We’re living in strange and unprecedented times. 2020 is bringing some fresh hell to our doorstep seemingly every month, with each one being more daunting than the last. This barrage of mayhem has tested our ability to adapt and roll with the punches, while continuing to push the envelope in how we train, coach, and lead despite the minefield of adversities that lay in wait. These last six months have taught us the necessity to live in the moment, while preparing for the future; they’ve tested our ability to lead, and ultimately, they’ve made us better, by making us more adept at facing future challenges.
For a coach, one of those challenges is currently knocking at our door: youth sports. As we return to our regularly scheduled program, we’re facing the task of balancing the rush to get back to play with the patience of preparing kids to meet the demands of sports that they haven’t participated in for the better part of the year. It’s the perfect time to have the conversation of going overhead for youth throwing athletes.
The worst thing you can do with kids is to throw them back into the mix of high velocity and high volume movements (such as throwing), after very little to no physical training. If anything, the resulting time off from serious physical training will only exacerbate shoulder pathologies in youth throwing athletes, and increase the already existing epidemic of shoulder and upper extremity injuries. Proper physical training must be made a priority as youth sports resume…
Having a blueprint to attack and reduce shoulder injuries is going to be more important now more than ever after these months of inactivity/time off.
If coaches and athletes go back to business as usual without taking the necessary steps to physically prepare for the demands of throwing, the “V-shape” trajectory we’ve been hearing about won’t be from the national economy rebounding, but rather due to the spike in orthopedic procedures for the shoulder and other upper body injuries.
GOALS OF TRAINING TO REDUCE SHOULDER PATHOLOGIES
Before I take the deep dive into this, I want to point out that the goals of training and the game plans for each are especially crucial at the youth and developmental level, and as such are written through that prism. While still important and needed at the collegiate and professional levels, I understand there are institutional constraints that may be out of your control which will limit your ability to optimally accomplish these goals. If you coach in these arenas, your best bet is to employ your art of coaching by adapting your game plans in the most prudent way for your environment.
The goals of training can be broken down into the following 4 segments:
1. Reinstate or develop muscle balance of the shoulder girdle.
This includes focusing on developing stability of the external rotator cuff muscles, scapular muscles, and lower trapezius muscles. In other words, you want movement that not only develops scapular stability, but also develops motor control by getting the shoulder girdle to move as a coordinated unit. Once we establish muscular balance, we then need to facilitate intramuscular coordination.
The best ways to accomplish this is by incorporating a variety of vertical and horizontal pressing and pulling and weightlifting movements. Sound familiar?
Vertical and horizontal pressing and pulling movements will help to develop muscular balance and stability. The quickest and easiest way to accomplish this? By using a variety of resistance tools. While I’m a fan of using the barbell with most of my primary strength exercises, I love to use dumbbells, kettlebells, landmines, or bodyweight movements as accessory tools to provide more variation and opportunities for single arm movements which are crucial for developing and maintaining muscular balance and stability.
Weightlifting movements (this includes their variations) help to improve motor control and train the shoulder girdle to move freely in a coordinated sequence. The focus here should be HOW, not HOW MUCH. Moving well and in a coordinated fashion will help improve the motor control of the shoulder, even if it’s not a whole lot of weight. As always, the caveat to the effectiveness of the weightlifting movements comes down to the coaches ability to teach and coach and the athletes ability to execute the lifts. If you’re a coach that isn’t confident in your ability to use these movements effectively, you have two options – take the time to get better at coaching these potent tools, or just simply leave them out of your program.
2. Develop leg and trunk strength.
Throwing involves more than just the upper body. The legs and trunk are crucial components not only to the mechanics of throwing, but also in the transfer of energy needed to properly and effectively execute the movement. Weak legs and a soft trunk can lead to breakdowns in mechanics and energy leaks that put added stress on the shoulder girdle, due to a lack of ability to produce force and maintain rigidity of the trunk (even in rotation).
The best way to develop leg and trunk strength is with a heavy dose of bilateral squatting, iso-stability work like deadbugs and planks, and lastly unilateral squatting, like stepping and lunging. To supplement and balance what you’re doing with your bilateral work, tools like dumbbells, kettlebells, or odd objects (like sandbags) can add new breadth and depth to seemingly simple movements.
All things being equal, my primary tool for developing both the legs and the trunk is going to be a barbell back squat. Have you ever noticed that people can generally leg press significantly more than they squat? Why is that? Because it takes a lot of torso strength to handle the axial loading of a heavy barbell. It’s a two-fer! Strong and durable athletes have solid torsos!
In addition to strengthening the trunk, dead bugs and planks are great tools for teaching proper posture of the back, especially if used in the warm up.
