Young Athletes that Aren’t Flexible

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Last week we held a youth speed clinic at Evolution since it was April Vacation. This was a good opportunity for athletes ages 8-12 to learn some basic speed technique and movements.

Overall, it was a tremendous success and we were very happy with the turnout.

When it was over, I was talking to one of my long time adult clients who had brought his son. We were talking about his tight hips and how he struggled with flexibility.

I put him on the ground to do quick assessment to rule out any serious injuries and the results were very surprising. When checking his hip internal rotation, he had more than I had ever seen on someone.

hip ir

His tight hips had nothing to do with mobility/flexibility because he had plenty. Instead, it was a stability issue. He had full range of motion but didn’t know how to use it (not that I would expect a 9 year old to).

The body is made up of joints that alternate, from the feet up, between stability and mobility. The foot is stable, ankle is mobile, knee is stable, hips mobile, and low spine stable.

When one of these sequences is off, it affects the joints above and below. An ankle injury that is treated with prolonged use of a brace causes it to become stable. A stable ankle is going to cause problems in the foot and the knee, potentially.

In the case above, a lack of core stability was locking his hips up. When I was passively moving his hip, it had plenty of range of motion.

This is common in young kids, due to their age. They often lack the motor control to truly stabilize the core.

Young athletes are also not going to gain core stability very easily. Giving them exercises like planks or deadbugs is probably a lost cause. Without that ability to control their body, trying to train it isn’t going to happen.

Instead I have found “tricking” them into stabilizing to be much more effective.

Take a half kneeling overhead press for example. This needs to be with an appropriate weight to stabilize. The athlete focuses on pressing the weight overhead but since we have put them in an unstable position, their core must work.

Without stabilizing, the weight will not get pressed. Most kids will struggle and be a little bit all over the place when doing this for the first time. This is a good thing because their body is learning the motor pattern.

As they get better at the lift, the shaking and wobbling will go away. Most of this adaptation is neuromuscular, meaning it comes from the brain sending messages to the muscles. The textbook time frame for this is 6 weeks. This can fluctuate depending on the ability and age of the athlete.

I have found that a good blend of bilateral (both legs/arms) and unilateral (single leg/arm) exercises is effective for learning good movement. I don’t expect really young athletes to start packing on strength right away, but they can learn movement patterns.

Using unilateral exercises is really helpful in getting the body to stabilize. Most of the time these exercises cannot be accomplished without stability. We can then utilize bilateral movements to lay a strength foundation. There is more built-in stability to allow for more of a strength effect.

Developing stability is really the secret to unlocking tight body parts. The hips and the hamstrings are two places that parents often mention where their kid is tight.

We can static stretch all we want but if the issue is stability instead of mobility/flexibility then we will get nothing out of it. If the muscle groups cannot provide stability, those “tight” areas will stay tight until they can.

The majority of young athletes do not have truly short muscles, but instead cannot control their movements. This is why we teach fundamental movements to our athletes as young as 8. The earlier they learn the movements, the earlier they can start to take advantage of the benefits.