This past summer, I had the pleasure of working our annual summer camp as lead instructor for our younger camp. I was also able to get on the field with our older group towards the end of camp and during our extended summer camp. Being on the field every day for the past seven weeks helped me learn a lot about my craft and the kids I was teaching. Over the next few posts, I’m going to talk about some of the things we did at camp and why we used them. Today’s focus is going to be on our movement prep in the warm up period.
Designing the Warm Up
The first thing I prioritized at our younger camp was the warm up period. I think the warm up is misused and undervalued at a lot of baseball and softball practices. I personally think that in past camps, we haven’t used the warm up period to really maximize general physical development. While there is a time and place for static stretching, I don’t think it should be a priority for kids.
Instead, I developed a daily routine where we taught kids how to hip hinge, squat, lunge, bridge, and breathe. Below are some thoughts about why I chose these patterns, how to teach them, and what to look for in kids:
The hip hinge is the foundational movement for rotary athletes. It helps reinforce a glute dominant pattern which keeps athletes connected to the ground for a long period of time. It also teaches athletes how to brace their spine without excessive lumbar flexion (rounding of the lower back). Since lower back injuries are the most common injuries in baseball, we want athletes to learn how to protect their spine by teaching certain muscles (glutes, hamstrings, spinal stabilizers) when and how to fire for most efficient transfer of force.
What to look for:
- Feet a little wider than shoulder width, slight bend in knees
- Athletes initiates movement by pushing glutes out (posterior weight shift) without knee flexion
- Torso gets to roughly 45 degree relationship with the ground (this is just a general starting point, athletes can get higher/lower to ground based on feedback from execution of movement)
- Braced midsection, lower back remains locked/fixed
- Knees remain vertical in relation to heels (vertical shin)
- Chin is tucked/packed, no excessive cervical extension (looking up)
I used a PVC pipe with our kids to help learn how to maintain congruence of the head, upper back, and lower back throughout execution of the movement. If the athlete loses one of these points throughout the hinge, let them know and try to create awareness for when they lose contact with that point.
Two common faults I saw when teaching this move were excessive lumbar flexion (rounding) and a lack of a posterior weight shift. I tried to attack these by first teaching the athlete how to push their hips back (posterior weight shift). To do this, I would place a vertical object 4-6 inches behind their glutes and try to get them to touch the object when they hinged back. This usually helped clean up some of the lumbar flexion by creating more space for the torso. It won’t look perfect at first, but kids will start to figure it out with time.
The squat is an important movement to teach off the hip hinge as it promotes a similar posterior weight shift through a braced midsection. The main difference between the squat and the hinge is athletes flex from the knees to get their hips roughly parallel to the ground. This move helps teach athletes how to work their hip line into the ground while keeping the posterior chain engaged - an important skill when learning how to optimize ground reaction forces.
What to look for:
- Braced midsection
- Hips sit down and back, glutes push out
- Knees drive down and out (watch for knees that cave in, out over toes)
- *note* The squat will demand more of a positive shin angle (knees slightly beyond heels), but never to the point where it compromises posterior weight shift
- Chest stays in a more vertical relationship to the ground (as opposed to hinge where chest works more horizontally to the ground)
- Chin tucked/packed, no excessive cervical extension
I had athletes extend their arms out to create a counter balance which allowed for a posterior weight shift in the squat. For those that struggled sitting their hips back without falling backward, I would have them grab a pole and practice the squat while keeping their hands around the pole. As their hips worked into the ground, their hands would slide down the pole.
It’s very common for kids to drive their knees down and in when executing a squat (lack of a posterior weight shift). To help teach a better pattern that creates space for the hips and relieves stress on the knees, I would hold a PVC pipe over their toes. The athlete would then be instructed to execute the movement without letting their knees touch the pipe.
Baseball and softball require movements that demand strength, stability, and dynamic balance on one leg. Teaching kids how to control their bodyweight on one leg is absolutely critical for developing high-level rotary patterns. Lunge variations are an awesome way to get kids started.
Out of all the lunge variations, I like the reverse lunge because emphasizes posterior force production - something baseball players commonly rely on while rotating and sprinting. When compared to the forward lunge, the reverse lunge is a little more knee friendly and can be a little easier in terms of controlling the torso/midsection.
No matter what variation you use, you’ll find out pretty quickly that kids are horrible at moving on one leg. They have a tough time bracing their midsection, controlling excessive movement of the lead leg in the sagittal plane (wobbling), and navigating the eccentric portion of the movement (slamming their knee into the ground). This one was the toughest to execute by far - but it was also the biggest area of growth in most of our athletes.
