If you grew up in the 80s, chances are you remember the movie Say Anything. And if you don’t, well, there’s this great scene (they’re all great scenes, really) where the male lead, Lloyd Dobler, is getting the third-degree from his girlfriend Diane’s father about his plans for the future. Lloyd kind of goes off at the mouth (Lloyd always kind of goes off at the mouth, really), winding himself up about processing and kickboxing, until he finally collapses just shy of the promised land. “I don’t know, I can’t figure it all out tonight sir, I’m just going to hang out with your daughter.”
Working with youth athletes, it is sometimes hard not to feel a little like Lloyd Dobler when talking with parents, coaches, and administrators. We have been conditioned to prioritize the complex over the simple, the many over the few, and specialization over general principles. And all along the way, we’ve turned athletics into a Gordian knot of leverages, endless drills and routines, and a thousand cuts.
Honestly, and this is very wonderful news, it doesn’t have to be this way. Human movement, whether age 8 or 88, boils down to a handful of basic patterns–you might call them the Fab Five–and getting stronger and moving better through these patterns pays substantial athletic dividends in very short order.
Our first pattern is the hinge. This is likely the most important and intrinsically ‘athletic’ of the movement patterns. Simply put, the athlete hinges at the waist to load his hips and posterior chain–the body’s seats of power and strength. Unweighted, this looks very much like a shortstop’s ready position; we can train the hinge with deadlifts, kettlebell swings, and broad jumps. Getting an athlete stronger through the hinge is a game-changer, and you really only need 2 or 3 movements, loaded appropriately and titrated up safely, to make that progress happen. Strong, quick hips have no substitute.
Cousin to the hinge is our second pattern, the squat. In squatting movements, we lower and raise our torso by dint of hip and knee bend. Catchers squatting all game long, a shortstop fielding a grounder in the hole and raising up off his back leg to fire over to first, pitchers pushing and extending off the rubber through their back foot, hitters arcing up out of a crouch to drive through the strike zone–these are all demonstrations of the leg strength and power we can easily build with squatting movements. Again, we needn’t complicate matters: barbells, dumbbells, and kettlebell squats and lunges will all do under the eye of an experienced coach.
Our third and fourth movements are the upper body push and pull. Both of these movement patterns occur in horizontal and vertical planes. Pushing strength facilitates power and bat speed–a swing, after all, is ideally a violent push of bat into ball. Pushing movements in the gym also do a wonderful job of strengthening the soft tissue architecture around the shoulder joint, scapulae, and ribcage, which is essential work for the developing athlete in a throwing sport. Overhead and bench presses, pushups, medicine ball tosses–these are all simple, powerful, and effective movements for building pushing strength and power, Pulling movements like weighted and bodyweight rows, pulldowns, chins, and pullups are all fantastic for building the upper back and postural strength that keeps the shoulders healthy while providing the platform for all of our throwing and overhead work. Strong back, healthy shoulders.
The final movement pattern is the carry. Liberally, we define the carry as moving ourselves and occasionally some additional weight through forward, backward, and lateral planes. Carries encompass things like sprints, Prowler pushes, sled drags, and even before we get into the workout, a nice dynamic warmup. Carry work hones athleticism by using the strength and power we’ve built over the first four movement patterns in several planes at game or near-game speed. We’ve built the engine, now we get to rev it.
None of this is rocket science. I think sometimes that’s what trips well-meaning folks up; getting kids stronger, faster, and more powerful really is all about simple repetition and forward motion through elementary movement patterns. Hammer the basics, progress your resistance training slowly and surely, do your sprint work, and practice your sport several times a week.
It really is that simple. But simple is never easy–that’s the fun part!