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Training Youth Athletes

A common question that I hear is, “how old do you have to be to start training at your facility?”  To me this is a pretty easy question to answer, but also a loaded answer.

When we talk about athletic development, there are a few windows of opportunity that we can expect to use to enhance performance in athletes.  Just because I have a window of opportunity to advance an athletes potential doesn’t mean I need to get all sport specific with it.  In previous articles I have eluded to spending a great deal of time developing the foundation for youth athletes, or general prep if that is easier to remember.  Just because I have an opportunity to improve athletic ability in a youth athlete doesn’t mean I need to make them proficient in 1RM cleans.  I “can” hold a firecracker in my hand and light it, but it wouldn’t be very intelligent.  Just like I “can” develop maximal cleans in a 10-year-old, but that still isn’t very intelligent.

The lost art of development, playing on the playground.  There are even schools where you aren’t allowed to run!  All because there is a fear of children getting hurt.  I could jump onto my soap box and have a complete rant, but I will stay on point here.  Kids in preschool, elementary, and middle school all are allotted time to go out and play.  They jump, run, bound, throw, play tag, etc.  If that isn’t athletic development I don’t know what is.  I spend the first 30 minutes of training sessions warming up and working on running, jumping, throwing, and agility.  These are the showcase items for my older athletes.

Specializing kids too early is a sure fire way to burn a kid out from ever wanting to play that sport again.  It’s also a great way for a kid to resent their parent.  Allowing a child to participate in a variety of events allows for better athletic development.  Experiencing movements outside of what is normal in their favorite sport will allow them to become more agile and athletic.

What can a child who hasn’t hit puberty expect to do and see?  There is no reason to take a prepubescent child and load them up under the bar.  Develop their ability to perform these exercises that you want to accomplish in the long term development plan.  Squatting, hinging, pressing, pulling are all exercises that can start off with simple body weight.  Once they become proficient in these bodyweight exercises you can consider handling a light weight.  Then slightly heavier.  And heavier.  The point is that these kids will become stronger (mostly through their nervous system adaptation), but not exactly larger.  How could they? They haven’t even hit puberty yet.

Once they hit puberty, the long term plan continues.  Start adding heavier weight and adding new challenges.  They will become more powerful, faster, stronger, insert any synonym.  They now have the hormonal profile to support what you are throwing at them.  But a word of caution: don’t throw the kitchen sink at them.  Allow for normal development.  The newest, coolest thing isn’t the best option.  Often times the new workout it either a fad or a new way of eliciting a response in an athlete who has already developed their foundation.

To sum up, kids can virtually start at any age, however, I wouldn’t really recommend them starting too early.  I have nine and 10 year olds at our facility, but realistically a mentor of mine said 11 years old is a great age to begin.  I’ll stick with that.

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Long-Slow Distance Cardio

First off, it has been a little bit since my last check-in.  I have been busy with licensure testing, changing a few details professionally, and jumping right into some continuing education.  All those things, plus I have been coaching a high school lacrosse team in the area.

I was kicking back, sipping on a nice cup of coffee the other morning, reading over some “professional development” type material, when I came across a post along the lines of “why do long slow distance aerobic work?”  That  post of course got some great professional feedback, but it got me thinking too.

Most of what I was reading in terms of feedback was along the lines of: why indeed?  Now, I like bang for the buck type exercise regimens.  I feel as though we do a really good job of accomplishing both anaerobic and aerobic work in a relatively short period of time on a daily basis at our facility.  By using simple concepts like HIIT in our lifts we are able to develop strength and power via resistance training at appropriate, demanding percentages; and, also tax the aerobic system at the same time.  We also incorporate a conditioning portion after the lift that works usually on some type of lactic or alactic interval (think Certified Conditioning Coach)  in the preseason phases.

But where can we fit in the long-slow distance type conditioning???

This is where I reflect back to my magical weekend at IFAST, listening to Joel himself hurl information grenades at all of us innocent Performance Coaches.  In a very organized manner, he managed to explain to us how to use each concept that he has written about in books like “Ultimate MMA Conditioning”.  Long story short, one cannot sustain all out lactic intervals 7 days a week for very long.  This makes sense, right?!

