“Okay kids, it’s time for core work!” says the team coach.
After these words are uttered, young athletes might sigh in frustration or dread the countless reps of Sit-Ups ahead. It’s like they’ve been programmed to expect core training to be boring and difficult.
While I am not totally against Sit-Ups, we must ask ourselves as youth coaches, ‘what am I trying to accomplish?’ when programming core exercises. Moreover, ‘how am I helping these young athletes become more resilient for their sport?’
Core training must be approached in a multi-faceted manner, which takes more than just instructing kids to do countless Sit-Ups. Since the core encompasses muscle groups beyond the “six pack abs,” all muscles must be attacked when programming core exercises for kids, so we are improving their performance in sports, and reducing the chance of injuries.
Think of the core as the foundation of an athlete’s body – it allows kids to maintain balance, transfer force, sprint with clean mechanics, and perform sport specific actions with power. Multiple muscle groups must be activated in order for these actions to be optimized.
In soccer, for example, if a kid wants a stronger shot, the core must stabilize the spine in order to for the hips to work efficiently, then rotate correctly so there is enough power produced when the ball is struck. Not only will the core produce power, but it needs to stabilize the spine in order to minimize the stress on the low back. More core stability, then, equals less low back compensation for many sport-specific actions.
With that said, core training must ensure kids are strengthening all of the muscles that wrap around the torso, from the hip extensors, to hip flexors, to the anterior core muscles, to the internal and external obliques.
While core training may be difficult, it can also be enjoyable. Eventually, Sit-Ups may prove too easy for kids, or perhaps too monotonous. To that end, kids enjoy challenges. Kids enjoy variety. Kids enjoy games. Kids enjoy the novelty of new exercises.
Here are four fun core exercises you can do with your youth athletes (and get creative with):
1. Resistance Band Chaos Dead Bug
The Dead Bug is an excellent exercise for anterior core activation as well as stability through the lumbo-pelvic region. Once athletes master the conventional Dead Bug, here is a fun, yet challenging partner variation to try:
Perform 2-3 sets, 15-30 seconds.
2. Chaos Ball Dead Bug
This is another way to add more external “chaos” to the Dead Bug. The more force your partner applies to the ball, the more it ups the ante. Youth athletes love this one because they have fun challenging their partner.
Perform 2-3 sets, 15-30 seconds.
3. Bird Dog High Fives
The Bird Dog is a stellar movement for contralateral coordination, as well as anterior core and gluteal activation. However, sometimes, the conventional Bird Dog can become too easy as well as monotonous. Here is a fun game to try to spice up the Bird Dog movement:
Perform 2-3 sets, 6-8 reps each side.
4. Pull-Up Hold
The Pull-Up Hold is not only an excellent upper body strength exercise but also a difficult anterior core and gluteal exercise. Being able to maintain full body tension by squeezing the glutes and bracing the core is extremely challenging, and will help kids to build serious strength. To make this drill more fun, I like to do Pull-Up Hold Battles and have two athletes face off on who can hold the Pull-Up the longest.
Perform 2-3 sets, for as many seconds as possible.
So which one will you give a whirl first?
I promise your youth athletes will be inspired by the challenges these exercise present, as well as look forward to performing them. Additionally, they will feel stronger, more resilient, and more confident to play their sport. Fun, yet challenging core exercises that work all the muscles in the torso and hone stability are a win-win.
Erica Suter is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and soccer performance coach at JDyer Strength and Conditioning in Baltimore, Maryland. She works with youth athletes across the state of Maryland in the areas of strength, conditioning, agility, and technical soccer training. Besides coaching, she is a passionate writer, and writes on youth fitness as well as soccer performance training on her blog www.ericasuter.com. She also is the creator of the Total Youth Soccer Fitness Program, which is a comprehensive guide for coaches and parents on how to train youth soccer players both safely and effectively. Her mission is to inspire a love for movement and play in kids, and motivate them to stay active for a lifetime.