High school aged athletes are a unique breed of athletes. With so many forces both internal and external tugging the athlete in all directions, a strength coach must consider all factors, regardless of how insignificant. It is important to view each athlete as a human being before labeling them as athletes. In part 1 of this series I will discuss the problems athletes face with round thoracic spines and how to correct them.
When visualizing an image of a student athlete sitting in class listening to a lecture on WW2 or sitting in computer class learning how to type, what kind of posture are they sitting in? Although the image above is meant to be humorous, it is probably closer to the truth regarding student posture and attitudes during 1st period. Before we begin to get our athletes pumped up for a big lift or our “brutal” conditioning sessions, we must take an account of their posture and mobility concerns. Looking at the course of a student athlete’s day, it consists of sitting super-setted with hunching and texting. All of these “activities” by themselves are no big deal, but when combined and prolonged throughout a six-hour day in the classroom, it is no wonder we get handed athletes who cannot lift their arms overhead without chest bumping everyone within a five-foot radius. Even though we may want to rush our athletes into the weight room to set quarter squat records, we must consider the costs of this rounded back posture. From an athletic perspective, good luck teaching your baseball player a new swing or your basketball player a new jump shot. The ability to learn these new skills are significantly hampered by severely rounded upper backs and forward head posture.
The thoracic spine consists of the 12 vertebrae of the upper back and is supported by the traps, rhomboids, lats, rotator cuff, deltoid and levator scapulae. When sitting in a hunched position for prolonged periods of time, these muscles become very inactive and give way to anterior muscles such as the pec muscles which become short and tight from being in a flexed position for 5-7 hours at a time. These shortened muscles attach to the top of the abdominals and cause rib flaring anytime we ask our athletes to perform any overhead task. The human body is very efficient at adapting to stressors placed upon it. In order to reduce this stress, the body adapts and tightens the flexed anterior muscles. These tight muscles will significantly impair an athlete’s ability to perform skills, set them up for a much higher risk of injury and some research has even shown that tight fascia tissue could impair brain function to some degree.
Luckily solutions for this problem are extensive and very simple to implement. They will take some time but the investment early in an athlete’s career will pay huge dividends down the road. Hopefully all of your athletes are going through some sort of assessment. It does not need to be extensive or expensive. A curved thoracic spine is very visible to the naked eye, honestly once you learn to spot it, you will see it in everyone you meet. It would be a safe assumption that all of your athletes have either a curved thoracic spine to some degree or have severely underdeveloped posterior chains. My recommendation for correcting this issue would be to create a correctional block for your athletes during the GPP (general physical preparedness) phase of your programming. This phase typically consists of non-sport specific training to get athletes in shape for future programming. A four-week block of high volume back training with thoracic spine mobility exercises should put your athletes on the path toward standing up straight.
*Strengthening exercises (40-50 reps/day with pauses or eccentrics): inverted rows, bent over plate row, bent over row
*Thoracic Mobility exercises (super set these with other major lifts): supine overhead reach, thread the needle, clamshells, deadbugs, overhead front plate raise
The last tip I have to help your athletes is constant communication about proper posture. Make it a point to correct them when they sit hunched over. Thoracic mobility issues are a constant battle, we need to maximize our exercise selection to combat this issue and it may mean we have to put the cool stuff on the backburner for the time being.