With all the concepts in strength and conditioning regarding the importance of the nervous system, this should be a no-brainer.  Simply put, sometimes it is just better to let your foot off the gas pedal, slow down, and let your body (and nervous system) relax.  Let’s find that parasympathetic state for once in our training year.

Now that both sides of the continuum are screaming at me, let me elaborate.  First off, no, I do not think that you should be performing long-slow distance aerobic conditioning all year round–unless your sport is running a marathon or the Tour de France in which case you still shouldn’t do it on consecutive days.  Will you see strength and therefore power decrements as a result? Maybe.  Will you be introducing a new variable into your training regimen? Absolutely!  Cooling the jets for a few weeks will not have an absurd impact on strength/power/muscle fiber type.  But, it may afford you the potential to get even better because you let the body experience a new stimulus.

Personally, I don’t like long distance cardio.  I get bored with it, unless I am chasing a ball or object.  Cycling is more doable, but still, the struggle is real.  However, when no one is watching, I will jump on the Assault Bike for about 45-60 minutes and get in a good cardio sesh.

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Cueing Through the Ground With Push-ups and Planks

When working with clients, there is a tendency on planks and push-ups to just hang out on the shoulders. This is fairly incomplete and doesn’t allow us to take full advantage of the exercise. With the management of overhead athletes as well as general population clients, we all need proper coordination through our upper extremities.

At first, the thinking is everyone knows how to plank, right? Eh, not so much as it turns out. The big-ticket items are making sure that we have a neutral spine, or have manipulated the position to target what we are after. Then we want the entire body under tension; things like the six pack, quads, butt, etc. We have made sure that the eyes are lined up with our fist to protect our shoulders in the basic plank. But, we can’t stop there! Are our shoulders under tension? How can we better the time under tension?


A huge muscle that goes unnoticed by most people and doesn’t get the care it necessarily needs is the serratus anterior. Big Latin words. This muscle starts on the ribs just under the armpit and kind of looks like the serrated edge of a knife. Hence the name. The muscle then courses under the shoulder blade to the inside border closest to the middle of your back. It is responsible for holding the shoulder blade down flush to your ribcage as well as giving it the proper mobility it needs to reach your arm overhead. Without this muscle firing properly, we would (and some of us have) experience shoulder impingement, rotator cuff tendonitis, rotator cuff tears, biceps tendonitis, bursitis, and any other form of itis you can think of in the shoulder region.


Traditionally in physical therapy, we throw a patient down on a treatment table, tell them to reach for the ceiling with one straight arm, and repeat this exercise x10 multiple times throughout the day. This is called a serratus punch and is a fairly non-functional exercise. It is designed to just get the serratus working again. What if it isn’t causing trouble yet? How can we make it functional?

Here is the simple answer! Especially in the warm up when we are performing planks and push ups to get ready for the rest of the lift we can cue everyone to push their arms through the floor. Getting that little extra reach will get that muscle working really well and with repeated bouts of this, we have taken control of most of our shoulder problems.

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Cons to All-Year Sport Specialization

It’s been a while since I last posted!  This summer has been crazy. We moved our facility to Gametime Sports and Fitness in Lowell, merged with SLS Fitness, increased the amount of space that we had available and as a result increased the amount of athletes we were able to work with.  It was a super fun transition and definitely a learning experience.

With all of these new changes, we were exposed to a number of new challenges with our athletes.  It seems like not so common sense that kids shouldn’t be playing the same sport all year round especially at the younger ranks.  Early sport specialization has been an uphill battle in the world of physical therapy and strength and conditioning, but the only thing we can do is urge kids not to do it.  Often times when I present to parents for our in-house workshops I say something along the lines of, “…I strongly encourage kids to play a different sport once baseball is done kind of like a strongly encourage you to wear a parachute when jumping out of an airplane.”  That will get a few chuckles, but the kid is in pitching the next day anyway.

What could possibly go wrong?

