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How to Teach Push Ups

We teachers and coaches are constantly faced with the challenging task of introducing new and inexperienced students and athletes to what many may call “the basics.” It is this foundation that we lay when they first walk into the gym, that serves as the basis for their long-term fitness and performance. Our responsibility, then, is to demonstrate and instill mastery of these basics within each and every athlete.

More often than not, this is easier said than done.

Take the push up, for example. The foundational “push” movement, it is the functional baseline for all of the pressing that we will ever use in a training program. When done well, it develops strict pressing strength, reinforces safe/powerful shoulder pressing mechanics, works midline strength & stabilization, and can even be used in a conditioning capacity during volume training.

All of that being said, the push up is also a movement that is daunting for new or inexperienced athletes. Athletes are also quite often embarrassed if they cannot complete a real push up and avoid attempting it at all. What’s more, it’s also a movement frequently mis-coached and mis-performed.

So how can we help all of our athletes become masters of the push up?

First, we must articulate, completely but concisely, the points of performance that constitute a perfect push up.

1. Hand Placement – Palms flat on the ground, fingers forward, just outside of the shoulders.

2. Elbow Path – Shoulders remain externally rotated, tracking the elbows back towards the lats/rib cage, not flaring out to the side.

3. Midline Position – Core should remain engaged through the lift, maintaining a neutral spine. Hips should not sag, or move independent of the torso (think the worm style push up). Hips should never hit the ground and should move in time with the shoulders.

4. Full ROM – Chest must touch the floor at the bottom (not the abs) and elbows must lockout fully at the top.

Once you have defined & demonstrated the elements of a good push up, you look for common faults and work to correct them. For a few athletes, this may be as simple as verbal cues changing hand placement or engagement of the core.

As great educators, though, we must also acknowledge that not every one of our charges will be capable of a perfect rep on Day 1 no matter what we say. Even with an understanding of the movement, some athletes will lack the pressing or midline strength required. In fact, at first, most students and athletes will likely struggle to complete even 1 perfect push up from the floor.

Should we just throw athletes to the fire and let them struggle until they’ve figured it out or quit in the process?

Of course not.

Our goal is to progress students through a range of movement variations that continually challenges their capacity while simultaneously reinforces great positioning and technique.

In regards to the push up, we here at PLT4M opt to scale difficulty of the press through elevation. By taking the press off of the floor (via a box, bench, desk, or other object), we decrease the force necessary to press to full lockout (changing the percentage of bodyweight the press moves and midline must support).

This progression allows for the athlete to perform any prescribed volume of push ups in a given workout (thus developing their capacity) while not sacrificing form or the midline stabilization component (like in a push up from the knees). Once an athlete develops consistency at a given height, we move them down, increasing the difficulty. This consistent focus on appropriate movement mechanics, while progressing through an increasing level of difficulty results in the eventual completion of perfect reps from the floor.

Scale your push ups appropriately from the beginning, and your students and athletes will be pro’s in no time!

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Fix Your Deadlift

For good reason, the Deadlift is beloved by coaches everywhere. It is an excellent way to develop pure, total body strength as well as reinforce good posture and proper mechanics that relate to many other movements. Unfortunately, though, it is also a movement where strength can trump form – it’s too easy to do it the wrong way. You can execute a heavy rep with egregiously poor technique and we see this far too often with high school athletes who want to move big weight. The result can range from inefficiency to a legitimate risk of injury.

While the deadlift appears to be a relatively simple lift, proper execution often proves far more difficult. Here, we identify just a few of the major coaching points that we use when teaching to any of our athletes. We are constantly looking to perfect technique in order to maximize gains, while simultaneously minimizing risk.

  1. Perfect the Set-Up Position: Often, athletes have failed the lift before they’ve even begun. Improper set up for the deadlift can result in a host of technical errors during execution. One of the most common issues we see is incorrect hip and shoulder positioning. Some athletes set up with super low hip level, much like a squat – others do the opposite, treating it more like an RDL. We want to find the middle ground. With the bar just in front of vertical shins, the athlete’s hips should be above the knee (from a profile view), the shoulders above the hips (and in front of the bar) and gaze towards the ground (neck in a neutral alignment – no “eyes to the sky” here!). Correct alignment will help ensure athletes’ maintain proper back position and allow them to generate the most force into the ground.
  2. Teach it as a “Push”: While the deadlift is most often referred to as a pulling movement, we actually prefer to associate it with a “push” when teaching new athletes. Hearing “Pull” often leads to movement deficits – hip & shoulder disassociation during the initial ascent phase, loss of lumbar curve, etc. To combat these issues, we instead tell the athlete to focus on pushing the ground away with their legs. This helps to keep the hips and shoulders rising at the same time with a tight core.
  3. Work the Return: Even athletes with impeccable deadlift form off of the floor often have a tough time with the eccentric portion of the deadlift, or the “return”. When working consecutive reps within a given set, this half of the movement becomes vital to proper execution. Essentially we want to mirror the concentric half of the lift in reverse. First the athletes should push the hips back and “look out over the cliff” until the bar reaches the knee. Only then should the athlete re-bend the knee. Early knee bend is a fault we see frequently, and leads to both inefficiency moving weight and potential injury.

