The Truth About Strength and Conditioning For Youth Athletes – Part I

This will be a series of posts about strength and conditioning for youth athletes; read Part I below.

This is a topic that I'm very passionate about and I have some strong views on, so bear with me here while I shed some light on why I feel even youth athletes need to be involved in some form of basic training training. Hear me out …

For some reason, we've been brainwashed and told that you have to be a certain age to participate in a structured strength training program. This is due to the fact that most people associate strength training with bodybuilders they see on TV or in the latest magazine. This is the exact opposite of what we want to associate to our youth athletes.

Now, when I use the term "youths" I'm speaking of athletes ranging from 8-17 years old. Every age group have different needs and the type of training that they would participate in. The goal of a training training program for a child at the age of 8 would differ GREATLY than one for 17 year old Johnny who is a 200 lb runningback. Make sense so far?

It makes me cringe when I see a high school aged kid who is so out of shape, weak, immobile, and tight that I want to scream. Yet, they are playing a sport often year-round; club team, travel squad, all-stars, regular season, etc. This is just an overuse injury waiting to happen. Whatever happened to playing multiple sports? If you are going to subject a 10 year old to full contact football but allowate allowing this young athlete to learn how to move his body, decrease risk of injury, improve relative body strength and fitness, and just feel better overall with a basic strength training program, then we as a culture have sorely missed the boat.

I have spoken about this before, but we need to quit looking for quick fixes for NOW (ie wanting little 10 year-old Billy to decrease his 40 yard dash time because he has to be the best in youth football; this is a great recipe for burn out and quitting the sport because it's no longer FUN) and start looking at LONG TERM ATHLETIC DEVELOPMENT . I firmly believe in this. You must always look long-term in order to keep training fun, keep the kids coming back for more because they WANT to and ENJOY it! Yes, strength training CAN be fun; what a concept!

This post sounds a bit like a tangent and ramble, but enough is enough. Strength training, while properly supervised by a competent and experienced coach, is one of the safest activities you can take part in. The youngger the athlete, the simpler the program should be. For example, if I had a group of 10-year old football players, they may see me twice a week for 30 minutes at a time. Our focus would simply be improving body awareness, coordination, relative body strength (ie getting really good at moving their own bodies with movements such as push-ups, squats, walking lunges, leap frog jumps, light medicine ball throws, jump rope, hand walking, gymnastics, etc), and getting some good mobility training in while incorporating this type of stuff into a game-like atmosphere. You can just see how fun and rewarding this type of basic training can be; especially since nowdays most kids see PE in school as a chore and the lack of physical fitness and strength in the average teen is pretty sad. Maybe if we shut off the TV and Xbox we would have less injuries in sports and more kids actually enjoying being active. Just a thought .

So, what's the real truth about strength and conditioning for youth athletes? It CAN be done, if it's done RIGHT and it's FUN. Here are a couple guidelines I like to follow for youth strength training programs:

  • Keep it SIMPLE. The youngger the athlete, the less complex their training needs to be. No need for fancy workouts or exercises.
  • Monitor frequency and duration. A younger athlete's training frequency (ie how often per week or month they trained) and duration (length of a session) would be less than an 18 year old's.
  • Master bodyweight exercises first before looking for additional resistance.
  • Use games and team-building style sessions whenever possible. If you can incorporate strength training into a game or competition, they will forget they are even "working out" anyways. Keep it fun!
  • Have a plan and make sure whatever these kids are doing that a purpose is behind it.

If a child can be subject to a full-contact sport, then they should be involved in some sort of program that lets them learn how to move their bodies safely and properly, strengthen muscles to decrease risk of injury, and build confidence and self- esteem that will carry over into a positive experience in sports.

Stay tuned for Part II, if you have any questions feel free to leave them below .. What are your thoughts on youth athletes and strength training?

See ya!

John Cortese


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