Down the Middle

Utilize your football athletes’ warmup time more effectively with these partner core stretches.

By Gray Cook, Heath Hylton & David Lee

Gray Cook, MSPT, OCS, CSCS, is Clinic Director, Heath Hylton, PTA, CSCS, is Clinic Coordinator, and David Lee is an Exercise Physiologist at Orthopedic & Sports Physical Therapy, Dunn, Cook, and Associates, in Danville, Va. Cook is also the author of “Athletic Body in Balance,” published by Human Kinetics.

Training & Conditioning, 14.5, July/August 2004,

One of the greatest challenges facing today’s coaches is organizing strength or conditioning sessions that involve a large group of athletes. Ideally, a strength coach wants to give as much individual attention as possible during workouts, but in a large group setting, that can be difficult.

However, that’s no excuse for shortchanging your strength program. With a little creativity, almost any goal can be accomplished, no matter how large the group of athletes. It is not necessary to accept a lower-quality workout simply because multiple athletes are involved in an activity.

Recently, our challenge was to create a series of exercises for a team of high school football players that could be accomplished during their warmup and would make the most effective use of their limited time. In response, we created a group of core training partner exercises that can be done on the field with limited supervision.

The focus of the exercises is on strengthening the core, a key element for football athletes. A strong core enables both mobility and stability of the body and helps prevent injuries, asymmetries, and muscle imbalance. Because core training is so important for the football athlete, it must be continued throughout the season. Making these exercises a consistent part of the warmup allows the core to maintain its strength up to the very last game.

It was also critical to design the exercises based on functional movement patterns, not isolated muscle training. Football athletes will sometimes be skeptical about exercises that don’t have weights on them, so it is important to explain to them that simply becoming stronger will not yield a better movement pattern. They must develop a combination of strength, stability, joint mobility, and muscular flexibility, which happens through functional drills.

Why are core training partner exercises an effective use of time? First of all, by making them part of the warmup, we accomplish two goals at once. Often, time is wasted during the warmup as players loosen up and get ready for practice in a haphazard way. But this is valuable time that can contribute to the overall development of the athlete. This program gives structure and meaning to the first 10 to 15 minutes of on-field warmup activity.

They are also time-efficient because they use a partner system, which enables the strength coach to occupy all individuals on the field in a session. While half are doing the exercise, the other half are learning more about the exercise by helping their partner. This cuts down on distraction. It also cuts down on the level of supervision needed, as coaches only need to watch half the number of athletes performing the specific move.

Of course, partnering also provides a necessary rest break for the individual who is not performing the exercise. This is not to say that the individual is totally resting. It is an active rest where the level of intensity is not that of the partner, but he is actively watching, participating, and paying close attention to detail.

In the following text, we describe several exercises that we developed for this program—all of which can be performed at varying degrees of difficulty. They are based on what we call the Functional Movement Screen™ (Please see “Weak Links” in T&C April 2002 for more detail) and focus on movement patterns like the squat, hurdle step, lunge, push-up, and active straight-leg raise. These are the movements we feel help athletes most effectively elongate muscles and activate the core.

One thing to note is the importance of matching athletes with partners of equal size, strength, and flexibility. This creates a fair level of competition and provides more consistent feedback between partners.

It is important to give the partner an active role with respect to support, spotting, and the opportunity for feedback and technique modification. The partner is almost assuming the role of assistant coach. You should make it clear to the athletes that if a bad set is observed, it is the fault of the partner as much as the exercising athlete. It is important that both individuals feel ownership of the drill even though one will obviously be working his muscles harder.

Purpose: To improve deep squat and shoulder mobility movement patterns.

Instructions: The deep squat shoulder stretch incorporates the mobility maneuver needed in the lower extremities to execute a deep squat with the heels flat. Since athletes have varying degrees of ability with a full deep squat, the partner stands with one leg supporting the low back and buttocks region and encourages the squatting athlete to lean forward as much as possible and then to erect the spine in an upright tall spine position. This will engage the core.

Once a complete deep squat has been executed, the squatting athlete is cued to press the knees outward using his elbows to create an adductor stretch. He is told to hold the knees in this position and maintain this abducted position of the hips while reaching upward, first with the right arm and then with the left. The partner gives an upward pull or traction stretch and the athlete performing the stretch is encouraged not to let the knee cave in on the side of the stretching arm.

Note: The arm is not pulled backward. It is pulled upward, thus creating a safe shoulder stretch for the lats and pecs.

Purpose: To improve lunge, rotary stability, and shoulder mobility movement patterns.

