Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Youth Strength Training for Sports

I see a lot of eager fathers who are chomping at the bit to start their sons in some kind of strength training program so that they can prepare them for sports as early as middle school. I am a huge advocate for strength and conditioning programs for young athletes ranging from 10 to 17 years old. Ten years removed from high school, I can't tell you how I could have really benefited from working with a knowledgeable strength coach. Instead, I was given popular workouts that involved 5x5 programming, maxed out lifts and cookie cutter program design. Hopefully after reading this, you will get some new ideas that can help develop your young athletes into great performers on the field.

Most programs I have come across involve the bench press, squat, and clean. All of these are excellent choices for exercises in developing strength and explosiveness, both key components athletes need to possess to excel. However, these exercises are not necessarily for beginners. Here is a breakdown of the common exercise with a substitution I would implement with my young athletes.

Bench Press
Purpose of the bench press is increase upper body strength. Why do we need to use a barbell though? There is rarely a time in sport where your athletes will ever push against an opponent with equal distribution in both arms and without some kind of rotation in the hips.Try switching out barbell bench press with single arm dumbbell bench press and add a stability ball for self stabilizing purposes, see the video below.

This variation allows the athlete to work on equal pressing explosion (uni-laterally with dumbbells) through a full range of motion (full eccentric to full extension), resisting rotation (from using an exercise ball and stabilizing the core muscles) and working on equal power distribution through both sides of the body, something that cannot be achieved using a barbell.

Most coaches are going to be throwing fits about not knowing what their athlete's max is, but you have to realize what the goal is at this age. The goal needs to be, build a strong, functional and balanced athlete.

Another great exercise that nearly everyone uses to judge lower body strength. Problem is, most adults, let alone youth athletes new to lifting cannot properly perform this exercise. Most people have very weak core muscles, including the abdominals and erector spinae, limited ranges of motion through the hips which effects squat depth, and under developed and tight thoracic muscles which will throw off proper loading and disrupt proper technique. The first thing most coaches want to do is load that barbell with lots of weight. I know from experience, all that causes is a sore back, not so sore legs and zero confidence in my ability to squat. I had this same experience 10-13 years ago in preseason football training all through high school. That just lead to me hanging out at the leg press and hack squat machines due to over zealous expectations of adolescent athletes and a lack of confidence in my squat. Great exercises for putting on size, but really doesn't have a place in a serious weight room geared towards athletic performance.

The sandbag squat is going to teach and groove my athlete on proper squat form and depth. It is very easy to give these kids a task in which they can succeed right away and build confidence from day one. In this exercise be sure that your trainee is relaxing the shoulders back, engaging the thoracic muscles and are pushing the hips back while getting proper depth.


The overhead band squat is a tool to help activate the shoulder stabilizers, which will help support load in the next series of lifts. Even though I can overhead squat already and with pretty good form, I find it beneficial to do this as a warm up before barbell or kettlebell work. Using a band will build confidence in a new position and preparing the body for supporting load overhead. Before moving on to the next progression, watch for the inability to stabilize through the hips and trunk. This will be obvious, lots of rotation through the midsection so watch a few reps from every angle.

The next progression is barbell overhead squat. Once proper stabilization throughout the shoulder, trunk and adequate squatting depth with the band is achieved, it is time to add load through a static implement in the barbell. In this exercise I want to be sure to not worry so much about load but to look at form and any asymmetries my athletes may have. Too much range of motion is just as bad as no range of motion in the shoulder. Be sure weight is kept overhead and not behind and not too forward as to make the heels rise. Start with the bar and only increase load when there are limited asymmetries. As you can see in the video below, my client Jack, has just progressed to this progression this month. You can see in one of the reps, he loses concentration for split second and almost has to bail. Luckily he refocused in time to complete the rep.

This is a very challenging exercise on the brain and body. Simplistic in theory, but challenging due to the neurological component of this lift and all the muscle stabilization needed to execute this lift efficiently. I am not a fan of back loading exercises for youth athletes, and it is in my opinion that in order to start back squatting, your athletes need to earn that privilege. Overhead, front and back squats, in that order of progression. Unlike back squatting, a good number to shoot for over time would be to perform an overhead squat with as much load as the athlete's bodyweight. This would deem, exceptional overall strength.

This is a very popular lift and a favorite of many football strength and conditioning programs. I have seen very few people who are qualified to coach this very complex exercise. It takes years to perfect any Olympic lift. Enter the frosh football team, know it all 14 year olds. To think, we as coaches can get an entire team to perform these lifts with proper technique would be asinine. Focus on the benefits and then think of a solution. The purpose of the lift is to develop power through triple extension (ankle, knee and hip). Here is a great way to substitute the barbell version, but not sacrifice the movement.

If you notice, all we did was change the tool we used in the lift. The movement is the same. Triple extension is accomplished and we have a young athlete who got a workout in today and not a lecture. He/she now has accomplished a skill, and can get all the benefits of a barbell, with a sandbag, and still accomplish the same goal. Now the coach has more time to game plan for next week's game instead of teaching 50 kids how to perform a proper clean. Below is a video demonstrating a sandbag clean.

When developing youth athletes through strength and conditioning programs it is important to remember that they are new to all this. They need a coach who can accommodate all levels of fitness and athleticism without expectations of that of an 18 year old varsity star athlete. If this means changing traditional tools and programming then it is your responsible as a coach to change the tool and change the program. The days of measuring results hitting the weights with max loads, need to be thrown out and newer programing and ideology needs to be taking place. Coaches need to realize that a bigger max lift does not necessarily mean the result equals a better athlete.  I will not make the same mistakes with my athletes as my coaches did with me. Try these implementations and see how fast your youth athletes start getting stronger and how that carries over to the playing field.