Designing A Youth Strength Program – The Fundamentals

Setting The Stage For Healthy Youth Strength Training

By Shannon McDougall

Strength is the ability to apply force against resistance.  Youth strength training is the development of that force and can be a hot topic any time you have a group of youth coaches, parents or trainers in the same room. The biggest question is, “When can youth start strength training and why?”

Often the answer will depend on when and where you grew up and where you got your information or who you heard the answer from.

Youth athletes generally fall into four stages of development.

  • 6-10: Initiation
  • 11-14: Athletic Formation
  • 15-18 Specialization
  • 19+: Adulthood and High Performance

These stages will dictate the frequency, intensity, and volume of training. It is important to follow developmental guidelines when designing any program for youth with the most important being not to specialize too early. It is important for athletes to participate in multiple sports to develop all athletic abilities in becoming an elite athlete.

The Truth About Strength Training for Youth

Youth strength training brings more benefits than simply improving performance on the field. One of the benefits, for example, is increasing mineral content in bones, which will help later in life to prevent osteoporosis. By beginning a strength training program early, youth are more likely to continue through their adulthood.  This is due to some of the social and psychological benefits, such as self-esteem 

This is due to some of the social and psychological benefits, such as self-esteem  and confidence, that they will gain due to their improved body composition. This occurs by increasing muscle mass through hypertrophy, which increases the ability to burn fat.

Girls will often refrain from any type of strength training that they might perceive as building muscle because they do not want to “get big”. The truth is that it is nearly impossible for girls to get big like bodybuilders without some form of supplement.

Some girls will, however, benefit from gaining some muscle mass in order to attain the appropriate amount of strength required in most sports. Girls are also at greater risk of osteoporosis than boys so it is even more important for them to take part in strength training to help build bone density.

Safety of Youth Strength Training

The safety of youth strength training is in the methods and equipment. The biggest concern is damage to the growth plates which occurs only as a result of inappropriate weight, improper use of equipment, lifting too much too fast and poor instruction rather than as a result of the strength training itself.

Young athletes can safely use free weights, medicine balls, weight machines and resistance bands to improve multi-joint movements that are used in all sports. Multi-joint exercises such as Olympic lifts, however, should be postponed to post puberty after the athlete is mature and more experienced.

It is important that any youth considering beginning a strength training program first get a medical exam and be cleared by their doctor before starting. Some guidelines that you can use in designing a strength training program or working with youth athletes include:

  • Workout 2 times per week to benefit from strength training
  • Complete only 1-2 sets per exercise and 3 after puberty
  • Allow 2-3 minutes rest between sets for adequate recovery
  • Refrain from weight training that puts excessive strain on the joints such as deep knee bends

There are 3 laws that should be followed when designing a strength training program for youth.

Develop Joint Flexibility

Most strength training exercises use a full range of motion. Athletes should develop flexibility early and improve it through their athletic development to enhance movement range and to prevent injuries.

Develop Tendon Strength Before Muscle Strength

Anatomical Adaptation is a general conditioning phase of training that prepares the body for more intense work. Muscles will improve quicker than ligaments and tendons so an activity such as circuit training for 4-6 weeks is a great way to prepare for a multi sport strength training program.

Develop Core Strength Before Limb Strength

The abdomen, lower back, and spinal column is where movements of the legs and arms are linked. Without core strength, the limbs will have limited support and can be more prone to injury. An intense core program that uses crunches is not necessary though as trampoline, crab walk and wheelbarrow relays along with everyday activities work just as well.

This is especially useful for baseball where many of the skills such as hitting, throwing, pitching and some fielding activities involve rotation of the trunk.

Considerations For Youth Sport Training

The most important considerations in youth strength training are that the program is appropriate to the athlete skill level and the level of experience in weight training. Stay away from any exercises that put excessive strain on the joints and any multi-joint exercises such as Olympic lifts.

Youth athletes should participate in single joint exercises using free weights, medicine balls, weight machines and resistance bands in training.

Baseball is a power and speed sport which requires strength in addition to other biomotor abilities to achieve maximum performance. By safely including physical training in your youth program, adding to the tactical and technical skill development and mental training components, you will ensure maximum potential possibility for your youth athlete.

These should all be introduced and trained using appropriate developmental guidelines.


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