Unilateral movements like stepping and lunging are great accessory tools for developing leg and trunk strength, because of their ability to create muscular balance and challenging your ability to move in different planes and axes under various loading patterns; implements like dumbbells, kettlebells, or odd objects like stones, sand bags, and medballs can add complexity as your athletes become more competent in these movements. And, as the athletes progress, you can also add overhead components to these stepping and lunging variations.
3. Get the lower and the upper body to move together – explosively!
I touched on this briefly above, but this comes down to improving the athlete’s ability to transfer energy. As you develop their leg and trunk strength, the next part is to combine goals 1 and 2 and get the body to move as one fluid and explosive unit.
Getting strong is one thing, but being able to express your strength is another. This is what matters when it comes to developing athletes, specifically overhead athletes.
The best way to accomplish this is to include full body movements that elicit the highest motor unit recruitment such as sprinting, dynamic med ball work, and again weightlifting movements and their variations, especially the overhead movements like the power snatch, snatch, push press, and power jerk.
The weightlifting movements also provide an opportunity to develop and improve the athletes ability to decelerate and reduce force, which is crucial when it comes to injury reduction. Remember, a big mechanism for injury in the shoulder and arm for throwing athletes is deceleration of the arm, or rather the lack thereof. A major goal of any training program is to protect against and limit the impact of these common mechanisms of injury on a given athlete.
4. Improve the muscular endurance of the shoulder girdle.
Throwing is a very repetitive action, so as the muscles begin to fatigue from use, mechanics break down and open the athlete up for a higher risk of injury. While building strength, stability, and coordination is vastly important, developing some level of muscular endurance is also important given to the repetitive demands of the sport or position.
The best way to improve muscular endurance of the shoulder girdle this is to take a similar approach to #1 above, minus the weightlifting movements. Use vertical and horizontal pressing and pulling movements with a variety of resistance tools, but do them with lighter weights and more reps as a way to augment what you did earlier with your core strength exercises.
LET’S GET TO WORK
So there you have it. Nothing fancy. In fact, you may notice that these recommendations are broadly similar to training plans for other athletes in non-throwing sports. Well, you’re right. At the end of the day, we’re trying to promote and improve muscular balance, functionality, and movement, regardless of the athlete and regardless of the sport. A big part of why these shoulder pathologies have become an epidemic is because these overhead athletes simply haven’t been exposed to proper training, and those that do partake in resistance training stray away from nearly anything that requires the kid to put their arms over their head.
The irony is not lost on me that the exercises and training plans that are most optimal at reducing shoulder pathologies in throwing athletes are the ones that are left out of programs at best, and are demonized at worst due to a lack of knowledge, understanding, and/or dogma.
But, knowledge is power, and if you have the knowledge and understanding of the mechanisms that revolve around common injuries within a sport or position, like the shoulder and upper body extremities in throwing sports and/or positions, then you have the power to not only battle the bullshit, but more importantly empower your athlete’s to maximize their athletic potential.
As we begin to re-open our communities and athletes get back into the swing of things, it’s more important than ever to establish, or rather re-establish, a strong foundation for your throwing athletes that will reduce the threat of shoulder pathologies that can exacerbate the growing epidemic of upper body extremity injuries, especially at the youth level. For many, this may mean hitting the reset button altogether and starting back from ground zero. Perfect! There’s no better time than now to do so with nearly everyone coming off of such an extended break from any serious physical training and preparation.
Let’s get to work. Let’s work to change the paradigm and chip away at this epidemic, and get these kids on track after a long break. Time to clock in.
PODCAST: PA Radio Episode 252 w/ Baseball Researcher Dr. David Szymanski
BLOG: Training Overhead w/ Throwing Athletes – Part 1 by Don Ricci
BLOG: What the Science Says: Effects Of Youth Resistance Training by Ben Skutnik
BLOG: What The Science Says: Guidelines For Youth Resistance Training by Ben Skutnik
EDU: Power Athlete Methodology
Wilk, K.E., Obma, P., Simpson, C.D., Cain, E.L., Dugas, J., Andrews, J.R. (2009). Shoulder Injuries in the Overhead Athlete. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 39(2), 38-54.
Don was a two time National Champion and All-American water polo goalie at the University of Southern California prior to getting involved in coaching strength & conditioning and weightlifting. He is the founder and head coach of DELTA Weightlifting, a high performing USA Weightlifting Club. The Power Athlete Methodology has been a crucial component in developing better overall athleticism with his competitive weightlifters with international level athletes and national medalists to show for it. In addition to proudly being a Power Athlete Block One Coach, Don is also a USA Weightlifting Level 4 International Coach, a USA Weightlifting Lead Instructor USA Weightlifting Coaching Courses and a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) through the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA). Don has coached and trained athletes from virtually every sport at levels ranging from youth beginner to National Team level. He resides in Charlottesville, VA with his wife and 3 young kids.
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