Teaching Athletic Movement Skills

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Jared Markiewicz

How to help your athletes dominate the top movement skill for any sport

Fundamental movements like squatting are necessary skills for an athletic foundation. While today’s typical 12-18-year-old athlete often lacks refined movement skills, with a simple learning progression, he or she can quickly become a proficient squatter.

We are strength coaches. Our goal with every athlete we come across is to develop their movement skills along with power, speed, and agility to maximize their potential in their relative sport(s).

Early specialization, where young athletes focus solely on a single sport throughout the entire year, is definitely an issue, but I think an even more pressing issue is the case of the multi-sport, highly-sought-after athlete. Many athletes we work with between the ages of 12-18 not only play multiple sports but also play on multiple teams for multiple seasons.

These athletes are accomplished and skilled at their particular sport(s) but lack a foundation to continue to build upon their current skills. Indeed, their movement skills, the foundation for athleticism, have never been focused on.

To me, that’s like building a house by trying to put the roof up first. I am not an expert on the physics behind a feat like that, but it sounds highly ineffective at best and downright disastrous at worst.

Even if the athlete learns to develop some power, speed, or agility to improve in the sports they play, they are still left with a structure and a roof but no foundation. Again, I’m no contractor, but I’m pretty sure I don’t want a house built without a foundation.

I like to think about it like a pyramid. Here is our ideal athlete pyramid:

Ideal Athlete Pyramid

But here is what we commonly see:

Current Athlete Pyramid

It is clear that we as strength coaches need to build the movement skill foundation for our athletes. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as just programming squats, hip hinges, pushups, chin ups or Turkish get ups because we have to build from the ground up, not the top down. That is why we created a progression system that get our athletes’ movement skills developed quickly and effectively.

Today, we’re going to cover our progression system for the teaching the squat, the king of athletic performance potential.

RNT Squat

Using a cook band (as shown above) or a light resistance band works great for this squat progression. Often, we will use this exercise in conjunction with a goblet squat.

If your athlete tends to collapse forward or struggle to reach full depth in their squat without falling backwards, this progression will make all the difference.

The concept of RNT (Reactive Neuromuscular Training) is simple: Move the athlete further into their erroneous pattern with resistance. So to fix a forward leaning torso, we pull the athlete from the shoulders down and forward. Their brain reacts to the resistance and instinctively fights to oppose the force. Their neuromuscular system starts patterning a correct squat and develops the motor control to maintain the squat without the resistance.

I didn’t show RNT for collapsing knees in a squat—and for good reason. I am not a big fan of using RNT for valgus knees. I would rather an athlete focus on rooting their feet into the ground and visualize ripping a towel apart as they squat. This creates a more natural squat pattern and doesn’t overcorrect to a weak externally rotated position.

Overhead Squat

We typically use a dowel or PVC for overhead squatting. We generally don’t train an overhead squat for strength. It is more of a tool for us as we are progressing an athlete in our ADAPT athletic development program towards a front squat. (We prefer loading front squats to loading overhead squats because, in the front squat, we can teach proper upper body engagement and squat depth without having to do much “coaching.”)

Once again, this progression is a great tool to use in conjunction with a goblet squat. By putting the athlete’s arms overhead, it forces them to slow down and control the eccentric portion of the squat. If they move too fast with their hands overhead, they are much more likely to fall backwards without their arms as a counterbalance. And being able to control eccentric loading is imperative to injury prevention and re-acceleration.

Click on the image below to grab your free gift, “5 Critical Factors for Athletes”, by Power Training Expert Wil Fleming.

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We have the athlete set up with their hands wide enough so they create 90-degree angles with their elbows when the dowel rests on top of their head. They can move their hands wider but anything narrower than 90 isn’t necessary. Their feet are set up very similar to their normal squat stance with toes turned outward slightly and heels about hip-width apart.

Once they are in position, we cue, “Reach up and out.” That sets their upper back and shoulders in place and fires their trunk stabilizers. Then we cue again, “Root and rip the towel apart,” for their feet. Once they are fully activated, they squat.