Good question.  Maybe we are being too conservative?  Maybe your kid is a freak athlete like the character “Spike” in the movie “Little Giants”?  Unlikely.  It isn’t just anecdotal, conservative babble either.

Lacrosse is a prime example.  In this area it has begun to take shape and kids are running around town with their “twigs” trying to be the next big star.  Awesome!  I love all that lacrosse has to offer in terms of it isn’t hockey and it gets kids outdoors.  The problem resides in how the kids will hit the ground running and play all year round.  They have their school teams in the spring, their club teams in the summer, fall ball in the fall, and indoor in the winter.  Here is a movement screen I did recently with one of my high school lacrosse players who has committed to play for a good, Division I college.


See anything wrong?

While playing club over the summer, he had a tear in his Posterior Cruciate Ligament (PCL).  The first thing I thought when I heard this was, great it isn’t your ACL.  Nonetheless, the PCL is a necessary component to knee integrity and checking movement of the tibia (shin bone) on the femur (thigh bone).  His first big request like all other kids is to be able to accelerate better.

Plan of attack:  We finished the FMS and did some other non-ballistic testing to see where he was at.  Next we programmed foundational exercises so that his movement quality was up before we started giving him the big strength and power exercises.  It is truly amazing how quickly the strength and power numbers go up once you develop a good foundation!  As a side note, and I can’t express how crucial this is, I couldn’t have performed a movement screen or any other tests on this athlete without the okay from his physician.  Even as a DPT, it is paramount that I follow the wishes of the M.D. so that I stay within the scope of my practice.

To this point we have just begun working on sprint technique and form, but have remained semi-conservative with our strength-speed/power work.  Do no harm is the mantra, and in this case, don’t hurt that athlete more than what they are presenting to you with.  It may not be sexy or sleek to perform planks, KB deadlifts from a raised platform, or corrective exercises.  But, if it gets them safely to their goal without causing further damage, that is what we will do.


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In-Service Presentation

Recently, I had the pleasure of reciting an in-service presentation to a host of physical therapists, physical therapy assistants, and physical therapy aids as well as occupational therapists.  It was a great experience and well received which is why I’m sharing it here.  Take a couple of minutes to check it out and leave any feedback that could help in the future.


PNS presentation

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Recovery Strategies

In many conversations with clients/athletes it has become clear that once they’re done with the training session, they are done thinking about training in general.  They may be motivated to eat something “healthy” to stay consistent with the day, but that really is the extent of it.  As a performance coach, it would be reckless and lazy if recovery weren’t addressed with the population I am working with.  As such, here are some of the tools that I use generally.


For most of my adult client groups, I will use different breathing strategies towards the beginning of the workout.  This will allow them to leave the workday at work and not bring it into the gym.  For the general population you can start to program different tempos for breathing, but that may be a little overkill for someone who doesn’t know how to engage their respiratory diaphragm in the first place.  Belly breathing is quite simply done by lying down on your back, placing one hand on your chest and one hand on your belly, then trying to fill only the hand on your belly without letting the hand on your chest rise.  This is a little bit of isolation type movement, but it is pretty effective at getting people out of their overly sympathetic tone from work or life.  If someone is having trouble doing this, their is a pretty cool trick that I learned in PT school that is called the “sniff” test.  Simply ask the individual to sniff as if they were sniffing like a dog.  You will get raised eyebrows and questions, but once they get what it does it becomes rhetoric.  You can progress the belly breathing series by rolling over and doing “crocodile” breathing or play around with tempos to get different reactions.

Breathing can and should also be done at the end of a training session.  Recovery happens in a parasympathetic state.  All this means is that if you’re stressed, high-strung, ready to go postal, you will not recover very well.  If after a training session we sprinkle in some breathing techniques, it should help to facilitate that relaxed, parasympathetic tone.


This is such a basic tool that everyone can use, and yet, most don’t or at least don’t do it well.  There are a number of supplements on the shelf that come with a varying amount of integrity attached to each brand.  These are just as the name implies: supplements.  This means if you’re not getting enough in your diet then use it.  You can usually find out what the recommended daily intake (RDI) is for each micro/macro nutrient by simply going on the internet machine and searching.

