In terms of youth athlete development, the biggest topic of controversy is always over the age in which strength based training programs should be implemented. While it would be nice to have a quantifiable number to answer this question, the reality is that there is not one set age. Every athlete is different and their bodies develop at different rates.
It is most important that an athlete displays proper movement mechanics prior to beginning a strengthening program and that the program is progressive in nature. Working with an educated and knowledgeable coach, strength coach, or physical educator is the best way in which to begin the implementation process.
It is up to them to recognize the signs of when an athlete is ready to begin working toward achieving a particular movement. An additional point to note is that just because an athlete may be ready to begin lower body strength training, does not mean they are ready for upper body and vice versa.
Movements have certain progressions that should be taught and strictly adhered to when trying to develop an athlete. A pull-up is a great example of an exercise movement that is often taught incorrectly and executed improperly. Lack of knowledge from coaching staff on the mechanics of the movement often leads to improper cues and false patterning. Coaches teach the way they learned or what they hear or see others doing, but do not always take the time or have the resources to look at the why of the movement. A true pull-up progression should be as follows.
Before an athlete is asked to perform a pull-up, he or she needs to have a strength base that has been developed through either lat pull-downs or arm hangs, or a combination of both. Without a proper strength base, the athlete will recruit alternative muscles to help push them through a movement, altering the movement outside of its safe spectrum. Once the athlete is capable of performing these two exercises, the pull-up should be taught through spotting the athlete throughout the movement. An alternative method to spotting the athlete would be to utilize a resistance band as an assistance band. The band should be looped around the top of the bar and the athlete’s foot should be in the band. The band will act as the spotter and assist the athlete during the upward, concentric phase of the movement. Once the athlete can perform the pull-up properly from this position, the band should be moved upward to the knee, taking some stretch out of the band, and increasing the muscular recruitment of the lats to perform the movement. As the athlete develops strength and is able to perform a proper pull-up with the band around the knee, opt for a band with less resistance, and continue to decrease the resistance of the band until the athlete has developed enough strength and proper movement pattern to perform the pull-up alone.
The biggest mistake I hear trainers and coaches make when teaching the pull-up is to “kick your feet” or “swing your hips”. These movements mimic what is known as a “kipping” pull-up. Teaching an athlete to kick his or her feet is one of the worst exercise variations you can perform from a biomechanical standpoint. There are not many athletes who have the proper combination of muscular strength and joint mobility to perform a kipping pull-up without causing overuse injuries. The art of swinging the legs adds a stress onto the shoulder joint that very few people have the intrinsic shoulder strength and stability to withstand without injury. As it is, we see a deficit in the number of athletes, even those overhead athletes who allot time to train prehabilitatively for their shoulders to strengthen and stabilize the joint. Expecting them to perform this exercise will add stress to an already weakened area and set the athlete up for failure. In addition, the athlete is going to see very little strength gains in the lats from this style of pull-up. With the swinging motion, the athlete tends to be in a more supine position under the bar when they begin to do the pull-up, creating more pull on the bicep and upper back muscles. Teaching the athlete to kick his or her feet, will only prevent him from learning how to do a proper pull-up, prevent him from strengthening the intended lat muscles, and cause injury to his shoulder.
Performing movements in an improper manner or before the athlete is physically capable leads the body to recruit incorrect muscle groups to perform the function. This leads to a lack of strength building in the muscles you are trying to form as well as added stress placed on joints and ligaments surrounding the area. Knowing how to properly teach and progress athletes through proper movement patterns is imperative when implementing strength training into youth programming from both a strength gain and injury prevention standpoint. Proper mechanics are paramount to the success of an athlete. If you are trying to run from one end zone to the other on a football field, running in circles on the 10 yard line is a waste of time and not going to get you to where you need to be, so why waste time training wrong?
BONUS: Another important and key factor in mastering the pull-up is to work on improving your scapular movement patterns associated with the overall movement. Try hanging from the bar and working on depressing/retracting your scapulas and holding that position for 3-5 reps for 10-15 seconds each time.
Valerie Bozza, MS, ATC, LAT Director of Performance / Injury PreventionTop Tier Athletics Edison, NJ 908.510.2710 www.TopTierAthletics.Training for more grteat info information on Biomechanics & Sports