It’s hard to have a discussion about athletic performance and injury prevention without mentioning the “core”. Despite what many have been lead to believe, the core is not so much a handful of specific muscles as it is a relationship of muscles involving the upper and lower body that work together to properly transfer energy and maintain the integrity of the spine.
When coaches are able to help young athletes properly develop this relationship of muscles involving both the anterior and posterior hips, shoulders, and torso, it creates a strong foundation for athleticism.
This requires much more than doing crunches.
It’s important to understand that in order for the core to do its job, the involved muscles must coordinate to stabilize and mobilize properly. The more we can facilitate this coordination with young athletes, the better.
Isolation-type exercises (think crunches and back extensions) do have a place when it comes to activating muscles involved with the core. However, movements that force kids’ brains and bodies to “figure out” how to coordinate the mobilization/stabilization actions of the core have a lot more ROI when it comes to athletic development.
The five exercises below are examples of movements that require young athletes to coordinate the muscles involved with their core as they move in different planes of motion and orientations with gravity.
Bear, Crab, Butterfly
This movement series not only challenges aspects of reaction and coordination, it provides a 360-degree challenge for the muscles involved with the core relationship.
Instruct athletes as to the following movement cues:
- “Bear”: Athletes hold a crawl position with the knees off the ground
- “Crab”: Athletes turn over into an inverted quadruped position with hips parallel to the ground
- “Butterfly”: Athletes support their body weight in a “standing side plank” position with their legs apart
Alternate between the 3 cues in random order for 20-30 seconds.
In addition to providing a 360-degree core stability challenge, Crab rolls challenge and activate a young athletes vestibular system. This helps in improving balance and body orientation.
- Begin in a “bear crawl” position with the knees of the ground.
- Without letting their hips touch the ground, the athlete turns their entire body over so their hips are now facing the sky in a reverse quadruped position.
- The athlete then continues to roll back to the “bear crawl” position without letting the hips touch the ground.
- Continue for 15-20 yards
- As the athlete rolls to change body orientation, cue them to keep their hips as high as possible
Proper movement of the scapula is often neglected in regards to its contribution to the core relationship. Many kids struggle with proper protraction, retraction, elevation, and depression of the scapula due to poor posture and thoracic muscle tone. This makes it difficult to stabilize the thoracic portion of the torso effectively, decreasing the amount of power than can be translated through the core.
This exercise engages the muscles of the scapula and thoracic area, both important components of posture and core strength/stability.
- Begin with the athlete lying prone on the ground with arms out perpendicular to the upper body. Thumbs should be facing upward. The chin should be “packed” as if to be holding a large orange or small grapefruit between the chin and throat
- Keeping their feet on the ground, cue the athlete to raise their thumbs towards the sky
- After holding for 2 seconds, return to the bottom position
- Repeat for 10-15 repetitions
Weighted Spelling Bee
The muscles involved with a young athlete’s core must be able to initiate and control movement in a variety of planes of motion. This exercise challenges core stability and strength in a variety of constantly changing planes of motion.
- Provide a weighted implement (appropriately weighted Sandbell®, medicine ball, weight plate, etc.)
- Instruct the athlete to begin in an athletic position with feet even with or slightly wider than shoulder width. The narrower the stance, the more challenging the exercise becomes
- The weight should be held out away from their body
- Cue the athlete with letters, numbers, shapes, and/or words that they must “spell” with the weight, using a range of motion from the ground to above their head
- Repeat for about 30 seconds, or when you witness fatigue
Bird Dog Rodeo
This exercise is a dynamic, advanced version of the standard Bird Dog exercise.
- Begin with athlete in a quadruped “all 4’s” position
- Cue the athlete to extend their opposite leg and arm until they are parallel to the ground.
- While the athlete attempts to hold this position, alternate pushing on their outreached arm and leg, attempting to knock them off balance
- If there hand or foot touches the ground, the coach receives a “point”
- Repeat for 20 seconds each arm/leg
- If the coach cannot score any points, they do 20 push-ups after the activity is over
Consider these core movements and others that go beyond crunches to help your young athletes develop the tools they need to perform for life!
Brett Klika is a youth performance expert and a regular contributor to the IYCA who is passionate about coaching young athletes. He is the creator of the SPIDERfit Kids youth training program and has run successful youth fitness programs all over the country. Brett is an international speaker whose passion for youth fitness has helped thousands of people learn how to create exceptional training experiences for young athletes.
The IYCA Certified Athletic Development Specialist is the gold-standard certification for anyone working with athletes 6-18 years old. The course materials were created by some of the most experienced and knowledgeable professionals in the industry, and the content is indisputably the most comprehensive of any certification related to athletic development. Learn more about the CADS certification here: