Young athletes often overcompete and undertrain. The common lack of adequate strength and conditioning programming for this age group typically results in the development of some fairly good – but not great – athletes. Some youth competitors may look good during a tennis match, for example, but when you take those same players off the court to examine their movements in drills, they often display major flaws.
A good amount of research that has shown that early strength training can help address these movement deficiencies. In one German study conducted over the course of 14 years, researchers took a large group of 9- to 12-year-olds and exposed some to the type of early specialization programming that is common in the US and exposed others to more well-rounded, foundational programming that included practice in various sports, physical training and skill development. By the end of the study, participants who were given an early foundation in a variety of sports and athletic skills showed greater overall sport performance (despite the fact that their specialized programming didn’t start until ages 15 to 17) than their counterparts who specialized right away (Bompa, 2009). That’s quite a difference when compared to the North American tendency to specialize kids as early as 8 to 10 years old.
So, how do we go from science to real world application?
This is where you – the strength coach or trainer – comes into play. To better understand how strength training can work for young athletes, we’ll look first at the purpose of strength training and then progress to the development of programming that applies proper lifting principles.
The Goal of Youth Strength Training
Strength training’s goal is to increase strength, which will enhance health, fitness and sports performance. (Note: Strength training and resistance training will be used interchangeably in this article and will refer to any activity that involves resistive loads, in accordance with the National Strength and Conditioning Association (Faigenbaum et al., 2009)).
Strength gains are due mainly to neural adaptations such as increased motor unit activation, recruitment and firing (Faigenbaum, 2009). Increasing strength can also lead to improved performance of the energy systems, but will not result in increases in muscle size, as young athletes don’t produce enough testosterone and other growth hormones (Bompa, 2009).
How to apply this:
The top training priorities for any young athlete should be to make the athlete stronger in his/her movements and teach him/her to move properly. Most athletes, no matter what age, develop imbalances that must be corrected in order to strengthen movement. This is especially true for overhead athletes such as baseball, tennis, volleyball and water polo athletes who perform repetitive motions over and over. Injuries tend to occur as athletes get older, making this the prime time to strengthen those movements to prevent against those injuries.
As a strength coach, it is vital to assess athletes and understand how repetitive motions can affect them. For example, baseball players tend to develop imbalances and there is a lot of literature showing very high ground reaction forces in baseball. Andrew Busch’s article on PTontheNet has a lot of great information on overhead athletes and preventing arm injuries if you want to dig deeper into the topic. However, there are a few studies on the softball windmill pitching motion that indicate that the underhand pitch could have even greater force then the overhand baseball pitch. In many cases, this leads to lower-extremity injuries directly linked to the pitching motion (Guido et al., 2009). For this reason, it is vital for a coach to examine the movements of the sport and determine the goals. A typical baseball practice involves fielding, batting, throwing, and maybe running a few bases. Nowhere in the practice is movement taught, and there is definitely no strengthening of these movements.
Setting Motivational Training Goals
Goals are critical to athletes of all ages. Maximizing motivation for young athletes is critical to enhancing athletic achievement as well as enjoyment of the sport. John Nicholls, an educational psychologist, proposed an achievement motivation theory stating that athletes can either be task-oriented or ego-oriented. Task-oriented athletes are driven by competition and want to see improvements in their performance. On the other hand, ego-oriented athletes want to outperform their peers and care less about improvement (Fry, 1999). Most athletes are a combination of both of these; the trick is knowing how to motivate different athletes in different ways.
How to apply this:
Instead of relying on one motivational strategy, incorporate several. Consider using record boards, motivational phrases, t-shirts as rewards, and so on (Gilson, 2008). Even when athletes do not have concrete goals, they still respond well to challenges.
Using the NFL Combine is one great way to challenge your athletes. The Combine tests things like broad jump, vertical jump, 40-yard sprint, pro-agility and max bench press test. Most of these drills are very easy to use with young athletes; the key is to be creative. It’s obviously not a good idea to have them bench press 225 lbs for as many reps as possible, but they definitely can compete to see how far they can throw a medicine ball or jump compared to a NFL player. If you come up with challenges to test each athlete’s strength both physically and mentally, they are certain to become more engaged in their training.
Understanding the True Risk of Injury
Research has indicated that athletes between the ages of 9 and 12 are primed to benefit from strength work. As the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s position statement on youth resistance training notes, “To date, no scientific evidence indicates that properly performed and sensibly progressed weightlifting movements performed during practice or competition are riskier than other sports and activities in which youth regularly participate.” A number of studies have established the safety and benefits of strength training for youth. In fact, youth are exposed to greater forces during their normal sport and activity then during maximal strength tests.
