Top 5 Youth Athlete Strength Training Considerations

Top 5 Youth Athlete Strength Training Considerations

Note from Zach: There are a lot of unfortunate myths out there currently when it comes to training youth athletes for sports performance. I’m very excited to have this guest blog form Greg Schaible on the Top 5 Youth Athlete Strength Training Considerations. 

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  1. Movement Competency

I’m a big supporter of avoiding specialization early on in a child’s athletic life. The more experiences the youth athlete has been exposed to, the more coordinated their movement becomes. Having this background prior to specialization creates a more coordinated and physically capable athlete that will be able to more readily learn a specific skill when they eventually decide to specialize. Playing a variety of sports also limits the amount of repetitive stress on young athletes which is extremely important in regards to long term health.

Injury is the fastest way to become less athletic as well as miss the potential opportunity to increase athleticism/skill for the future. This is especially true in young athletes as their bodies are constantly developing at this age. In regards to developing better movement as a child, encouraging free play and participation in a variety of sports is probably the best tool for development.

Second to that would be a strength training program when implemented correctly. Adolescent strength training shouldn’t be focused on maximum effort lifts. But rather exposing them to a variety of movements and developing a solid foundation of movement quality. Again, being exposed to a variety of fundamental movement patterns will increase coordination, help maximize force efficiency, limit repetitive stress, and build a more resilient athlete against injury. Then later when strength training becomes more specific as they specialize later in life, the body will have developed a sound foundation to build more strength/power. With the added benefit of already knowing how to effectively apply the newly added strength/force in an efficient and coordinated manor.


2. Strength Preparedness

Having a baseline level of fitness or strength is imperative for any athlete. Being an athlete exposes the body to extreme amount of forces. As such, the body needs to develop general strength and work capacity to withstand these forces and become resilient against injury. Sure getting stronger will make you a better athlete. But having a well-rounded strength base will provide you a buffer against injury and a platform to build off of later.

A youth athlete should not be concerned with max effort lifts. Again there goal should be to develop general strength, movement competency, and resiliency against injury so that they can continue to play sports. Growth spurts are one of the leading causes for injury at this age. Growing rapidly during this time results in awkward movements, decreased coordination, and decreased overall strength relative to body size. A good well rounded strength training program can help combat this by: Increasing tissue/tendon strength, continue to teach fundamental movement patterns, and limit fatigue. Below are the seven fundamental strength movements that should be included to some capacity in all programs.


3. Force Absorption

Stand on top of a ten foot ladder and drop a golf ball then a bowling ball down onto a cement surface. Which ball do you think will bounce the highest? A golf ball obviously! It has a better ability to absorb and transmit the forces created. The ability to create and absorb forces effectively is imperative for an athlete. Watch a football player stop on a dime and make a cut in the opposite direction to leave his opponent in the dust. That’s force absorption at its finest.

The ability to quickly take the generated force and apply it in a direction that is advantageous to sport is what separates a lot of athletes. Teaching athletes proper shin/joint angles while getting in and out of cuts is force absorption. Learning how to slow a movement or an exercise down by exaggerating the eccentric phases of a lift is force absorption. Force absorption must first be learned/taught as a skill so the athlete can better understand how to transmit forces efficiently. Then once they have mastered this in a controlled setting, the training environment should be random or reactive to better translate to sport. More often than not, the more efficient athletes will win.

Minimizing potential energy leaks through force absorption training will allow your athletes to be much more efficient and create a noticeable difference in their athleticism on the field or court. This type of training is also useful for injury prevention. Having the athlete learn proper joint positions to absorb such forces will reduce the amount of excessive forces to any one particular area. Instead teach the athlete how to transmit forces across their entire body, to limit any overstress to one particular joint.


4. Sprinting

Speed is one of the most sought after traits of all sports. The fastest athletes have a unique ability to relax. Relaxation and removal of tension in unwanted areas is the key to running faster. It takes an enormous amount of practice and repetition to learn this quality. Strength training requires an enormous amount of tension through the entire body with the majority of the lifts. For this reason, training a strong athlete to relax while sprinting is much more difficult than training a fast athlete to become stronger. Sprinting is also a skill that is very hard to coach.

Giving someone a lot of cues on what they should be doing with their arms and legs while sprinting is actually harmful for speed development and can slow the athlete down. When considering training youth athletes, coaching cues should be at a minimal anyways. Youth athletes are in a stage of exploration/trial and error, the last thing you want to do is overwhelm them with information they cannot properly digest yet. Sprinting is a simple exercise you can perform with youth athletes that requires minimal to no cues except “Go”, “Move”, or “Fast”. You can get creative with variations such as momentum starts, kneeling starts, or lying face down starts.

All of these give the athletes different stimuluses of various joint angles and will help teach them (without coaching) which angles are most effective for creating speed. Finally, sprinting is an easy way to create an environment of competition. What’s the easiest and quickest way to get the competitive juices flowing? Simply telling a kid “lets race!”


5. Non-Threatening Environment

Whether it’s in the weight room or on the court/playing field, youth athletes are just starting to learn. The very beginning stages of learning a particular skill or movement requires exploration. Think of a baby who is just learning how to walk. They explore crawling, standing, cruising around with their hand on a couch before they actually start to walk. All this exploration of movement and walking itself will require a lot of trial and error before the task becomes automatic. The environment for this development to occur is very fragile because efficiency has not yet been fully established.

Better adaptation, especially early on, comes from a place of security. If you put a youth athlete in a weight room with a bunch of high school athletes they don’t know, they will just sit in the corner and maybe do a couple reps on the leg extension machine. Likewise if you just hand a youth athlete a barbell or a hex bar and expect them to learn how to perform a proper squat or deadlift you are sorely mistaken. Again, bars like that are intimidating, especially if you have never performed the movement before.

Youth athletes need to feel secure/safe for them to start exploring movement. Specifically in the weight room this requires some creativity on the coach’s part to program lifts that teach the desired movement, without causing fear/anxiety/or apprehension. A great example here is the goblet squat. The weight is in front of the athlete to help them explore a proper weight shift and torso angle in the squat. The weight is light and fairly comfortable to hold onto. This allows the athlete to learn and feel the proper movement with as minimal coaching as possible.


Interested in more concepts and programming to develop youth athleticism? Check out Greg’s awesome book, Reign Superior Training System.


Greg Schaible PT, CSCS is the owner of On Track Physical Therapy in Ann Arbor, Mi. He is also a content editor for the popular website Sports Rehab Expert.