Getting Young Athletes Off to a Strong Start
Wonder if youth can benefit from strength training and how you can help them? Here, evidence regarding the misconceptions, perks and strategies specific to young competitors.
Conditioning can keep kids off the sidelines by improving skills and
You've probably heard that today's youth are lazy, overweight and addicted
to gaming. Don't believe it. Hundreds of thousands of kids compete in
multiple sports (Bracko 2015). Many of them crave the guidance of fitness
professionals who understand the needs of young athletes. They want to be
stronger and more competitive, just like their adult counterparts.
These young athletes are playing not only basketball, football, soccer and
baseball. They also are participating in nontraditional sports like BMX
racing, snowboarding, mountain biking, field hockey, softball and skiing.
They understand that being stronger improves performance and reduces the
risk of injury.
Furthermore, lots of teams need youth strength and conditioning coaches.
Think about the spring ice hockey teams in the United States and Canada
that parents are organizing as an adjunct to winter hockey. Kids are
motivated to learn how to play, train and perform better, and their parents
are eager to support their efforts.
Many teams budget money for a trainer. This is great news for qualified
youth trainers, who have the opportunity to guide young players on every
aspect of their sport - be it through inspiring words, teaching foundations
of strategy and technique, or guiding athletes on appropriate rest and
recovery. And there's always a need for fitness professionals trained to
help children and adolescents improve their basic fitness and control
Misconceptions About Youth Strength Training
People have a lot of misconceptions about the hazards of strength training
for youth and adolescents. Allegedly, strength training stunts growth,
damages bones and growth plates, or just doesn't help young athletes. These
are all misconceptions (Faigenbaum 2016; Faigenbaum & Myer 2010). I
confronted the myth of strength training stunting growth in a conversation
with a personal trainer at a fitness conference. The trainer's physician
told him he would be 2-4 inches taller if he had not strength trained as a
young athlete. And the trainer believed his physician. Fitness
professionals need to verify such statements, even when they come from a
seemingly authoritative source.
Faigenbaum (2016) says there is no evidence that strength training stunts
the growth of children. If sports and strength training are performed for
less than a combined total of 15 hours per week with moderate intensity,
growth is not affected (Haff 2003).
Injuries to the growth plates can occur - usually because of
improper technique and too much resistance-but they rarely affect normal
growth (Haff 2003). To prevent injury, youth and adolescents should not
attempt a 1-repetition maximum. It is better to count maximum pushups (or
other strength move) completed in one minute.
Though strength training applies some torque to young bones and joints, a
lot more force happens when an athlete makes a tight turn in ice hockey,
lands a jump in BMX cycling or skateboarding, maneuvers through a half-pipe
in snowboarding, dismounts in gymnastics, or kicks a ball in soccer (Malina
Benefits of Strength Training for Youth
Strength training may not improve sport - specific precision skills such as
pitching a strike in baseball, scoring a goal in soccer, hitting a jump
shot in basketball or serving an ace in tennis. But it can improve motor
skills for activities such as the long jump, 30-meter dash, agility running
and squat jump (Falk & Mor 1996; Lillegard et al. 1997; Christou et al.
2006). And Gorostiaga et al. (1999) found that strength training improved
European handball throwing velocity in adolescent players.
More generally speaking, the National Academy of Sports Medicine says that
young athletes who strength train can improve gross motor skills, reduce
body fat, increase muscle mass and improve psychosocial well-being (NASM
2012). Strength training also increases bone mineral density of girls (and
boys), decreasing the risk of developing osteoporosis as they age. And the
short, high-intensity effort of strength training can pique the interest of
children with excess weight who generally do not like continuous
low-intensity exercise (Faigenbaum et al. 2009). Strength training may also
indirectly reduce the risk or severity of sports-related injuries (Dahab
& McCambridge 2009).
Despite these evidence-based benefits, many people mistakenly believe that
strength training doesn't help young people because they don't have enough
testosterone to increase muscle hypertrophy. A study contradicting this
myth was conducted by Faigenbaum et al. (2002), who found that boys and
girls ages 7-12 who strength trained one or two times per week
significantly improved their chest press and leg press (compared with
age-matched controls). Children gain strength through neural adaptations,
not muscle hypertrophy (Ramsey et al. 1990). Increases in strength result
from improved motor neuron recruitment and firing rate (Ozmun et al. 1994).