While the risk of injury during resistance training is low, the risk of overuse injury during sport is high. For example, medial epicondylitis – or pain and inflammation in the medial part of the elbow – is common among youth pitchers because of secondary ossification centers present in the young elbow. Between the ages of 2 and 11, six secondary bone growth centers develop in the elbow, which fuse to the ends of the long bones from ages 13 to 17. These unattached bony growths make the young elbow particularly vulnerable to injury because of its skeletal immaturity (Caine, 2009).
How to apply this:
Strength programs for younger athletes should be more general then those of older athletes. Most coaches and parents don’t even consider strength training for athletes at this age because of fear of injury or impacts on growth. As a strength coach, consider making a pamphlet for parents highlighting the benefits associated with strength training as well as the research that has shown that the size and rate of athletes’ growth is not negatively influenced by resistance training or competition.
Developing Resistance Training Programming
If a child is ready for sports, he/she is ready for resistance training. Research supports starting with a dynamic warm-up, performing 1-3 sets of 6-15 repetitions for a variety of upper and lower body strength exercises, and cooling down with light calisthenics (Faigenbaum et al., 2009). Resistance training should be done 2 to 3 times per week on nonconsecutive days.
How to apply this:
Science gives us some fairly broad recommendations and few suggestions on how to practically apply this. Start with bodyweight exercises and then add in medicine balls, resistance cords, and dumbbells. One study done on 11- to 13-year-old baseball players showed significant improvements in throwing velocity following a 4-week resistance training program with only resistance cords (Escamilla, 2010). Other studies using child-size machines (which are fairly pricey), dumbbells, and medicine balls have all shown strength gains as well (Faigenbaum, 2009). A general strength program does not mean sport-specific exercises should be excluded. Going back to goals, sport-specific drills can be highly motivational because athletes can correlate the drills to sport performance.
Don’t think about increasing their bench, squat and hang clean 1RMs. Strength coaches should build athletes – not necessarily baseball players or volleyball players or swimmers – and this applies even more at this age. Full body, weight-bearing exercises such as crawling, pushing, pulling and squatting. Think about movements they do, and then load them with light weights such as medicine balls. Remember that bodyweight is still resistance, and these exercises can be challenging to youth. Athletes will not only become stronger, but they will also become more effective movers, have a better sense of body awareness, and increased coordination. As stated before, programs should be general, taking into consideration certain sport-specific differences. For example, lateral movement is still lateral movement, no matter if you are doing so in football or volleyball (Boyle, 2010).
Basic Movement Progression
- Depending on the athlete’s height, use a box that’s 12-18 inches tall.
- Have the athlete sit down to the box, then stand up.
- Next, have the athlete hold a medicine ball at chest level.
- Draw marks on the wall, have the athlete squat and toss the ball to hit those lines.
- Start with planks on their hands (they’ll need to learn proper body positioning).
- Progress to inclined push-ups using a wall/bench/table
- Regular push-ups are the next step, but it may take months to get there.
- The best assistive tool is the power band; simply attach to the pull up bar, place knee through the hanging loop, and pull up. This allows for full range of motion, but makes them easier.
- Jumping pull-ups are ok, but they don’t allow for full range of motion.
The Female Youth Athlete
Research has established that male strength programs are just as effective for females, as long as hamstring-specific exercises are emphasized (Holcomb, 2007). Females tend to have weaker hamstrings when compared to their quadriceps, known as the H:Q ratio. The hamstrings play a vital role in preventing injury while landing and cutting. When athletes are quad-dominant, they are unable to resist anterior tibial stress, placing a lot of extra strain on the ACL (Oliver, 2009). Incorporating hamstring specific exercises into your female athletes' programs can decrease their chance of injury.
How to apply this:
Physiologically, the programs work; psychologically, they oftentimes fail. Simply stated, the best strength program will not work with every athlete.
There are plenty of female athletes that will work hard, with no questions asked, but there are also many teenage female athletes who are afraid to get bulky. In these cases, it’s important to emphasize that strength training helps prevent injuries, can increase flexibility, and will positively affect sport performance. It’s also relevant to note that resistance training can increase bone mineral density in females by 6.2% and decrease body fat significantly (Krotish, 2005). Giving an athlete the why’s and how’s of training can be more effective then simply telling them what to do. Medicine ball work is great with these types of athletes, and you can substitute a medicine ball for dumbbells in exercises like single leg RDLs, lunges (all kinds), squats, step-ups and so on. For upper body, a suspension trainer works well because it is less intimidating then actual weights.
Coaching athletes is about taking scientific research and applying it in a way that produces results. For example, while it may be commonly believed that the best way to increase power is through squatting heavy and broad jumps, all athletes are different. Think of it as an injury – if an athlete has a shoulder injury, don’t have them press overhead. If a female athlete has a mental block when it comes to lifting heavy, figure out how to work around that while still accomplishing your goals.