 

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Snow Day? Workout Anyway.

Snowstorm ruining your week of training? A day off from school and away from the gym doesn’t have to be unproductive. Even being stuck in the house, we can put together a simple yet effective workout for our athletes. There are a myriad of possibilities, including the use of weighted objects like backpacks, rolled towels as abmats, and all sorts of other creative things. For now, though, here is a sample workout you can use during your next snow day!

Warm Up & Mobility

Don’t neglect a proper warm-up and mobility progression. You can get a lot out of simply moving and working your range of motion during your “off day”, much like we do during active recovery sessions. This progression should be CONTINUOUS and each piece should be done for the full amount of time specified. This will take roughly 10 minutes. 

  • 1 Minute of Jumping Jacks
  • 1 Minute of Alternating Spiderman and Reach
  • 1 Minute Jumping Jacks
  • 1 Minute of Alternating Samson Stretch (lunge with arms locked reaching overhead),
  • 30 seconds Alt Knee Hugs in place
  • 30 seconds Alt Quad Stretch & Reach in place
  • 30 seconds Good Mornings
  • 30 second Pigeon Pose each leg
  • 30 seconds Wall-Calf Stretch each leg
  • 30 second Slow air squats
  • 30 seconds twisted cross stretch each side,
  • 1 minute child’s pose.

Workout

AMRAP 20:

10 Hand-Release Push Ups
20 Sit Ups
30 Lunge Steps
60 Jumping Jacks

During a 20 minute clock, get as many rounds as possible of the above progression. During Hand-Release push ups, the chest must rest on the ground and hands come off of floor at the bottom of every rep. Perform the Sit Ups butterfly style, and make sure the shoulder blades touch floor and hands touch toes on each rep. Lunge Steps are done in place, alternating legs and standing tall in between lunges (15 each leg). Jumping jacks should be done with full range of motion and without stopping.

We are looking for a good pace throughout the full 20 minutes. You shouldn’t move super slow, but don’t blow it up in the first round or two either. We’re hoping to hit between 5 and 7 rounds.

As always, scale the push ups if need be, full range of motion reps matter more than the prescribed workout. If hand release is too hard, perform regular push ups. If 10 regular push ups is challenging, scale with height (refer to our instructional video on the push up here).

Follow up with a good full body stretch or foam roll if possible to cool down.

Lastly, any workout you prescribe should take into account the rest of the week’s training. Prescribe movements and loading according to what’s happened recently, and what is coming next!

 

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A Secret Weapon for Off-Season Training

Often, we see high school coaches and athletes get so caught up during the off-season with such a motivation and desire for intensity that they neglect proper scheduling, recovery, and injury prevention. Training with intensity is great, but we must have purpose and planning or we will never see true progress.

Enter the Active Recovery workout. Such a session is designed to offer coaches and athletes a viable training option that feeds the need to train religiously, while simultaneously allowing for growth and recovery from previous training sessions and preparing them for the next one.

Though an active recovery session is meant to be easy-going and casual to a degree, we still want to structure it in order to guarantee efficiency as well as efficacy. This will make sure your athletes buy in to the idea, so we can see real benefits and don’t waste our time!

Aerobic Conditioning Warm Up

To begin the session, we aim to increase heart rate, total body blood flow, and overall body temperature. We are looking for a low impact activity that can performed at low to moderate intensity for a continuous 10 to 20 minutes

We often prescribe one of the traditional “monostructural” movements or activities: running, walking, biking, rowing, swimming, etc. These are both easily completed in a gym facility and easily monitored for time and pace. That being said, you could just as easily spend 15 minutes kicking a soccer ball around or playing a lighthearted game of knockout on the basketball court.

