and a structured plan that emphasizes the stability of specific motor systems while mobilizing others.
- Acceleration and deceleration in exercises are also introduced to prepare the body for high-speed stop-and-go movements in multiple directions.
- Neuromuscular firing sequences are trained through a variety of drills (Power cleans, snatch press). The athlete needs to be able to produce power at a moment’s notice. The elasticity of the muscle tissues plays a considerable role in the firing sequence.
- Cognitively the exercises must challenge the athlete. Can he/she process information while performing their movements explosively and adequately?
- Lastly, we challenge the metabolic system to maintain power over a long duration. Power endurance is the key difference between professional athletes and amateurs.
TRANSITION OF POWER
Lastly, transitioning power from the weight room to the playing field needs to be simulated as much as possible. Ground to standing, dead strength, and odd-position strength movements give athletes a safe way to produce power in better-simulated situations than traditional training methods.
- Ground to standing movements was touched on earlier in the athlete’s cycle. Still, actions at this stage are more advanced and involve significant loads.
- Dead strength movements produce enough force to overcome resting inertia. These movements are going to resemble bend and lift exercises, but there’s an emphasis on moving loads through space.
- Odd-Position Strength takes a farm-based approach to the workouts. Athletes are put in unique positions where the body must recruit muscle fibers not commonly used. Execution of these activities put stress on muscles and joints that are more likely to happen during their exercises.
Modern-day athletes should train for stability and mobility, movement patterns, and strength and sport-specific power. Stability and mobility at the proper joints ensure the chance of injury is minimized when more complex movement patterns are introduced. Proficiency in movement patterns shows that the athlete can recruit the muscles needed to execute athletic movements and possesses proper flexibility. Athletes can then train for bigger, stronger muscles and power development, knowing with reduced risk. Transitioning developed power to the training surface can finally occur through a series of applicable exercises and drills. The field of strength and conditioning is still young, but that does not mean that professionals shouldn’t challenge perceived norms and do what’s better for athletes.
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