Sample Female Strength Program
|DB Overhead Presses.Be careful with athletes with shoulder issues; if an athlete complains of pain while pressing, take it out
DB Bent Over Rows: The general rule is that overhead athletes (like tennis) should perform 2x more pulling then pressing
DB Snatch/DB Push Presses
|MB/DB Split Squats: Great to increase flexibility as well as strength
MB/DB Lunges: Include many variations (side, forward, reverse & transverse lunges)
To see this kind of programming in action, watch this video of a young female athlete training in-season:
As Young Athletes Get Older
When athletes pass puberty, programs should shift away from general to more sport-specific programming. Male athletes will see substantial increases in strength considering the amount of testosterone they are now producing and other hormonal factors taking place (NSCA revised). The programming should shift from bodyweight exercises to heavily loaded exercises and begin to resemble a collegiate strength program.
Periodization is key at this point because many athletes will compete in important matches and have the potential to be recruited by college coaches. Periodization allows them to develop different physical components at different intensities, frequencies, loads and durations, and this systematic, progressive increase in training stimuli helps give them a competitive edge (Bompa, 2009).
How to apply this:
Any successful periodized program should complement the athlete’s sport-specific training. This will decrease the chance of overtraining and allow for peak performance at the most important part of season.
Working with Athletes In-Season vs. Off-Season
The goal of in-season training is to maintain strength, power, flexibility, and anaerobic conditioning (Baechle, 2008). In-season training will be lower volume and focus on power/core lifts.
How to apply this:
If you live in some of the warmer climate states, many athletes are in-season all year round and don’t have an off-season (Gametta, 2007). If athletes have a very long in-season, you must structure their workouts to prepare them for the most important times of the season. Generally, only older athletes have traditional in-seasons and off-seasons. However, many youth from the ages of 8 to 13 have seasons that resemble older athletes, so periodization is still key. Instead of having just one competitive event to prepare for, you may have many. If the athlete strength trains two days per week, it may be wise to break up the workouts to focus on lateral movement one day and forward/backward movement the next. Excessive soreness should be minimized because many youth athletes don’t perform well when sore (most likely due to psychological factors).
Sample In-Season Strength Workout
- Broad jumps
- Hurdle series
- Single leg plyos
- Single arm snatch
- Single leg RDL
- Split squats
- Single arm row
- MB pushups
- Plank circuit
- MB overhead backwards
- MB slams
- MB rotational throws
- DB squat and press
- DB bent over row
- TRX circuit
Understanding and applying the research on youth resistance training can be a tricky task, but coaches who implement a proper, individualized strength program from the beginning will give their young athletes a lasting competitive advantage, with fewer injuries and better form. When developing an effective resistance program, coaches should consider each athlete's gender, age, goals, and personality as well as his or her specific sport. With this solid strength foundation in place, young athletes can make the leap from good to great in their sport as they move into adulthood.
- Baechle, T., & Earle, R. (2008). Essentials of Strength and Conditioning. Champlain, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Bompa, T., & Haff, G. (2009). Periodization, (5th ed.). Champlain, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Boyle, M. (2005). Advances in Functional Training. Aptos, CA: On Target Publications.
- Busch, A. (2012). Preventing Arm injuries in Overhead athletes Part I. PTontheNet. Retrieved from http://www.ptonthenet.com/articles/preventing-arm-injuries-in-overhead-athletes-part-1-3579.
- Caine, D., & Maffuli, N. Epidemiology of pediatric sports injuries (2005). Medicine and Sport Science, 48.
- Escamilla, R., Fleisig, G., Yamashiro, K., Mikla, T., Dunning, R., Paulos, L., & Andrews, J. (2010). The effects of a 4-week youth baseball conditioning program on throwing velocity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 24(12): 3247-3254.
- Faigenbaum, A., Kraemer, W., Blimkie, C., Jeffreys, I., Micheli, L., Nitka, M., & Rowland, T. (2000). Youth resistance training: Updated position statement paper from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(5): 60-79.
- Fry, M., & Fry, C. (1999). Goal perspectives and motivational responses of elite junior weightlifters. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 13(4): 311-317.
- Gambetta, V. (2007). Athletic Development: The Art and Science of Functional Training. Champlain, IL: Human Kinetics.
- Gilson, T., Chow, G., & Ewing, M. (2008). Using goal orientations to understand motivation in strength training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 22(4): 1169-1175.
- Guido, J., Werner, S., & Meister, K. (2009). Lower-extremity ground reaction forces in youth windmill softball pitchers. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(4): 1873-1876.
- Holcomb, W., Rubley, M., Lee, H., & Guadagnoli, M. (2007). Effect of hamstring- emphasized resistance training on hamstring:quadriceps strength ratios. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 21(1): 41-47.
- Krotish, K., Krotish, D., & Bowers, C. (2005). The design and implementation of a youth strength and conditioning summer camp. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 27(2): 82-87.
- Oliver, G., Dougherty, C. (2009). Comparison of hamstring and gluteus muscles electromyographic activity while performing the razor curl vs. the traditional prone hamstring curl. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(8): 2250-2255.