Key Elements for Effective Youth Strength Training
Successful youth strength training depends on having a strength coach who
is trained to work with young athletes (see "Vital Knowledge" box). It also
requires proper supervision for instruction and feedback, age-specific
instruction and safe training protocols. Youth and adolescents should never
use strength training equipment without supervision from a qualified
strength training professional (Faiganbaum et al. 2009). Here are some
additional elements to keep in mind.
Program design and equipment.
It is important to train the upper and lower body and the core muscles
(NASM 2012). A successful technique is circuit training, in which athletes
perform exercises for 20-40 seconds and count the repetitions. The
resistance can come from free weights and machines, but non-traditional
forms of resistance - such as rubber tubing, medicine balls, ropes, sandbags
and body weight - can make training more fun and less intimidating. For the
trainer, non-traditional resistance equipment is also typically easier to
use and transport, and it is less expensive (NASM 2012).
It is important to be safety conscious about slips, trips and falls. The
floor of the training facility must be clear of tripping hazards, with no
water or water bottles on the training floor. All gym bags must be kept in
the locker room or stored away from the training area.
It is important to teach-and insist on-correct exercise technique. A
trained youth exercise specialist can detect errors in exercise technique
and give immediate feedback and guidance (and remember to give positive
feedback when an exercise is done correctly).
It is important to understand that young athletes have a psychosocial
uniqueness that makes proper communication important. Finally, a youth
exercise specialist has to be able to make exercise fun (NASM 2012).
Program Design for Young Athletes
Whether they're into soccer, hockey or BMX racing, young competitors - and
their parents-need the guidance of professional trainers. The following
strategies can provide a science-based starting point for fitness
professionals seeking to design programming for young athletes, including
warm-up specifics and application of the NASM Optimum Performance
Training™ (OPT™) model.
Warm-Up for Youth Strength Training
Warm-ups can be 10-15 minutes and should not make the athletes too tired
for the workout. A proper warm-up before strength training can consist of
• A combination of short static stretching and dynamic stretching to
start the muscles moving
• Body-weight training exercises such as pushups, squats, front
planks and lunges
• Low-intensity interval running (Faigenbaum & Myer 2010)
• Foam rolling (According to NASM 2012, this can be introduced as
part of a young athlete's warm-up.) Exercises using this are introduced in
NASM's Youth Exercise Specialization text (see "Vital Knowledge" box).
THE NASM OPT MODEL AND YOUNG ATHLETES
The NASM OPT™ model progresses through three levels: stabilization,
strength and power. (See table for recommendations on sets, reps, intensity
and recovery time for each level.) You can follow objective weight and
repetition goals to decide when an athlete can increase resistance.
However, it might help to determine resistance increases by "training age
maturity" and athletic ability improvements. Faigenbaum (2016) suggests
that young athletes earn the right to lift more by improving their
resistance training skills. Here are additional ways to apply the OPT model
to young athletes.
The stabilization endurance phase focuses on foundational exercises to
develop motor programs for compound exercises and prime moving muscles.
