Most young athletes will come to you with the same weak points: the posterior chain and the core. Notice I said “most young athletes” as NOTHING is absolute when it comes to young athletes or any athletes for that matter. You might get a 14 year old who looks like he is an 18 year old and vice versa. Some high school athletes are built better than college athletes!
Through my years of training high school athletes, I have evolved into using certain tools and methods that have truly churned out great results time and again! In addition, we made sure a few variables were always in place when training young athletes. These variables are:
- Have FUN while training
- Work hard AND smart!
- Focus on developing weak areas and imbalances
- Consistency – commit to the training, recovery and nutrition aspects
- Communication and flexibility – By this, I mean learn to be flexible with the workouts as you communicate with your young athletes. This is where the art of coaching comes into play, and it makes you a better coach when you listen and act accordingly with your athletes.
- Full body workouts
- Bodyweight before external resistance
- Incorporate simple movements that are easy to master at first
I have moved away from training athletes under age 13. This does not mean athletes under age 13 can not benefit from proper training. My personal opinion is that I would like to see those kids engaging in a variety of sports and physical activity first before their parents even approach me about training. I emphasize to these parents to incorporate gymnastics in addition to the current sport(s) they love to play. The gymnastics training helps develop kinesthetic awareness, strength, power, agility, flexibility and plenty of muscle!
I always begin with a simple conversation with the parents and the athlete. A key point I look for is, who is interested in the training more? Are the parents pushing their kid to train with me while this young athlete prefers not to be here? If that’s the case, I prefer to wait to see greater signs of maturation emotionally. The last thing you want or need is a young athlete who is doing everything because of the pressure from their parents. Kids have enough stress in their daily lives. You want this to be a fun place for them and a place they look forward to coming to on a regular basis.
If the parents are supportive and good listeners, and the young athlete is excited to train hard and follow my advice when they are not with me, then we have a great starting point. The first few sessions are always geared towards learning bodyweight exercises, using various bands (Jump Stretch and regular fitness bands) as well as evaluating their movements through the exercises and through movement. The evaluation is truly an ongoing practice that takes place during every training session. During every workout, you should analyze to see if there are weaknesses in certain areas of the body. If so, you'll need to create workouts to help correct these weak areas.
The bodyweight exercises we begin with and use consistently are:
- Push ups and all variations: hands on floor shoulder width apart, staggered hands, close grip, feet elevated, hands on stability ball, etc. The stronger they get, the more variety we can use here.
- Lunges and all variations: forwards, reverse, walking, diagonal and lateral
- Pull ups and all variations: recline, regular (all grips), holding a bar, holding rings, etc.
- Various leg raises: knee ups while upright on dip bar, lying leg raises
- Abdominal work: sit ups of all variations: bent knee, straight leg, rotational, feet anchored and non anchored sit ups, holding a medicine ball in various positions
Some athletes have a greater foundation to start with, so we might add more challenging exercises such as parallel bar dips and handstand push ups. The athletes that have the greatest foundations are those who use their bodies independently such as gymnasts and wrestlers.
In addition, we also do a lot of band work for the back. Exercises such as face pulls, band pull aparts and rowing to the chest are great for these young athletes. We often do these band exercises as a warm up and then again at the end of the work out. The extra volume works great for adding muscle to this weak area. Adding muscle through moderate resistance and moderate reps is important for these young athletes for improving the weak posterior chain.
Sets and reps are not written in stone, especially in the beginning. Some young athletes may need higher sets (five to eight sets) and very low reps (three to five reps) to help them recover and keep their exercise technique. Young athletes respond well to submaximal weights, so going very heavy is best reserved for those with a lot of experience in strength training. As strength and endurance improve, you can begin increasing the reps as you see necessary. The low reps allow the young athlete to learn and reinforce correct form. The more fatigued their muscles become, the less likely their form will maintain properly.
If we implement other exercises in addition to the bodyweight and bands, then it will be simple movements that are easy to master in technique. This is where carrying, dragging, pushing and pulling of various objects comes into play. Carrying objects is a great way to work the entire body as well as teaching/reinforcing proper deadlift and squat mechanics. We use the following tools for carrying and dragging:
- Wheel barrows
- Sleds (forwards, backwards and laterally)
- Dumbbells (farmer walks)
- Russian Kettlebells (farmer walks)
Simple exercises such as farmer walks (hands at sides) using dumbbells and Kettlebells are great for strengthening the grip, the upper back and the hips. We teach proper lifting mechanics first (this comes from learning the bodyweight squat), and we also teach a controlled lowering of the weights when the set is finished. The lifting and lowering of the weights serves as a single rep, but through time, these single reps add up and aid in the development of the body.
Using logs, the athlete will lift them from the ground and then up to shoulder height, holding the log in the zercher position (two arms underneath). The initial lifting involves rotation, pulling and squatting. This is full body work, and it allows us to incorporate several movements in one exercise. The carrying of the log works the entire back, the legs, the shoulders, biceps and abs.
Stones and sandbags are carried in the same manner. Lifting from the ground up with a dead lift and then returning them back to the ground slowly and under control reinforces the squat and dead lift again. The sandbags and stones require extra hand and grip strength, which is great for all athletes since the hands and grip are used in all sports.
Another simple tool to implement into a young athlete’s program would be the various sled dragging movements. This works the lower body and places great emphasis on the glutes and hams, which are always weak on young athletes. If you don’t have a sled then get some tires and plug an eye hook in them. From there, you simply attach two tow straps, and you’re all set. This is a great alternative for coaches who have a limited budget and want to incorporate various sled movements into a young athlete’s overall program.
Some coaches have athletes perform the various dragging movements for distance and sets and reps. I prefer to drag the sled or tire non stop, alternating the movements with little to no rest. It’s quite common for young athletes to be out of shape, and this is a great way to conditioning the overall body. Call it GPP or conditioning. Regardless of how you define this training, we want athletes to be able to move their bodies efficiently. There is nothing wrong with being out of shape, so take short rests for water and keep training with those sleds. You can use sleds in the beginning or end of a workout; see which tends to work best for your athletes or alternate the placement of sleds during each workout.