What Strength Training Youth Athletes should do

young athletes Strength training

Strength training as a whole is a huge part within professional, amateur and youth athletic development across multiple sports. When delivered in an appropriate system, strength training can have a major impact on long term athletic development (LTAD). This impact can have a lasting effect by increasing the longevity of a sports person’s career as well as taking an individual’s performance on the pitch to the next level. 

Youth Strength and Conditioning Research

It has been shown in research of the benefits to beginning strength training during the pre-adolescence stage with a significant increase in overall neuromuscular performance potential. Individuals will reach a higher peak of athleticism in comparison to those who start strength training during the adolescence phase. Furthermore, in both of the cases described above, their athleticism potential is much greater to those who just play their sport. This blog will look to dive into a bit more details on why this is the case, what strength is with some practical tips. 

What is strength? 

Let’s start with looking at what ‘strength’ is all about. Strength is basically the ability to produce a certain amount of force against an object to complete a particular motor task. To give two examples of sporting motor tasks, we can show you what this looks like on either end of the force spectrum:

  • Maximal force effort 1 time: Completing 1 rep in a heavy back squat (produce force into the ground to overcome barbell resistance)
  • Consecutive submaximal force efforts: Completing a 5k run (produce force into the ground multiple times to overcome gravity to propel the centre of mass forward)

Why is it important to strength train

Strength serves as a foundation for all other essential athletic characteristics to succeed such as landing, decelerating, changing direction, jumping and sprinting efforts. Building a solid strength foundation will allow factors relating to athleticism to adapt more efficiently. 

By simply playing sport, athletes don’t receive a stimulus great enough or specific to improve their bodies capabilities to increase their maximal force outputs. Through strength training methods, this will enhance the bodies ability to create and produce more force with the view to transfer over by improving the speed and power in sporting motor tasks. Neurological and structural changes occur through resistance training with greater neuromuscular coordination and increase in muscular size.  

How can strength training affect youth athletes? 

Before diving into this question, first thing is first, youth athletes will get stronger and gain strength and size by just looking at a clock. It’s called puberty! It’ll happen naturally. However, as previously mentioned at the start of this article, early exposure to strength training can allow youth athletes to enhance their physical potential. However, strength training will have different effects on youth athletes at various stages of their biological development

During prepubescents (before adolescent growth spurt), strength improvements are mediated predominantly by neural mechanisms due to the current lack of circulating growth factors occurring in the body. Strength training enhances neuromuscular coordination through the following mechanisms:

  • More motor units stimulated
  • Faster activation of higher threshold motor units
  • Synchronisation of multiple motor units
  • Movement pattern coordinating different muscles fibres to contract at the same time

Nevertheless, when adolescence starts kicking in, strength training will still have a major effect on neuromuscular coordination with the change in individual’s limb and torso length. However, there’s alterations in androgen hormones levels which will create greater lean muscle mass which allows for greater force expression. Additionally, further benefits for undertaking strength training for youth athletes will increase their mineral bone density and improve the robustness of connective tissue. 

The goal of strength training for youth athletes

The objective of a LTAD programme is to lay down the foundation blocks of strength to allow for greater means to be built in the future by applying appropriate load, volume and exercise sequencing. By managing the training progress, young athletes have to earn the right physically to progress in regards to training means with progressive overload. 

Practical Elements 

The foundation of strength is built in the learning to train stage and progresses into the training to train developmental stage. When starting out working with youth athletes, the goal isn’t to build muscle mass but instead place importance on motor skill development, movement competency and tissue health through mastering bodyweight strength, general exercises as well as supplementary exercises.

This can be achieved by implementing the 1 set x 20 reps programme. The concept is to take the rep range of 20 reps and perform multiple exercises in one session that targets the major joints in the body and strengthen their different movement patterns with just 1 set. The list below can give you an insight of how this looks:

  • Ankle: Dorsiflexion, plantar flexion
  • Knee: Flexion, Extension
  • Hip: Flexion, Extension, Adduction, Abduction
  • Trunk: Flexion, Extension, Lateral Flexion, Rotation
  • Shoulder: Flexion, Extension, Adduction, Abduction 
  • Elbow: Flexion, Extension 

You can also make a list of key movement patterns that are crucial for fundamental motor skill development and place this within the list above. Start out with minimal effective dose by using very light resistance and bodyweight exercises. Progression will be increasing exercise difficulty first then adding resistance to challenge the body. This programme can continue until the youth athlete has adapted and began to plateau. Only then will you need to change up the protocols by reducing the reps to 15 and increase the resistance. By following this simple principle, you begin to develop a sound structural strength foundation.  

Youth Strength Training Myths

To conclude, there is still a stigma and concern for youth athletes to uptake a resistance training programme. Concerns include that it’s a dangerous activity that creates injury to growth plates and skeletal maturity. This is simply not true. There is a higher incidence of injury occurring playing sport for youngsters than performing resistance training. The risk factor reduces even further if the sessions are led by an established, qualified strength and conditioning coach in a safe and suitable environment. As has been demonstrated throughout this blog, the pros completely outweigh cons.

I’ll leave you with this quote said by a world leading expert in youth training Dr Rhodri Lloyd:

“If you’re old enough to play sport, you’re old enough to prepare for the sport”

Written by Marc Stevenson.


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