When young athletes learn exercises, they can use body-weight training to
emphasize correct body position, form and technique (Dahab &
Young athletes must learn how to perform four key training exercises that
are building blocks for more advanced training:
• Front plank, on knees or toes, maintaining neutral spine
• Pushups, on knees or toes, maintaining neutral spine
• Squats, keeping head up and upper body still, with movement from
hips, knees and ankles
Other stabilization exercises (with somewhat unstable body positions)
• Seated dumbbell overhead press, on ball
• Single-leg tubing row
• Forward lunge to single-leg balance
• Step-up to single-leg balance to dumbbell curl to overhead press
When young athletes have developed a motor program for near-perfect
exercise technique and improved stability, they can progress to exercises
designed to further boost muscle strength. In the OPT model, Phase 2:
Strength Endurance includes exercises that are performed in more stable
body positions to focus on improving strength of the prime movers. (Phases
3 and 4 of the Strength Level - hypertrophy and maximal strength - generally
aren't goals applied to young athletes.) Here are some strength exercises
that are appropriate for young athletes:
• Medicine ball squat to overhead press
• Staggered stance tubing chest press
• Seated tubing row
• Seated dumbbell overhead press, on bench
• Dumbbell squat
Power exercises use explosive movements, so young athletes need to prove
they are ready to progress to this phase. They do that by showing
competence in exercise technique, physical and mental "exercise maturity,"
and resistance training skill (Faiganbaum 2016). Power exercises include
• Medicine ball chest pass
• Medicine ball soccer (overhead) throw
• Medicine ball oblique (lateral) throw
• Squat jump
• Speed squat to overhead press, using medicine ball or tubing
The OPT model provides a safe and effective way for trainers to help
children and adolescents improve their overall performance in their sports
of choice, as well as enjoy numerous additional gains that will improve
them psychologically, psychosocially and physically. Start with this solid
foundation of evidence-based strategies, add your creativity and you can
set up today's youth for a lifetime of health and well-being.
Vital Knowledge About Young Athletes
Fitness professionals know how essential it is to customize a client's
workout to their unique needs, abilities, compensations and even something
as simple and variable as how they're feeling on a particular day. This is
perhaps even more true for young athletes, who differ not only in these
areas, but also in maturity, psychological and psychosocial needs, and
anatomy and physiology (and not just in terms of physical growth).
The NASM Youth Exercise Specialization provides the age-specific knowledge
and tools necessary to enable trainers to meet the growing demand for youth
fitness expertise. The program explains how to adapt the NASM Optimum
Performance Training™ (OPT™) model to
children's fitness, delivering and expanding upon information like that
offered in this article. Subjects such as overweight/obesity, psychological
considerations, and nutrition are also covered, and guidelines are supplied
for assessments, flexibility, core and balance training, cardio,
plyometrics, resistance training, and speed, agility and quickness work.
Online resources include a downloadable course manual and programming
manual, as well as an exercise library, online quizzes and an online
exam-all of which make it easy for trainers to access the information
wherever it's most convenient. Here is just one example of the applied
science found in the "Anatomical and Psychological Considerations for
Youth" chapter of the YES manual.
Thermoregulation for Young Athletes
It may not surprise fitness professionals to learn that children are less
able to thermoregulate, or regulate their body temperature. However, many
children and adults don't give this much thought during summertime sports
training. In part, thermoregulation is more difficult for children because,
due to their smaller size and blood volume, their body holds less total
water than does that of an adult. The result: Children begin to feel the
effects of fluid loss sooner than an adult might. Another factor is
metabolic rate: Anyone who has seen an adolescent eat knows that kids are
fuel-burning factories. This also means they warm up more quickly. For
these reasons, it's important that trainers pay particularly close
attention to the vital signs of young athletes in very hot (and cold)
climes -and that rest, shade and hydration are provided when necessary to bring down an elevated body temp (NASM 2012).
To learn more about the YES ($199 and 1.0 CEUs from NASM, NCSA and ACE), go
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Dahab, K.S. & McCambridge, T.M. 2009. Strength Training in Children and Adolescents: Raising the Bar for Young Athletes? Sports Health, 1 (3), 223–26.
Falk, B., & Mor, G. The effects of resistance and martial arts training in 6- to 8-year old boys. Pediatric Exercise Science, 8 (1), 48–56.
Faigenbaum, A.D. 2016. Youth strength training: Facts and fallacies. American College of Sports Medicine. Accessed Jan 30, 2017. www.acsm.org.
Faigenbaum, A.D., & Myer, G.D. 2010. Resistance training among young athletes: Safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44 (1), 56–63.
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Lillegard, W.A., et al. 1997. Efficacy of strength training in prepubescent to early postpubescent males and females: Effect of gender and maturity. Pediatric Rehabilitation, 1 (3), 147–57.
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Ozmun, J.C., Mikesky, A.E., & Surburg, P.R. 1994. Neuromuscular adaptations following prepubescent strength training. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 26 (4), 510–14.
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