Dynamic Movement Progression

Following our basic aerobic warm up, we move to more specific, athletic movement patterns. We are looking to continue the warm up while simultaneously improving balance, coordination and flexibility about specific joints. This could be as simple as continuous line drills (walking knee hugs, lunges, Sl RDLs,) or it could be a creative progression of dynamic mobility drills such as the following:

  • PVC Trunk Twists, Pass Throughs, Around the Worlds (30 Seconds Each)
  • Leg Swings forward and back, side to side (10 each)
  • Good Mornings (1 minute)
  • Alternating Spiderman & Reach (1 Minute)
  • Bootstrappers (1 Minute)

Mobility Progressions & Foam Rolling

With intense training or competition comes the continual battle against injury. Active recovery days are the perfect time to incorporate mobility work designed to increase flexibility, correct movement, and ultimately stave off potential injury. A good progression will work both on areas that have been worked hard recently to enhance recovery, and areas to be worked in the near future as movement prep.

Here is an example routine that could be used between a heavy press day and heavy squat day:

  • Lower Body Foam Roll
  • Banded Hip & Ankle Mobility w/ Air Squats
  • Perform 10 Seconds of Slow Air Squats
  • 30 Seconds each of banded hip and ankle hold on the right leg
  • 10 Seconds Slow Air Squats
  • 30 Seconds each of banded hip and ankle hold on the left leg
  • 10 Seconds Slow Air Squats
  • Lat Mash: BB, KB or foam roller for 30 seconds each side
  • Child’s Pose: 1 Full Minute
  • Twisted Cross Stretch: 30 Seconds each side
  • Squat Therapy: 3 sets of 5 reps

Skill Work or Additional Full-Body Conditioning (Optional)

For the hungriest of athletes, those that need to feel completely involved in the “work/training” aspect of a recovery day, we can add an element of skill development or “conditioning”.

First, we can allow athletes to work something they aren’t proficient at yet. That could be spending 5 minutes on their jump rope technique, or it could be empty barbell work to improve their clean (maybe the clean drill we talked about here).

If that doesn’t satiate them, we could enhance our dynamic movement by dressing it up as additional conditioning. You can even substitute this for the original aerobic warm-up if done correctly. Low-intensity metcons built with bodyweight movements are a great choice. We can work up a sweat, improve capacity, while still repairing the CNS and allowing joints to decompress after heavy training days. Here’s an easy example:

5 Rounds, NOT for time:
20 Cal Bike
15 Slow, Perfect Air Squats
10 Push Ups (Scaled Appropriately)
5 High-Bar (Easy Pull) Inverted Rows

Static Stretching and Cool Down

End the session with a cool-down of casual walking, static stretching, or even meditation. In team settings, a band or partner stretch protocol is a great option. We are looking to end the workout feeling refreshed both physically and mentally.

Add these structured active recovery days into your formal training schedule and your athletes will be better motivated and prepared for your intense training sessions! 

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3 Myths of Training Track Athletes

More so than almost any other sport at the high school level, Track and Field has the greatest expectation of specialization in it’s training. Many coaches we speak to believe their athletes require a different program from any other sport, and different programs within that for sprinters, throwers, distance runners, etc. We love that coaches are invested in their athletes’ success, but we believe it requires a shift in mentality.

Not only should all of your track athletes be engaged in a comprehensive weight training program – they should all be engaged in the SAME one! I know what most of you are thinking – “But why would my sprinter’s do the same workout as my distance athletes?”

To answer, let’s take a look at the 3 most common myths in the track and field world with regards to training.

Myth 1 – Distance Athletes Shouldn’t Train Strength for Fear of Bulking Up

When it comes to the concept of bulking up, or extreme muscle hypertrophy, the simple truth is that weight training alone will not add tons of weight to just any athlete. First, it requires very specific training protocols which include the absence of heavy aerobic conditioning and caloric expenditure (aka everything a distance athlete does on a regular basis already). It also takes very proactive nutrition and particular human biochemistry (genetics play a big role) for any athlete to attain significant muscle mass (or hypertrophy) gains. Beyond this misconception, it’s actually long been established that endurance athletes of all kinds benefit greatly from the benefits of strength training. We will refer you to a great article by Charles Poliquin, one of the foremost leaders in exercise science, that provides a scientific argument for the many benefits that athletes like your distance and cross country runners can benefit from by performing a well-rounded strength program in addition to their running.

Why Runners Should Include Weight Training

Myth 2 – Sprinters, Throwers, and Distance Athletes Should All Train Differently

As for your other track athletes – throwers, jumpers, sprinters, and mid-distance alike can all benefit from a comprehensive training program. Working strength/power with the hang clean or front squat, for example, makes both a linebacker and long-jumper more powerful, it adds kick to a Mile’r, and adds quickness in a sprinter or volleyball player by improving speed of force production. Each athlete will also benefit from developing full-body proprioception and movement economy through mobility and range of motion work like the PVC Overhead Squat (the improvement on ankle range of motion alone is worth it for any athlete or runner). Your shot-putter will thank you for shoulder injury prevention work, just as a baseball player would. Threshold training through competitive Metcon sessions will help your 4×400 team just as much as it will your field athletes who need repeated max-effort performances. It will also improve mental toughness across the board. There are a TON of constants throughout the performance world when it comes to athletic training.