What to look for:
- Taking one leg back and gently touching the ground with their knee (some like the knee to hover above the ground - I’m indifferent)
- Chest up, chin up, midsection braced
- Shoulders over hips, back knee roughly lines up underneath shoulders (bigger lunge requires more hip extension, find happy medium where they can control it all the way through)
- Eyes focused on an external focal point for dynamic balance
- Gripping the ground with the back toe (as opposed to taking your laces into the ground)
- Hands at side, on hips, or behind head
- Knee stays behind toes (slight positive shin angle is fine)
Most kids are going to dump their chest forward when lunging back because they don’t have the strength, stability, or belief that they’ll come back up. Many will also slam their knee into the ground because they don’t have the strength to control the movement all the way to the ground. In these cases, it’s a good idea to start from the bottom position and have kids work up from there.
You can also use a PVC pipe or pole to create awareness for how their knees are working in relationship to their heels. An easy fix to excessive forward knee movement is to get the athlete to lunge a little farther back. This creates more space for the knees and hips to work in a friendlier position.
There aren’t a lot of magic tricks when it comes to working on a lunge movement. The best thing you can do is get kids to practice this one early and often. If kids aren’t able to control their body weight on one leg, there’s a good chance they’ll start to leak out energy when executive more complex and sport-specific tasks (hitting, pitching, sprinting). Aside from the hinge, a single leg variation is the most important movement you can incorporate into your daily warm up. Don’t be afraid if it looks ugly at first - it will improve with time and technique.
The glute bridge builds off of the hip hinge by building strength and awareness in the posterior chain and midsection. It forces athletes to learn how to use the big muscles (glutes, hamstrings) for movement instead of the lower back. The isometric hold at the top also creates a stability component that helps strengthen the spinal stabilizers.
What to look for:
- Athlete starts on the ground in the supine position with knees bent, feet in ground
- Squeeze glutes to initiate movement
- Hips roughly line up with shoulders/knees at top of movement
- Two second hold at the top
- Hips gently lower back down to the ground (controlling the eccentric portion)
- Entire foot, shoulders, head, and arms stay connected to ground
- Knees drive up and out (as opposed to in)
This movement is a pretty simple way to get the posterior chain engaged prior to practice. Make sure the movement is being created through the glutes and hamstrings, not the lower back (you’d see excessive arching in the spine). Holding the movement at the top helps create for greater awareness in the glutes/hamstrings. These mind muscle connections are important to create so they can translate to efficient lower body movements.
While the breath isn’t a physical movement, it is one of the most important skills we teach and reinforce on a daily basis at camp. Like we’ve talked about before, the breath is going to be the bridge between the physical and mental game for players. The combination of physical benefits (lowered heart rate, increased oxygen to brain) and mental benefits (moving on from the last pitch, being present) from the breath makes it a crucial starting point when teaching the mental game to kids.
What to look for:
- Athlete starts in supine position on ground
- Eyes open or closed
- One hand on chest, other hand on belly
- Make the hand on your belly rise
- The hand on your chest should stay relatively still
- Breathe in through nose, out through mouth
I like to give athletes the freedom to practice their breath and utilize it until they feel relaxed. Your role as a coach during this time is minimal. All you’re trying to do is create an environment where kids are able to focus on their breath and get their mind off the clutter in their life. Being present pitch to pitch is a crucial skill in sports. If our mind is on anything but getting the task in front of us done, we won’t be able to executive it efficiently or effectively.
Dynamic Warm Up
After the hinge, squat, lunge, bridge, and breath have been completed, we then move to the more dynamic portion of our warm up. This portion is centered on getting kids to move their feet and sync up their upper half while completing a variety of different movements. While I won’t go into great detail about execution, below are the movements we would incorporate to help get a sweat going before catch play:
Side Shuffle with Overhead Reach
- A frontal plane movement that teaches athletes how to gain ground laterally
- Emphasis on getting off the ground, jumping/landing on one leg
- Getting the hips working in a more transverse plane (rotation)
- Great for general athleticism, posture, single leg strength/stability
- Bridging into sprint work
Coaches have a lot of freedom to add or subtract movements to this portion of the warm up. The overall theme is to make sure athletes are learning how to get comfortable moving their feet while expressing body control in various positions. It’s also important to utilize this as a way to elevate heart rate get blood flowing to the extremities. The warm up is designed to prepare athletes to throw - we do NOT throw to warm up.
Final Thoughts - Warm Up
As a coach, the warm up period is an excellent time to teach good habits which will directly impact how kids move on the field. The earlier you can teach kids these movements the better. There’s nothing exciting about executing good quality movement - but there’s nothing out there that can replace it. Using a well-executed warm up is an awesome way to keep kids healthy by building an early foundation in strength, motor control, and body awareness. Don’t let the monotony of a warm up period ruin the potential impact it can have on kids.
Feel free to experiment with different moves, cues, and ideas. Keep things simple early on so kids can catch on. Constantly drill them on how to execute the movement so it starts to become ingrained. Add things (jump/land mechanics, push/pull, etc.) as they start to get a better feel for how to move. Individualize based on the needs of each player.
Feel free to reach out with any questions or thoughts.
Keep learning and growing.
This article was written by Andrew Parks.