The 5 Movements to Master
If I had a dollar for every time I got the question "What should my daughter be doing to get stronger?" on social media, I would be a rich lady. Twitter and instagram have taken over a lot of the strength and conditioning information that we encounter, and more often than not, if parents see a pro baseball player doing it on Instagram, they think their daughter should be doing it. Even if they see some of the stuff in a college program, a lot of parents tend to think "Well if so-and-so is doing it, I want my daughter to play at so-so school, she needs to get in a weight room ASAP and do all of this." Be aware, in reality, that will lead you to injury a lot quicker than it will to performance gains.
Just like the game of softball itself, we have to start with a foundation of basic movements. We don't allow 6 year old softball players to do elite infield and outfield drills when they can barely play catch... so why would we do something like that in weight training? An important concept that everyone should be familiar is the idea of an athlete's training age versus the athlete's chronological age. Chronological age is simply the answer to the question "How old are you?" I am 24 years old, so my chronological age is 24. Training age is how long you have been consistently on a strength and conditioning program. I have been consistently in a weight room since I was 14 years old, therefore, my training age is 10. We should ALWAYS program exercises for young athletes based off of training age. If you have never lifted or trained outside of sport practice, you are a newborn and should be treated as such. This can help tremendously in creating proper, basic movement patterns to prevent injuries and establish a strength foundation that can set you up better for a long-term career in whatever sport you choose to pursue. Below, I am going to go over 5 basic movement patterns you should master before adding a ton of weight, along with a 4-week sample progression program to utilize.
1.) The Squat
The squat is one of the most basic movements but so often it is done incorrectly due to the societal norm of sitting that creates poor posture and tight hips. Proper squat form should look something like this: Feet slightly wider than hip width, toes pointed slightly out, sitting the weight of your body back into your heels, knees are behind toes at the bottom, knees are driving out instead of caving in, core is tight and engaged, chest is up. Where a lot of athletes have a mishap is at the heel. In a full depth squat, the heels should remain in contact with the ground at all times.
2.) Hinge/Athletic Position
You're an athlete, you should master the athletic position. It is as simple as that. Hips are hinged back, knees are driving out, core is tight, and the body is ready to react. One of the best exercises to establish this position is the snap down. Zach Dechant even still uses it with his baseball players at TCU, as well as his major leaguers! What the best truly do is master the fundamentals, even when it comes to movement. His new book "Movement Over Maxes" I HIGHLY recommend for any middle school or high school sport or strength coach.
Below is an example of the athletic position.
The hip hinge is built off a great athletic position. This motion is critical because it is teaching the athlete to dissociate spine from hips. Back is flat, core is engaged, and a good stretch in the hamstring should be felt. To come up to the top, actively squeeze the glutes and keep a gentle bend in the knee. This body weight exercise is a absolutely must to master in order to progress into heavier posterior chain work like deadlifts and RDLs.
Females are usually at a disadvantage when it comes to push-ups, but it is a GREAT test to see overall upper body strength. As a strength coach, I get extremely excited when I get a female athlete that can do 5 flawless body weight push-ups. I believe it is a great indicator of overall strength and athleticism. It is very easy to tell a non-athletic push up from an athletic one. Elbows are roughly at 45 degrees, back is flat, and core is engaged! To master this movement, it is as easy as doing 5 push ups every commercial break during your favorite TV show, seriously. The younger you can start with these, the better!
4.) Pull Variations
All athletes in general need to know how to pull properly, but this is especially true for softball players. Shoulder injuries continue to rise because young women do not move properly and they move way too much in that improper pattern (high game volume, no true off season, etc.). Scapular (shoulder blade) control is key in establishing proper movement patterns and a huge part of that is awareness of scapular retraction, the ability to pinch the shoulder blades together to iminiate a pulling motion. Rows are custom in all of my training programs, but a row cannot be performed properly if the scapula is not retracted first. Wondering how this is sport specific? The scapula being stable and strong is what allows the arm to rotate effectively throughout the throwing motion. Without stability, our risk of injury rises immediately (especially when you are playing softball, or any sport rather, year round).
The lunge is a crucial movement for all athletes, as most sports are played with a single leg emphasis. The lunge is the foundation movement for all single leg exercises, and balance, stability, and body awareness are key. Core is tight, glutes are active, and the shin is perpendicular to the foot and the floor. At the bottom of the movement, drive up through the heel and bring the back foot forward. I like to start with reverse lunges (a step back instead of a step forward) because it is easier to achieve the proper shin angle.
"Haylie, these movements are awesome, but how on earth do I start? I can't do a push-up, I don't know how to squat, etc." I love utilizing triphasic methods when it comes to all of these movements, starting with just body weight. “Triphasic” is simply looking at all three types of muscle contraction and building them into each movement. The three types of muscle actions are eccentric (muscle lengthening), isometric (muscle length staying the same), and concentric (muscle shortening).
First, the eccentric portion. This is what most people associate with “tempos”, meaning the movement on the way down (as the muscle lengthens) is slower, typically anywhere between 3-5 seconds, this allows the athlete to learn body awareness within the movement and make it easier to get into the proper position. Eccentric exercises are also crucial for injury prevention, as this is where most injuries occur in sport. Strengthening this portion of muscular contraction across the board will keep you healthier and playing better, while setting a really strong strength foundation.
Second, the isometric phase of muscle contraction is when the muscle length stays the same. The first thing that comes to mind with most people is the infamous wall sit. We are in a certain movement creating as much tension as possible and freezing like a statue. An example for all 5 of our most important movements: Holding the bottom of a squat for 10-15 seconds, Holding the athletic position for 10-15 seconds, holding the bottom of a push up for 5 seconds, holding the top part of a body weight pull for 5 seconds, and holding the bottom of a lunge for 10-15 seconds on each side.
The final phase is the concentric, or muscle shortening, phase. This involves no tempo and usually has weight involved, if the pattern can allow for it. The emphasis should be on speed in this type of phase, but only on the way “up” in a movement. We still want to maintain control on our eccentric portions, but we want to think about “exploding” up out of the bottom portion of that given movement. This is what will allow a lot speed, strength, and power gains to be made over time with the athlete.
So how do I progress on a week to week basis? Using the squat as an example, let’s look at a typical outline of what a 4 week, triphasic progression might be.
Week 1: 4x5 Body Weight Squats w/ 6 second eccentric
Week 2: 4x6 Body Weight Squat w/ 4 second eccentric
Week 3: 4x6 Light Weight Goblet Squat w/ 5 second ISO hold at the bottom
Week 4: 4x10 Light Weight Goblet Squat, controlled eccentric (1-2 seconds) explode up
If you can master these five movements, you will be way ahead of the game when it comes to body awareness, strength, and overall athleticism. A good strength program is only as good as your movement quality. Move often, work hard, but make sure you are moving the RIGHT WAY! The best athletes are often the best athletes because they have mastered the fundamentals. The weight room shouldn't be any different.