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Resistance Training for the Youth Athlete

By Vince Gabriele

Over the years athletics have become a very important part in the lives of our youth. This is a good thing considering the problem of childhood obesity growing in our country. Much more attention needs to be paid to the physical condition of our future leaders. Approximately 30 million American children (50% boys and 25% girls) participate in competitive organized sports. These huge numbers have also brought up the injury rates due to many of these athletes being physically unprepared to participate in sports such as football, soccer, basketball, baseball and lacrosse. When a child has a test their homework is to study as hard as possible to get the best grade they can. In sports, it should be the same way. Before you enter a game or competition your body should be physically fit to perform the demands of the sport. Now I am not saying stop studying for your history test and go hit the gym for 3 hours. It is imperative for our young athletes to dedicate time for getting their bodies prepared for all of their physical activities.

The definition of resistance or strength training is to increase ones ability to produce or resist greater forces. In this definition there is no mention of needing to use very heavy weights that are loaded on your spine.  There are many forms of resistance training: free weights, bodyweight, resistance bands, air resistance and weight machines. Would you be opposed to having little Johnny perform a workout with his own bodyweight, a chin-up bar and a resistance band?  These are all forms of strength or resistance training. Strength training does not always involve squats and deadlifts using very heavy weight.

Prepubescent children are susceptible to growth plate injuries, but according to Kramer and Fleck, there have not been any reports of growth plate fractures during any studies with appropriately designed programs and quality instruction.(2) When  injuries have happened with young athletes and resistance training, the culprit is usually improper form, poor program design and unqualified instruction. Avery Faigenbaum, an expert in research for strength training for youth athletes performed a study on maximal effort lifting with 64 boys and 32 girls from ages 6-12. No injuries were reported during the study.  (1) In another study designed to see if youth strength training will reduce injury the authors suggest that the incidence of overuse injuries sustained by young athletes could be reduced by 50% if more emphasis was placed on the development of fundamental fitness abilities before sports participation.(3)  Research suggests that Strength training for youth athletes will not be harmful unless performed improperly and will in fact help athletes prevent injury and improve performance.

Benefits of youth strength training

There are several benefits to our youth when they participate in resistance training. When a young athlete takes part in a resistance training program the biggest impact is on the nervous system. You will not see many young kids walking around looking like a little He-Man but they still have the capability to get stronger due to a more functional nervous system. This development will allow these young athletes to produce more force.  Other benefits for youth athletes performing resistance training are:

  • Improved self confidence and self esteem
  • Potential to prevent injury
  • Improved Strength and Body Awareness
  • Increased Bone Density
  • Improved strength of tendons and ligaments
  • Potential to prevent childhood obesity
  • Hard work and discipline
  • FUN

Guidelines for Youth Strength Training

  • A young athlete should be evaluated by a sports medicine physician to identify any medical problems and musculoskeletal deficits(4)
  • The program should be implemented by a qualified strength and conditioning professional or personal trainer that understands the needs of young athletes.
  • Program should be started with a physical assessment where the trainer can evaluate the young athlete to help design a program based on the athletes individual needs.
  • Proper instruction about the technique of each exercise should be communicated in way the young athlete will comprehend.

Program Design for Youth Athletes

  • Two to three training sessions per week is most effective for young athletes.  Research indicates that two sessions per week was more effective in improving strength in young athletes when compared to one session per week.
  • 30-minute strength training sessions are a great place to start. This will allow the other 30 minutes to dedicate to speed and agility training in a one hour session.
  • Proper warm-up should start every training session followed by a post session cool down and stretching.
  • Perform 1-2 sets of 10-15 reps to target the major muscles and movement patterns while at the same time avoiding severe muscle fatigue to prevent damage to muscle and joint structures.
  • The goal of resistance training should be to improve sports performance and prevent injury.  Using weight training as a sport such as powerlifting and bodybuilding should be avoided.
  • Exercises like squats, pushups, chin-ups, rows, single leg squats, rotator cuff exercises, sled work, bridges and planks are great exercises that almost all can be with your own bodyweight. If using exercise machines, be sure that the machine is fit for a young athlete. Machines that are meant for adults are usually not suitable for young athletes.

The acceptance of youth strength training has definitely increased over the past years. There is still the idea of many parents that it is harmful to young athletes. The most important aspect is that each athlete is following safe guidelines to ensure that they are in fact preventing injury and not causing it. A clear understanding of the definition of resistance training is crucial. The fact that workouts using only bodyweight are considered a form of strength training should ease the minds of many concerned parents. Young athletes are taking their fitness to the next level by participating in a resistance training program. With the increased competitive nature of youth sports every athlete is trying to get an edge on the competition. Youth strength training is a great way to build a better athlete or just a more confident kid.

Vince Gabriele, CSCS, is the Director of Football Development and Training at Fitness Quest 10. He trains all levels of athletes, from the youth athlete mentioned in this article to several NFL football players. He recently concluded filming his first training DVD “Strength and Size for the High School Athlete”.

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