That being said, depending on who you are you can time your nutrition appropriately with the right content to get the result you want.  For recovery purposes, usually getting in some protein after a workout is a pretty simple start. If you dive into different resources, they will tell you that you need a certain amount of grams of protein per kilogram of body mass every certain amount of hours, but let’s get real.  Just eat some protein or take some sort of protein supplement to aid the recovery process along.  You can also add in any other micronutrient source that you may require (vitamins, minerals, creatine, etc.).  It also can’t be stressed enough, eat veggies!  If you refuse to eat veggies then you refuse to reach your goals.  Kind of a blunt truth, but it is the truth.  When asked I usually recommend the more colorful types of vegetables.

Based on some of the above reading, we know that the real recovery happens when in that relaxed state.  So nutritionally, how can you influence relaxation?  Simple.  There are a number of different things that can be done to aid the recovery process.  My favorite is to have some sort of chamomile based tea at the end of the day.  This helps to relax the system and also has been shown to bring individuals to a deeper sleep which is the ultimate relaxation.  Melatonin also helps to achieve that deeper sleep in individuals, and can be purchased at virtually any health store.

Water may be one of the most paramount nutritional ideas to recovery out there.  When you’re dehydrated you run the risk of increased inflammation, decreased blood volume (carries all those important nutrients), increased cramping, decreased affect (mood), decreased nerve conduction velocity, decreased short term memory, etc.  These are all pretty important for the athlete or the professional adult.


This is probably the number 1 recovery tool and the easiest/cheapest.  There are so many mechanisms at work when you sleep.  As mentioned previously, this is the ultimate relaxation tool, again, where we recover.  Hormonally, we see a surge in anabolic hormones (the ones that make you recover).  Interestingly too, there are some mechanisms at play that weren’t all that known previously.  The fluid that encases the spinal cord and brain, cerebrospinal fluid (CSF), normally is produced and recycled at a constant rate, however, when you’re sleeping the process actually speeds up helping to clear the system of toxic metabolites.  What does this mean?  Well the nervous system (brain and spinal cord being mega players) is what sends messages to the muscles to move.  When those metabolites build up they create a toxic environment for the system and can create a whole host of issues.  The resulting inflammation has been correlated with many chronic diseases which ironically are also usually stress related too.  The magic number of sleep hours appears to be about 8.  That means eight hours of sleep, not 8 hours lying in bed, so watching the television while in bed doesn’t count.  Also, there is some new research coming out saying that obesity is associated with greater than 10 hours of sleep per night.  I don’t even understand how you can have that amount of time to sleep and am completely envious of whomever has that kind of time.


There are also some pretty cool tricks that you can do to influence your environment to aid in the recovery process.  Different scents and oils can be used to get a better night sleep or even just relax.  Lavender oil appears to have the ability to do this and if you don’t want to invest in essential oils you can simply buy the airwick with lavender oil.

Also, as mentioned above, watching T.V. in bed doesn’t count as sleep.  How can we eliminate this potential distraction?  Remove the television from the bedroom if possible.  Seems like a simple answer, but when you confront people on this it is amazing how much resistance you run in to.  Television, tablets, computers, and especially smart phones display via blue light.  Blue light stimulates the wake cycle in the old noggin and has negative consequences for sleep quality.  If it is a must to use these things before going to bed, invest in some cool orange safety glasses at your local hardware store.  This is a neato trick that I learned at a conference a year ago from a pretty smart individual.

Take a nice warm shower roughly 10 minutes before bed.  This has also had a very positive influence on achieving deeper sleep in individuals.  If you are one of the sick and twisted individuals who enjoy cold showers, disregard this information.

Some recent research also correlates cleanliness with getting better sleep.  Having a clean environment, specifically your bedroom, you have less to think about.  Because you have less to think about, you fall asleep quicker which enables you to get a longer, deeper sleep.

Wrap up

These are just a few options that you can use or pass along, but they’re extremely cheap and efficient.  Most people just need to fulfill one or a few of these steps to see almost immediate results.  Feel free to comment anything else that is simple and works well.

