Strength Training for Youth Athletes
Injuries sustained by our youth athletes are on the rise, that number, over 2 million (1) youths per year. A prospective study revealed, over a 1-year period, school-aged youth sustained injuries as follows: resistance training 0.7% of 1576 reported, with injures in football, basketball and soccer yielding 10, 15 and 2% respectively (2). The majority of these serious injuries are presenting themselves in the form of a strain or sprain. A sprain involves the stretching or tearing of a ligament, which is the tissue that connects bones or joints. A Strain involves stretching or tearing of the muscle or tendon. Both sprains and strains are can be significantly reduced in both occurrence and severity with proper pre-season, in-season and post-season strength training principles.
The following is the current position of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (9):
- A properly designed and supervised resistance training program is relatively safe for youth.
- A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can enhance the muscular strength and power of youth.
- A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can improve the cardiovascular risk profile of youth.
- A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can improve motor skill performance and my contribute to enhanced sports performance of youth
- A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can increase a young athlete’s resistance to sports-related injuries.
- A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can help improve the psychosocial well-being of youth.
- A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can help promote and develop exercise habits during childhood and adolescence.
Quality movement is the foundation of all good skill and performance, so it needs to come first (8). Fitness on top of good movement equals an insurance policy (8). Fitness on top of poor movement equals increase risk for injury and jeopardized performance (8). Corrective exercises or motor patterning is simply resetting and regaining natural movement. If you don’t know Anatomy or don’t understand how the human body is supposed to work, you can’t give correctives.
So where do we start? If we are trying to reduce injuries, improve athleticism and sport performance we need to do a proper and through movement screening. Too often than not I have seen a weight room full of kids, awkwardly trying to operate the different machines, while a couple of adults stand around barking out when to move on to a new weight lifting station. One hundred percent of these kids probably cannot even perform a basic body-weight squat or lunge with perfect form, so why are we so quick to load these patterns with weight?
Gray Cook’s Functional Movement Screen (FMS) is a great starting point. This screening is composed of basic movement patterns in an un-loaded/body weight only fashion. It involves analyzing bilateral and unilateral movements and should always be pain-free. Discrepancies, deficiencies and asymmetries are noted and corrected accordingly before that athlete is ever allowed to engage in resistance training outside of body-weight only exercise. You can easily find a qualified functional movement specialist in your area here: http://www.functionalmovement.com/certification/FMS.
I ran a camp a couple of summers back for 10-18 year olds, focusing on movement quality and building speed, strength and endurance. We used Gray Cook’s FMS to establish baseline measurements for the athletes we would be training for the summer. The FMS is based on a points system, with a total possible score of 21 points. An FMS score of less than 14 yields a 50% probability of an athlete suffering time loss due to injury. Additional research of the FMS found that a two to three-fold increase in injuries occurred with athletes who had right or left-sided asymmetries.
What’s an asymmetry and what does this have to do with strength training? There are all kinds of asymmetries, both structural and functional. Sometimes we’re born with them, for example a leg-length difference. Sometimes we grow them, either on accident, maybe in our work or in a habitual posture on the couch watching TV. And sometimes we build them on purpose, like professional athletes do as they spend more and more time at their sports (8). The asymmetry is probably creating a limitation or is compromising motor control. Reduced mobility or stability on one side of the body is almost certainly affecting the entire symmetrical pattern, causing inappropriate muscle contraction, inappropriate weight shifting and even torsion in the body (8).
Athletes experienced increased risk of lower extremity injuries if they had knee flexor and hip extensor strength asymmetries (10). Eccentric hamstring strength asymmetries were at greater risk of sustaining a hamstring muscle strain (11). Asymmetrical landing patterns predict a second ACL tear in previously reconstructed athletes (12).
All of our athletes that scored below 14 points or that had any left to right asymmetries, were heavily involved in a corrective exercise and motor programing system before being allowed to jump into a serious strength training regime. At the end of the 8-week training camp we re-tested our athletes. Our athletes averaged a 2 point increase in over-all score and all asymmetries were resolved!
Next, finding a quality strength coach should be just as important as choosing a pediatrician for your child. There are numerous programs out there where you can take an on-line course or test and very quickly become a personal trainer or strength coach. Going back to the doctor analogy, I want my kid in the care of someone who has had intensive, hands-on training. I want someone who understands the human body and what it is capable of, someone who holds a nationally recognized license or credential in the field of human movement and someone who is bound professionally and ethically by a governing body to provide the best care and instruction to my athlete. If qualified supervision is not available, youth should not take part in resistance exercise training due to the increased risk of injury (4).