Goblet Squat

This is generally our starting point for loading an athlete’s squat pattern once they have cleared the deep squat test via the FMS. We use this because it gives instant and physical feedback to our athlete at multiple points.

When they move, we don’t want the dumbbell to leave their sternum. If it does, either they have shifted their butt too far back or their torso has collapsed forward. When they hit full depth, their elbows should lightly touch their knees. This helps to standardize depth for each individual athlete. Each athlete will be unique in how deep their squat is, but by having their elbows touch their knees, we know they are going deep enough for their specific anatomy.

Once in full depth, I love the cue, “Push into the ground.” This sets up our athlete to use their entire foot to drive the squat back to standing. Often, we see young athletes get on their toes in the bottom of the squat. However, if we cue, “Push into the ground,” they will shift their weight back to the entire foot before standing. Eventually, they develop the necessary stability and control so their feet stay flat during the entire squat.

With younger athletes (10-14), it is very important to stand in front as you coach. They are often mirroring your squat pattern or looking to you for feedback. If you stand to the side, they will turn their head towards you and alter their pattern. By standing in front of them, you will substantially improve how your younger athletes squat.

Box Squat

As our athletes progress through their strength development, we want them to front squat. Often, the addition of a bar on the shoulders throws a young athlete for a loop, and they forget everything they learned from the goblet squat. Either they will squat super shallow on their toes or insanely deep, resulting in a real ugly a#%-to-grass squat.

For either case, a box is our answer. Like the goblet squat, it gives instant and physical feedback to our athlete. We are pre-determining how low the athlete goes.

If the athlete has a shallow front squat, give them an empty bar first because they are likely to fall onto the box. They will understand the depth necessary and, assuming they learned a good goblet squat, will quickly gain the motor control needed to front squat.

If the athlete bottoms up and curls their body up under the bar, the box is useful to limit their range of motion (ROM). Again, when they do their first box squat, give them an empty bar and have them do a tempo squat down to find the box with their butt.  It will arrive much faster than they expect!

Speaking of tempo, a box front squat is, in my opinion, the best time to really focus on a tempo pattern with the squat. The athlete is finally able to accept some heavy load and needs to be able to handle it eccentrically. By using a 303 tempo, the athlete must control the load going down and coming up.

This is also when our athletes feel like they belong with the older athletes. But adding load quickly will result in poor technique and very little carryover to sport. By keeping the focus on tempo, they will be unable to load their squat super heavy, and it will keep the pattern solid. Remember, we are building athletes, not weight room superstars!

Front Squat

This is our top-level progression for most athletes who train with us. We will do back squats when appropriate, but for today’s discussion, this is the end of our squat continuum.

The great thing about a front squat is that it is self-limiting. If an athlete cannot maintain posture, they will lose the bar forward. If an athlete cannot stand up with the weight, they can very easily and safely dump the weight forward.

More importantly, when done right, it teaches an athletic position, develops incredible trunk strength, and creates massive potential for jumping and sprinting.

We have many variations in terms of reps/intensity/tempo to change the focus and the effect the squat has once we get our ADAPT athletes to this progression.

Ultimately, front squat strength is the goal. We will use plyometrics, medicine balls, Olympic lifts, and other tools to develop explosiveness. The front squat is a pillar of strength development for ADAPT.

Furthermore, an athlete who can squat well substantially decreases his or her chances of a non-contact lower body injury. If the athlete is playing multiple sports in multiple seasons, staying healthy is goal #1.

In conclusion, if you work with athletes, whether in a sport setting or a strength setting, squatting is imperative to athletic potential. Using these progressions or bits and pieces will help any athlete develop a quality squat pattern and reap the benefits associated!

Click on the image below to grab your free gift, “5 Critical Factors for Athletes”, by Power Training Expert Wil Fleming.

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ADAPT and Conquer,

Coach Jared

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