So now we finally come full circle. We’ve covered how strength training is necessary for kids to develop to their fullest potential and remain healthy. We’ve covered how the measure of an effective program is not pounds on the bar, but lack of injuries with increased performance on the field. Here at long last is the money shot, what most of you have been pining for; it’s time to cover the nuts and bolts of the programming. Keep in mind, what you’re about to read is supported by scientific evidence. There may be techniques out there that haven’t been researched yet that MIGHT work, but these guiding principles are what research has shown WILL work. When we’re talking about the developing youth, taking chances with what MIGHT work isn’t necessarily the most prudent approach.
First, you must make sure the equipment is suitable for the child’s size. I understand that you want your 5 year old to develop an apple-crushing grip, but that axel bar would be a poor choice. Remember when it comes to kids, anything is more than nothing. Bodyweight (read: ISOMETRICS), rubber bands, medicine balls, as well as the traditional free weights and machines have been shown to elicit benefits.
This will all depend on the baseline level of the individual, overall goal of the program, equipment availability, and the competency of you, coach. Generally, it’s prescribed that you should progress to dynamic movements (read: concentrics AND eccentrics) only after the body can be sufficiently controlled in static positions (read: ISOMETRICS). Does that mean that the first year of training should only be static holds? No. But, it does mean that you should include iso-stability work regularly throughout the program. You can externally load the body to further stress the posture and positions, but QUALITY over quantity is what we aim for.
Since childhood is such a crucial time in motor development, a competent professional would pick exercises designed to promote the development of muscular strength AND motor skill competency. Once technical competency can be demonstrated by the athlete, stress them with more advanced exercises that challenge their coordination, and require greater force production. The exercises should enhance athletic development (sprinting, changing direction, jumping, throwing), NOT specific athletic skills (swinging a bat, shooting a basketball)(1).
Training Volume and Intensity
Again, this is highly dependent on the goal of the program, but these two variables are key to evolving the training for long term development. Volume is referring to the number of reps multiplied by the resistance, while intensity would be the resistance needed to overcome the weight of the exercise. The greater the intensity, the lower the volume...and vice versa. Keep both variables in mind, as exposing a child to both excessive intensity (external load) or volume at the expense of correct technique may lead to injury(2). Again, it’s on you coach...if a kid gets hurt in the weight room, it’s 100% your fault. Don’t let ego, yours or your athlete’s, get in the way of safe and effective training.
Progression of Volume and Intensity
Children and adolescents with a low-training age should avoid attempting 1RMs in any movement, simply because the mechanisms are not in place for them to reach their true maximum. This is not opinion; this is what the research says(1). Instead of high repetition sets, it may be more beneficial for lower repetition sets with a higher rate of feedback for the child. As the child shows proficiency, it may be beneficial to increase the intensity while maintaining the same low-rep approach as the increased external stress may alter the mechanics of their movements(3). The rate of increase will largely depend on the individual and their ability to adapt to the program.
Research shows that 2-3 sessions (2.7 to be exact) per week is a sufficient stimulus to induce a training effect(4). Since youth athletes are still growing and developing, recovery is a bigger component of their ability to make gains, rather than the training in and of itself. While there is a correlation between increased weekly sessions and increased adaptations, each individual should be carefully monitored to ensure proper recovery and avoid to overtraining(5). As I mentioned in my last article, strength training should not be seen as an added “sports practice”, but rather a mainstay in their weekly schedule in which sports training is added. Research has shown that using resistance training as a PE class or in school activity has no negative effect on after-school athletic performance(6).
Although moderate velocities are recommended, when initially learning a movement pattern there does need to be an intentional effort to move quickly in order to develop maximal motor unit recruitment and firing patterns (7). Although many movements such as squats, deadlifts, and presses, may have a slower bar speed, the youth athlete should always move with the intention of being as explosive as possible to promote proper neuromuscular adaptations and maximize the training effect(8). This is especially important due to the increased neuroplasticity of the child’s neural networks(9).
There is a compelling body of literature supporting the implementation of strength training in the life of a developing youth athlete. The emphasis should be on proper movement patterns, and always under the supervision of a trained, competent professional. The program should be designed to meet the individual’s biological, not chronological, needs with the goal of increased strength and not lean body mass. The program should also be designed to properly progress the youth through adolescence into adulthood, enhancing their general athletic ability (sprinting, changing direction, jumping, throwing). Sport coaches will handle making them better at their sport; your job as the S&C coach is to make the better, safer, and more effective movers. Now that you’ve got the tools, it’s time to start empowering their performance.
- Faigenbaum, A. D., Kraemer, W. J., Blimkie, C. J., Jeffreys, I., Micheli, L. J., Nitka, M., & Rowland, T. W. (2009). Youth resistance training: updated position statement paper from the national strength and conditioning association. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23, S60-S79.
- Haff, G. G., & Triplett, N. T. (Eds.). (2015). Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning 4th Edition. Human kinetics.
- Dasteridis, G., Piliandis, T., & Mantzouranis, N. I. K. O. S. (2011). The effect of different strength training programmes on young athletes’ sprint performance. Stud Phys Cult Tourism, 18(2), 141-147.
- Behringer, M., Heede, A. V., Matthews, M., & Mester, J. (2011). Effects of strength training on motor performance skills in children and adolescents: a meta-analysis. Pediatric exercise science, 23(2), 186-206.
- Lloyd, R. S., & Oliver, J. L. (2012). The youth physical development model: A new approach to long-term athletic development. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(3), 61-72.
- Faigenbaum, A. D., McFarland, J. E., Buchanan, E., Ratamess, N. A., Kang, J., & Hoffman, J. R. (2010). After-school fitness performance is not altered after physical education lessons in adolescent athletes. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 24(3), 765-770.
- Young, W. B. (2006). Transfer of strength and power training to sports performance. International journal of sports physiology and performance, 1(2), 74-83.
- Kawamori, N., & Newton, R. U. (2006). Velocity Specificity of Resistance Training: Actual Movement Velocity Versus Intention to Move Explosively. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 28(2), 86-91.
- Casey, B. J., Tottenham, N., Liston, C., & Durston, S. (2005). Imaging the developing brain: what have we learned about cognitive development?. Trends in cognitive sciences, 9(3), 104-110.
Currently, Ben is finishing his PhD while serving a clinical faculty member at the University of Louisville, molding the minds that will be the future of strength and conditioning coaches. He also helps support the Olympic Sports side of the Strength and Conditioning Department there as a sports scientist.