On February 12th, physical therapist Julie Wiebe published a letter on her blog.  It was addressed to the coach at a gymnastics facility where her daughter had recently taken a lesson.

Julie begins by complimenting the coach on a good program, but adds some concern about the “strength training” portion of the class.  She lays the groundwork:

In addition to wearing my mom hat, I am also a women’s sports medicine physical therapist that specializes in returning women to fitness and sport after injury and pregnancy. This area of focus demands that I understand and keep up with emerging research about the core, how it develops in girls, how to recover it after injury. I have some concerns I wanted to pass on about the messaging the coach communicated to the girls (9-12) about their cores.

And then she points to the part of class that concerned her:

The coach asked the girls to feel their abdomens and determine if they were “soft, hard, or somewhere in the middle”. He told them it should be hard and he wanted them to have “strong cores”. He then proceeded to ask them to perform a series of planks and high reps of a few variations of crunches.

Building upon her experience, education and wisdom in the field, she adds:

He is not alone in this widely accepted understanding that strong abs define a “good” or “strong” core. However, this information, while still the standard of training and sport, is rapidly becoming outdated.

So, what is the current thinking?  She goes on:

Turns out a strong center does not rely on strengthening any one muscle group alone. Instead, we now understand that central stability, is actually about balancing the pressures inside the abdominal cavity. This is achieved through the teamwork of all the muscles surrounding that cavity from deep to superficial.

She then offers a terrific graphic with a balloon to illustrate her point.  Go here to take a peek.

Julie provides some of the science behind her assertions, explains how “over-reliance and training” of a single muscle group can be detrimental, and then she frames her assertions in the context of the child “athlete:”

This information is important for all levels and ages of athlete to understand. However, it is critical that we start our younger athletes in particular off on the right foot. We are shaping their physical future. For the girls my daughter’s age through their teens we are quite literally “shaping” them as they begin to develop through puberty. We can guide that physical growth and change with the great information at our disposal or hamper it.

The piece goes on with really fantastic information.  (Seriously, go read it.)

One of the commenters (Greg at The Body Mechanic) wrote a responsive blog post, largely in defense of the crunch.

Those of you who have been reading this blog, and most especially anyone who has read this post, this post, or this post , should know that Julie’s post really resonates with me.  What you may not know is how close it hits to home right now.

My daughter M, age four, is dying to take ballet lessons.  As in, mentions-it-every-single-day-multiple-times, dying to take ballet.  She has shoes, tutus, books, leotards … she is ready.

But I can’t make myself call to register her.  Instead, I told her she could start when she turned five and say a prayer every night that she will change her mind before her fifth birthday.  (Those of you who know my daughter know that this is about as likely as the ocean suddenly going dry, but still, I have hope.)

In response to Greg’s piece defending the crunch, Julie wrote an even more fantastic blog piece, reaffirming and further clarifying her position.

In that piece, she says that her first goal was to explain, “The crunch is a symptom of a larger problem, which is abdominal overuse and the over-emphasis on abdominal training, particularly in the absence of training other muscular components,” and …

My second overarching goal for my blog was to address developmentally appropriate activities in youth recreational sports, not in high-level athletics, older athletes and adults which seemed to be the population you were addressing in your blog.

She offers up more terrific research, interesting analysis and lots of passion.  But here’s the line that really kicked me.  She tells Greg,

I can also spot a former ballerina a mile away.

When you look at, study, palpate, and think about bodies … especially bodies in motion … all day, you begin to notice things.  Julie has far more training than I, but even with my little bit of training and years of experience, I too can usually tell a woman what type of activities she engaged in as a child.  If I watch her walk or exercise, I can develop some narrative about her “physical history” that is usually pretty close to being accurate.

And so many of the habits that I see people engaging in are borne out of childhood activities.

I danced for thirteen years.  As a result, I have relatively weak internal rotators.  Also partially as a result, I have experienced pelvic floor issues, chronic psoas pain, and my labors and deliveries of my three kids were impacted.

I could turn away from my son’s tee ball field when I saw moves that made me shudder during the “warm-up” at the start of practice.  And, I know that’s just the tip of the iceberg.  But those isolated incidents are different from enrolling my child in an activity that I believe, if practiced for a long time and frequently, will negatively impact her body.

Please know I am not judging anyone whose son or daughter takes dance.  And I can reel off a thousand positive things that dance programs offer.  I’m just sharing a burden that my history and experience have brought to bear.

I am hot and cold generally on kids’ athletics.  I see so much value in unfettered outdoor play.  Last week, we joined another mom and her son on a ninety-minute hike.  We leapt over creeks, climbed on stones, swung from branches, rested when we needed, played pirate and created a kitchen with a campfire.  It was a glorious afternoon.  And the more I think on things, the more I want my kids’ childhood to be peppered with those activities.  Highly structured dance and athletic programs – with their practice and game schedules – don’t leave much room for those types of afternoons.

Make no mistake – I’m not planting a flag in the ground and declaring war on youth sports.  But I am wondering if any of you have had similar qualms?  How do you find balance between free play and structured activities?  Do you have concerns about repetitive motion, poor instruction, or body mechanics issues in kids’ sports?  

What else is there about this issue that I should be considering?

Julie’s and Greg’s blog pieces struck a chord in me both as a fitness instructor and as a mom.  I love the dialogue that they generated between themselves.  Now, I would love for you guys to weigh in.



5 Responses to “Dear Julie : Kids, Cores & Building Little Bodies”

  1. on 12 Mar 2013 at 8:24 amMonica

    We took the big kid out to attempt the first no-training wheels bike ride this weekend and headed to the track at our elementary school. In the field in the middle was a dad with two boys, maybe 8 and 4. The entire time we were there, the kids were doing circuit training – a lap around the track followed by work with weights, including lunges and squats, follow by another lap than another weight activity. It just struck me as so odd. I much prefer to watch my children scampering over logs, throwing rocks into creeks, hanging, climbing, pushing, digging, chasing, biking – doing the active activities of a child.

  2. on 12 Mar 2013 at 9:28 amKristine Rudolph

    Wow – that really makes me think.

    I mean, these little people come into the world with all this desire to explore their surroundings and experience their bodies, and we feel the need to “train” them. And, as Julie’s blog so wonderfully points out, we aren’t exactly all completely knowledgeable about what that training should look like or be.

    This is all something I NEVER expected to feel, to be honest. It’s one of those things that suddenly, as a parent, I’m thinking about things in a way I never had before. So, I truly am just exploring my thoughts here. But I really appreciate you adding yours, too.

  3. on 12 Mar 2013 at 11:25 amK

    Good piece. I think of all my knee pain now @ 41 and how I need knee replacement and how it all started when I began gymnastics at 3 and didn’t stop until 17. I think of the damage I did to myself. It was the 70s and 80s. My mom had no clue what that type of athleticism was doing to my body and how it would change my middle age years as well. I just wanted to be a gymnast. And when I didn’t I stopped. Would I do it all again? Probably. Would I do it all gain knowing what I know now? Probably. It was my passion and I loved it. Ask me again in 20 years.

  4. on 12 Mar 2013 at 11:50 amKristine Rudolph

    K, that’s a great perspective. I wonder what your mom would say, knowing what she knows now, about whether she would have let you follow your passion to that extent?

  5. […] you read this post about building little bodies, you will know that enrolling her was not an easy decision for me to […]

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