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Sports Science

Strength and Conditioning for Young Athletes

Conditioning Program

Oftentimes, when a young athlete displays talent or a keen interest in a sport, overzealous parents or coaches immediately begin to apply a more adult approach to developing that talent. However, the pre-pubescent or early puberty athlete has unique needs when it comes to strength and conditioning, so caution is in order.

It is recommended that an athlete play a variety of sports instead of early specialization in one sport. This helps young athletes develop general and basic athletic movement and coordination skills.

With every sport, when you change the ball, you change the skills and movements needed. The more skills and movements the young athlete can master, the stronger the development of the total athlete.

Understanding the physiology behind strength and conditioning in the young athlete is equally important.

In males, the onset of puberty occurs at about 12 to 13 years of age and continues until age 16 or 18.

Young males simply do not have the hormone levels necessary to develop muscle mass and strength through weight training. Even when puberty is reached, it is important to evaluate physical maturity.

Some believe pre-pubescent athletes can benefit from strength training, but only if the appropriate training is applied with proper technique and supervision.

While young athletes may not develop increased muscle mass, they will develop the appearance of strength, along with better agility and improved motor control. Learning to use their bodies more effectively in a coordinated manner will result in a better overall ability to perform.

Body Weight Beats Weightlifting

Bodyweight training – using the body as a form of resistance – is the appropriate way to strength train the young athlete. Push-ups, pull- ups, bodyweight lunges and squats, step-ups or suspension training can all be used effectively.

It is very important for the young athlete to receive instruction from someone who knows and understands proper technique for each lift or exercise. The coach or trainer should always supervise and immediately correct improper technique.

Coaches and trainers should set a goal for each athlete based on that young person’s experience and maturity. Kids look up to coaches. They will run as long and hard as you tell them. Knowing this, coaches have a tremendous responsibility to create positive training programs based on the individual’s progression.

Some see training as a progressive endeavor. Allowing the athlete to progress in strength and ability helps prevent injuries and burnout. It requires patience. A marathon runner doesn’t start training for a marathon by running a marathon. The same principle applies to children and strength training.

Another often overlooked aspect of any training program is recovery. Set a training goal for the day, do the work, and then allow time for muscle recovery.

7 Questions to Ask Before Starting a Program

Check out these tips when searching for a program or facility for strength and conditioning:

  1. Are the coaches well-educated and knowledgeable in strength and conditioning training for young athletes?
  2. Are the workouts planned, organized and progressive?
  3. Is there a good coach/athlete ratio?
  4. Are the coaches always on the floor with the athletes? Are they correcting poor form or technique? Are they encouraging?
  5. Are parents allowed to watch? If not, that’s a red flag.
  6. Are proper principles of strength and conditioning/ exercise built into the program? Any quality program, at some point, should include instruction and emphasis on warm-up, injury prevention and recovery, as well as strength training, conditioning, core strength development, posterior chain development, mobility and flexibility.
  7. Is the program based more on personal improvement and progression instead of competition?

There is one more key to effective strength and conditioning in the young athlete that can easily be overlooked. No matter the talent level, make training and workouts enjoyable and something the young person enthusiastically anticipates.

Young athletes should have the opportunity to develop a healthy attitude toward health and fitness so that hopefully they will continue to exercise throughout their entire lives. The reality is that few children will play sports beyond the high school level, but we all benefit when we make exercise a part of our daily lives.