Instructions: Both athletes get into a half-kneeling position with the left knee up. One person puts his arms in a “T” position with shoulders abducted 90 degrees. The partner then performs a mobility assist by rotating the first person’s shoulders left and right to 90 degrees while the athlete is instructed not to allow any rotation at the hips or pelvis. They are cued to stay as tall as possible and keep the hip of the back leg extended as much as possible throughout the stretch. The sequence is reversed and the other partner then performs the same stretch. Once both athletes have stretched in a left and right direction, the knee position is reversed.

Next, the athletes get into a push-hands position in the center of their bodies and execute an isometric rotation into each other while stabilizing their hip and shoulder position and keeping the spine as tall as possible. They are told to push as hard as possible without losing balance and then to perform the same movement with the opposite hands. The half-kneeling position is then switched to the opposite knee.

Purpose: To improve hurdle step and trunk stability push-up movement patterns.

Instructions: The athletes assume a wheelbarrow position where one athlete is in the push-up position and the other holds the partner’s ankles at the level of his hips with a slight knee bend. The supporting athlete can take a stride position to narrow his base and allow for easy cycling action of the legs. The athlete in push-up position cycles each leg, one at a time, toward his chest and back. He must maintain a flat back and a stable core with a head-up position and tuck the right hip as the supporter releases the ankle of the right leg. The athlete is instructed to bring his hip as close to his chest as possible followed by extending it back to the start position and quickly pulling the left leg into the same position.

The goal is smooth, quick leg speed while maintaining a stable trunk. The supporter is encouraged to use quick hand action to alternate supporting each leg as the active athlete goes through this stride position.

Modifications: The athlete exercising can widen or narrow his hand position to change the level of difficulty or go to a prone-on-elbows position to reduce upper-body stress.

Purpose: To improve trunk stability and push-up shoulder mobility movement patterns. This exercise serves to demonstrate to athletes that the spine has both stabilizing and mobilizing roles. The muscles of the spine can either hold the trunk stable or create a curl or twist action.

Instructions: . One athlete assumes a push-up position (plank position) with the other athlete lying across his back perpendicularly. The athlete on top is instructed to do crunches in the same fashion he would do over a stability ball (full flexion and extension).

Modifications: The athlete in the support position holding his push-up position can modify his position if he becomes weak by going to a quadruped position.

Purpose: To improve rotary stability and shoulder mobility movement patterns.

Instructions: One athlete sits with his arms supporting him from behind and lifts the legs so that the supporting athlete can hold both the ankles in a quarter-squat position. The athlete on the ground is instructed to press the hips upward until the spine is as straight as possible and to keep the chest up and shoulders back.

Modifications: The athlete doing the press can go to an “on elbows” position to reduce arm and shoulder stress.

Purpose: To improve rotary stability, shoulder mobility, and trunk stability push-up movement patterns.

Instructions: The athlete performing the exercise assumes a side-lying position on the elbow with the forearm flat and palm down. The partner assumes a quarter-squat position holding the ankles. The athlete on the ground is instructed to elevate the hips up and through until an erect and straight spine can be observed. This move is performed both on the left and right sides.

Modifications: The athlete doing the side bend can stabilize with the top arm by gripping the wrist on the ground. This will reduce the natural shoulder twist that occurs with the move.

Purpose: To improve stability push-up, rotary stability, shoulder mobility, and deep squat movement patterns. This also provides a double quadriceps stretch for the partner.

Instructions: One athlete holds a push-up position while his partner places that athlete’s ankles on his shoulders while in a tall kneeling position. The supporting athlete keeps the hips as far forward as possible, getting a slight anterior thigh stretch, and then performs a shoulder press holding the ankles of the athlete in push-up position. The athlete in push-up position is instructed to keep a straight and erect spine throughout the entire movement.

Purpose: To improve hurdle step and active straight-leg raise movement patterns.

Instructions: The first athlete lies on his back with his head between the feet of his partner and holds the lower ankle and heel on each side. The athlete on the ground performs a bridge by lifting his buttocks with the knees in a 90 degree flexed position. He then extends one leg and lifts it in a straight-leg position coming backward toward the standing partner. As soon as the leg reaches its full range of motion, the partner pushes the leg downward in a brisk, shoving motion with one arm. The athlete slows down the lower extremity, changes direction, and brings it back upward again. This is done on each side. While performing this exercise, the athlete on the ground is instructed to maintain a hip lift position and not lose hip extension during the leg cycle lift activity.