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Mobility vs. Stability: Part 2

Previously I wrote an article discussing the importance of mobility and stability functionally.  To quickly recap, the joint-by-joint approach discusses where in the body we need stability and where we need mobility.  In the cases where we don’t have appropriate stability or mobility, the joints on either side will try and pick up the slack so we can still achieve our projected outcome.  It only seems fitting that the low back be discussed first as it is a huge disabling feature in our society.

Without even concerning the muscles and other soft tissue structures that surround our low back, we can take a look at just the bony anatomy.  In a number or cadaver studies they have found that the lumbar spine is capable of flexion and extension without damage to the bony structures in the area.  However, rotation is extremely limited totaling just five degrees of rotation on average throughout the entire lumbar segment of the spine.  In other studies to come up with better prediction rules in physical therapy, researchers wanted to know if movement is strict or if there is coupling that occurs.  Just like everything in the human body, there is often not just one strict movement that occurs.  For example, when an individual side bends their trunk in the low back area specifically there is also an associated rotation that must occur.  As we just learned from the bony anatomy, that can’t happen in excess without causing bony damage or even disc damage.

The muscles in the low back really are postural in nature.  Standing against gravity is pretty good strength training for these small muscles.  Sometimes these small muscles will go into protective spasm which will try to limit any movement in the low back.  This could be from years of faulty movement without addressing the issue, or it could be from a traumatic event like flexing or extending and twisting your low back trying to deadlift.  Complete violation of the crap test (if it looks, smells, tastes, or feels like crap it is probably crap).


The other soft tissue structures in the area are things like the ligaments, disc, cartilage, and other vessels.  There are a number of ligaments in the area that span either the entire spine or from one vertebra to the next.  They really protect the spine from excessive flexion and extension, but just like anything else in the body they can stretch or rupture.  The disc being one of the more notable ruptures (herniation) because it is filled with a material that causes local inflammation as well as the space between the vertebrae to become less.  This will in turn cause nerve root irritation, protective spasm of local muscles, potential stenosis (narrowing of the canal the spinal cord is in) for us stubborn individuals, pain, walking silly, not wanting to get out of bed, etc.


A lot of times low back pain is self inflicted with terrible mechanics.  Sometimes though, faulty movement patterns may be the result of poor mobility through not only the vertebrae in the low back, but also the hips or the thoracic spine (where the ribs connect to your spine).  It could also be from a weak abdominal musculature that doesn’t brace or stabilize the low back well.  If one has an abnormally large belly, this could cause a lot of stress through the low back as well.  The list goes on and on, but the screening tools we use should show us something.  Address the triplanar mobility of the hips, the rotation and extension quality of the thoracic spine, the strength and endurance of the abdominal muscles, and as a general recommendation to lose that Milwaukee tumor!  These are all generalizations of course, but it is a good starting point for most individuals.


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Mobility vs. Stability: Part 1

The topic of mobility and stability seems to be a very popular one.  In the field we have a group of individuals who claim there is way too much corrective exercise taking place; and, on the other side we have a group of individuals who will spend an entire hour performing correctives.  So the question is, what do you need and how much time should you be spending on it?  The easy answer is you need both and you should spend time on whatever needs correcting, but don’t forget about what you’re training for in the first place.

Mobility and stability are at the crux of neurological physical therapy, the foundation.  In physical therapy, it is taught that everyone first needs mobility everywhere.  Without mobility one can never truly gain proper stability.  Once mobility is acquired we can now focus on stability, and then follow the continuum through dynamic stability and skill acquisition.

If we follow Coach Boyle, co-owner of Mike Boyle Strength & Conditioning as well as many others, and physical therapist Gray Cook, the co-founder of Functional Mobility Systems, we will know of the joint-by-joint approach.  Basically the joint-by-joint approach explains that there are certain joints that need mobility and certain joints that need stability in the functional model.  The hip for example should have three planes of mobility and the knee should have stability acting like a hinge joint.