Isn’t my child too young to lift weights? Won’t lifting weights stunt his/her growth? I’ve heard of so many people getting injured lifting weights, why would I subject my kid to this risk? These are all common questions we hear surround youth weight training. They are valid concerns, but only true statements when the weight training program is not properly instructed, supervised and designed (3). As renowned exercise specialist and author states; “violent (throwing) and traumatic (falling) events far exceed any stress on a young athlete’s bones that we could possibly apply in a strength training setting, where the environment is controlled and overload is gradually and systematically increased over time as the athlete becomes more comfortable with it” (13).
How often should kids be strength training? One should spend the least amount of time strength training in which they can develop the greatest benefit from it (5). What does that mean? It means, you can’t take a group of 15 kids and give them all the same number of exercises, sets, repetitions and frequency of training and expect everyone to improve. Johnny will benefit best from training three days a week, whereas Tom continually improves on a once-a-week program. This is where that highly trained professional that is supervising and designing every part of each kid’s program becomes critical.
Strength training program variables that should be considered during the design of a youth resistance training program should include: (6).
- Dynamic warm-up and cool-down lasting 5-10 min
- Choice and order of exercise; bigger to smaller muscle groups
- Training intensity and volume; 1-3 sets of 6-15 reps
- Rest intervals between sets and exercises; 1 minute (7).
- Repetition velocity; smooth and controlled; 4-7 seconds each
- Training frequency; 2-3 times per week; nonconsecutive days
- Program variation
What lifts should be incorporated into my kid’s strength workout? A strength training program for young athletes should address every major muscle group in the body, with equal amounts of work being applied on each side of a joint. For example, triceps and biceps should be worked equally as should quads and hamstrings, etc.
How many sets and repetitions should be performed? In most instances, 1-3 sets and 6-20 repetitions of each exercise should be performed. An athlete should start at the lower end of the set and rep spectrum and work their way up as they progress and get stronger.
How much weight? Perfect form should be maintained, from the moment the athlete picks or lifts the weight to the moment in which the weight is set down. Each repetition should be completed in a smooth and controlled fashion. Once the athlete is able to complete 15-20 repetitions of a specific exercise with ease, it is time to increase the weight by 5-10%. How long should the workout take? Somewhere in the range of 20-60 minutes is more than adequate. There is no reason for any youth strength workout to last more than 60 minutes.
Take Away Points:
- Get your athletes a proper movement and overall health screen before beginning a strength program
- Make sure your athletes are being coached by a qualified movement and exercise specialist
- Make sure your athletes are supervised at all times during their strength training sessions
- Address mobility issues first and foremost
- Build strength and power exercises on top of a solid mobility foundation
- Proper dynamic warm-up and cool-downs are imperative to quality strength workouts
- Rest days are more important than actual training days
- Make sure there is a fun factor, if the athletes aren’t enjoying themselves you won’t get the optimal gains and results you could otherwise
- CDC, April 2016
- Zaricznyj, B, Shattuck, L, Mast, T, Robertson, R, and D’Elia, G. Sports-related injuries in school-aged children. Am J Sports Med 8: 318-324, 1980.
- Malina, R. Weight training in youth-growth, maturation and safety: An evidenced based review. Clin J Sports Med 16: 478-487, 2006.
- Jones, C, Christensen, C, and Young, M. Weight training injury trends. Phys Sports Med 28: 61-72, 2000.
- Arthur Jones, Nautilus.
- Roberts, S, Ciapponi, T, and Lytle, R. Strength Training for Children and Adolescents. Reston, VA: National Association for Sports and Physical Education, 2008.
- Faigenbaum, A, Ratamess, N, McFarland, J, Kaczmarek, J, Coraggio, M, Kang, J, and Hoffman, J. Effect of rest interval length on bench press performance in boys, teens and men. Pediatr Exerc Sci 20: 457-469, 2008.
- Cook, Gray & Burton, Lee. Functional Movement Screen Workshop & Certification. May 20, 2010.
- Faigenbaum AD, Kraemer WJ, Blimkie CJR, Jeffereys I, Micheli LJ, Nitka M, Rowland TW (2009) Youth resistance training: Updated position statement from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23: (supplement 5) / S60-S79.
- Knapick 1991, Nadler 2001
- Fousekis 2011
- Paterno 2010
- Cressey, Eric. The Truth About Strength Training for Kids. Professional Blog, December 7, 2009.