Myth 3 – Track Athletes are Highly Specialized

We understand – it’s easy to attribute a high degree of specialization to your track athletes because their field of competition is so narrow. Watching a sprinter compete in the 100m dash looks much different than a distance runner competing in the 3k, or a shot-putter going for max distance on his or her toss. While we would argue that the training that can make these athletes successful is universal, it’s not the biggest reason to approach training with a holistic mindset.

Far more important is an understanding of who, exactly we are training. As high school coaches, we all want the same thing. We want to develop more dynamic athletes and better teams. But, training high school athletes is a highly unique endeavor. We tend to forget that, when it comes to performance training, the athletes in question are just plain young and inexperienced. For the overwhelming majority of your athletes, their high school years will be the first time ever involved in an athletic strength and conditioning program. High school students lack a solid foundation of functional fitness on which to specialize. Most can barely squat or perform a deadlift properly, let alone do so with heavy weight or in any fancy variation. It is absolutely imperative these athletes are all given a comprehensive program that works to build a complete athlete from the ground up. We owe it to them as young athletes, as well as young adults who need to go on living healthy lives long after they finish our sport.

Beyond that, high school athletes are NOT specialists. Besides a lack of experience, our athletes have immensely varied physical demands. As track coaches, basketball coaches, lax coaches, etc…it’s easy to forget that your athletes exist beyond and outside of your sport. An overwhelming majority, though, of high school athletes compete in multiple sports (as they should!). If we have an athlete that plays 2 or 3 different sports throughout the year, how do we justify them specializing in their training at any point? Juggling various programs with differing physical goals simply leads to a lack of overall progress. Worse than hindering progress, we can inadvertently lead to an increased incidence of injury. By definition, “specializing” in something must come at the expense of something else. What results, is a guaranteed imbalance. Imbalances are often the root cause of injury. You cannot be specialized and well-rounded at the same time, that’s not how exercise adaptation works.

Here at PLT4M, we answer these considerations by employing a holistic approach to athletic development. We believe in training the multi-sport athlete year-round as opposed to utilizing sport specific programs. Our belief is that we can, with one well-built and well-run program, build better overall athletes in the gym, which coaches can then turn into better players on the field of competition. Such a consistent and progressive program that continually develops an all-around athlete throughout his or her career can better serve everyone involved. The athlete is committed and engaged year-round, and all coaches receive a developed athlete to turn into the best player they can. All parties involved have thus unified in an effort to achieve success.

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Fix Your Squat: 4 Tips & Tricks

We believe the squat to be one of, if not the most important movement in which all athletes should become proficient. Learning a proper squat is crucial for athletes as it has applications in strength, mobility, stamina, injury prevention, and above all, sets a great foundation of strength and movement mechanics.

While a relatively simple movement, we see a number of faults when performed by our newer athletes. Today, we are looking at knee path relative to the toes. One of the most common issues we see with young or inexperienced athletes is an inability to track the knees over the toes during the entire range of motion of a full squat. Frequently, we see athletes experience “Valgus Knee Collapse” or the knees caving in on either the way up or down. More than just being inefficient, this position is a dangerous one, especially if it becomes habit. The knee joint is intended to operate as a simple hinge, and it can only do so if it is stacked directly over the ankle. Anything else puts undo stress on the connective tissue holding the joint together. While athletes can often get away with it, even under load, it allows for the development of a very serious muscular imbalance about the knee joint that can cause injury outside of the weight room.

Getting the knees to track the toes teaches the athlete to properly engage the hips and glutes, reinforcing the knee joint by eliminating a structural imbalance, helping to prevent non-contact ACL injuries and the like. It also puts the athlete in the most stable and most powerful position. This allows them to safely move more weight, and see better results.

Long story short: we want to get our athletes tracking their knees over their toes on every rep. Here are 4 tips/tricks/fixes to help you bullet-proof the squat!

  1. Fixing the Stance: Make sure the set-up position allows for proper mechanics.
  2. Glute/Hip Activation Drill. Teach your athletes to engage their hips and glutes with a quick resistance band warm-up protocol.
  3. Tactile Cue (Plate Drill). Give your athletes a physical target by asking them to drive the ankles/feet into the plates, reinforcing full-foot traction with the ground and glute engagement at depth, keeping the knees driving out over the toes.
  4. Low Dragon Pose. Improve ankle mobility to allow athletes to achieve greater depth with proper mechanics.