When starting an initial evaluation with a new athlete, we should include some sort of movement screen that looks at the quality of movement at each joint.  Based on this knowledge we can assess what kind of corrective exercise is necessary.  For instance, if we are going to program an athlete to perform any overhead exercise, an overhead press or snatch for example, we should first make sure that the athlete can actively get their arm into that range without a weight first.  If they cannot, they will then sacrifice the stability of the necessary joints to attain the mobility they cannot already achieve.  If they are lacking shoulder flexion at the shoulder joint (glenohumeral joint) the will then subconsciously look to the next joint–scapulothoracic or thoracic (shoulder blade or upper back respectively)–to get their arm to get into the fully flexed overhead position.  This will create a cascade of issues both up and down the line like hyperextension in the lower back or flexion of the neck just to maintain their body within it’s base of support so the individual does not lose balance, which may also happen.


Another example, if the ankle joint does not have the proper amount of dorsiflexion (think toes toward shin bone) there is no way that they can achieve a proper squat without lifting their heel.  Simply coaching the athlete to keep their weight in their heels is ineffective in this instance.

Stability is necessary for the muscles performing an action to have a platform in which to push against.  In the case of the shoulder joint, the shoulder blade and it’s articulation with the rib cage (scapulothoracic joint) is a stable joint in which the muscles of the rotator cuff, the trapezius, the deltoids, biceps, and triceps, etc. all anchor to the shoulder blade.  If the shoulder blade doesn’t have proper stability then we can see a whole host of issues that will be created including rotator cuff tears, biceps tendonitis, trigger points throughout the upper traps just to name a few.

The complexity is in the instance when a stable joint must become mobile.  In life events and sport, sometimes it is necessary for that very same shoulder joint to move around to create a good angle for the shoulder to move.  The point is that the shoulder blade remain stable when a demand is in fact imposed upon it.

shoulder blade upward rotation and protraction

More on this post soon to come

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Why a Minimalist Solution for an Active Population?

There has been a popular movement as of late regarding the minimalist-type shoe for cross-training, sports performance, and general public use.  Like many products released for consumer use, it falls under the “shoot, ready, aim” category where the shoe brand will say that they have done numerous research studies (totally unbiased) and claim wonders for the near future—remember sketcher shape-ups??
Personally, I like to have my athletes choose a minimalist type footwear for their performance training, depending on the structure of their foot.  Mostly, I prefer to have them use the minimalist footwear with single-leg work, mobility/stability drills, and for movement prep.  The impact is lower on the system, and it also enhances the individual’s proprioception through the lower extremity.  I’ve written a previous article about this here.
In a recent research article released this June (2015), researchers were studying the acute effects of footwear on jumping performance.  There was a difference in the peak propulsion, horizontal ground reaction force, average muscle activity, propulsive duration, and duration of muscle activity during countermovement.  But, participants reported feeling more comfortable in cushioned shoes…shocking (1).
In August 2014, a study was done looking at mechanics of running on the foot using barefoot or shod conduits.  Bottom line of this research, when barefoot, individuals demonstrated more range of motion.  Not only did they demonstrate greater range of motion, it was range of motion in ideal ranges.  At foot strike, it is optimal for the foot to be pronated so that it is flexible and can absorb the impact forces (2).
May 2015, a study looking at loading response in barefoot vs. shod running found that there is less hip adduction, internal rotation, and opposite hip drop at impact and at a later point.  Increased adduction, internal rotation, and opposite hip drop is associated with knee injury giving another great reason to introduce barefoot style training to our athletes (3).
Many of the studies written about barefoot/minimalist training versus supported training/running are weak at best, in violation of some sort of error typically.  The studies I’ve cited here have a fair number of participants, however, it doesn’t fix the many extraneous variables that may have an impact.
Even with all of this information presented, I am not an extremist and don’t believe that it is all or none.  For instance, if you work on your feet all the time, maybe wearing some sort of support on your feet is a great idea.  If you’re a competing powerlifter or Olympic lifter, wearing appropriate shoes for your sport is necessary (outside the movement prep).  If your feet ache, wear some sort of support to relieve the soreness, just don’t come to rely on the support as the potential for the small muscles of the feet weakening, therefore, increasing the potential for injury.