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The Best Exercises for Youth Athletes

By Brett Klika

When myself, or any of our other athletic development coaches at Fitness Quest 10 design programs for youth, we want to provide the most effective and beneficial exercises possible. Parents and athletes do not have the time or money in their schedule to come to our facility every day of the week. This creates a demand for absolute efficiency. Most of the time we have a young athlete two, maybe three days in a week to completely map or re-map their neuromuscular system. Furthermore, the needs of most athletes are vast. In 2-3 hours per week, we need to develop skills for speed, strength, mobility (flexibility), power, agility, and a host of other athletic skills. Nearly all of our athletes come to us a product of either no movement coaching or poor movement coaching, so we start from scratch.

It is important to understand that exercises for athletic performance are part of a continuum, especially for youth. An athlete needs to maximize an array of skills in order to be successful, so everything done in a program should be organized in a manner that aids in maximizing those skills. Every skill in athletics begins with a basic movement pattern. Our goal with youngsters is to teach those movement patterns and develop the strength and flexibility to do them effectively. Once that happens, our goal is to get those movements faster. After the movements can be done quickly and effectively, we add a reactive component, where the athlete has to react to a game type of stimulus to perform the movement. For example, a good vertical jump begins with the ability to do a good body-weight squat. After they can do that correctly, we work on jumping from the squat position. We may add weight via a weight vest or other devices. Finally, we use a game situation, such as grabbing the ball off the backboard, jumping and grapping a pass, etc., to make their new skill useable in their sport. The process could take weeks, months or years, depending on the individual. The process may require heavy weight training, bodyweight training, massage therapy, Plyometrics, speed technique, or a nearly infinite amount of tools designed to facilitate the above process. It is different for each individual.

The exercises we use most for our young (and old) athlete are listed below. We have found these to be the most effective for developing coordination, strength, mobility, and stability: all pre-cursers to speed, power, and other game-related skills.

These are probably our most-often used exercise. We do forward, backward, lateral, and other multidirectional lunges. When done correctly these promote every aspect of lower body movement in sports; from strength and power to mobility and flexibility. If you want to be a better athlete, lunge!

Correct push ups are an FQ10 favorite. Push-ups in which the pelvis stays neutral, the spine remains straight, and the nose nearly touches the ground are great for a variety of reasons. With no “furniture” to support the mid-section, the “core” muscles are highly activated. While the anterior muscles of the upper body are working to raise and lower the torso, the posterior structures and muscles are working to stabilize the shoulder. When the scapulas (shoulder blades) move correctly during push-ups, shoulder joint health and optimal performance are established. This is important for any athlete in which upper body movement is part of their sport.

Wall squats
Wall squats are done facing a wall, standing as close to the wall as possible, with the hands above the head. An athlete should be able squat until their thighs are parallel to the ground and then stand up without falling backward. This movement requires ankle mobility, hip strength and mobility, and upper spine extension. These movement abilities are essential for performance and injury prevention for both the lower and upper body. Proper squatting is the pre-curser for jumping, accelerating, decelerating, and a variety of other athletic skills.

“Lizard” or “Bear” Crawls
These are done with the athlete facing prone to the ground in a push-up position. They reach forward with their opposite hand and foot, keeping their hips low towards the ground. They will look similar to a soldier crawling low to the ground. They move about 15 yards in this manner, opposite hand and foot touching the ground at the same time. This program staple establishes cross-body coordination, hip mobility, strength, and core stability. All of these are essential components of all athletic movement.

Horizontal Pull-Ups
We love pull-ups, but we have found young athletes can not do them anymore. We moved on down the chain to something that accomplishes the same goal and is do-able. Using the TRX suspension system or just a bar fixed about 3 feet off the ground, the athlete hangs from the bar or straps, legs straight, and pulls until their chest makes contact. This strengthens all the body’s muscles involved with pulling, an important fundamental upper body movement.

1-Leg Balance Reaches
Standing on one foot, the athlete slightly bends the knee of the supporting leg and reaches forward with the opposite hand. The leg of the reaching hand is pushed back and up to keep a flat spine. The athlete tries to keep their hips square to the ground. This exercise aids in developing one-leg balance as well as the posterior chain’s (glutes, lower/upper back/ and hamstrings) strength. These are essential skills in developing speed, strength, and power.

The listed exercises are only a few of our vast arsenal, but they are the ones most frequently used in our athletic youth development program . Include these exercises along with other basic movement patterns such as skipping to get a young athlete started on a road to athletic excellence!

Coach Brett Klika is the Director of Athletic Performance at Todd Durkin’s Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, CA. He specializes in youth fitness and athletic performance, overseeing a staff of 8 strength coaches developing programs for over 300 youth per week, both athletes and non-athletes. He presents around the world to both trainers and corporations with Todd Durkin Enterprises on a variety of health, wellness, and athletic performance topics. Brett contributes monthly to the award-winning “TD Times” newsletter. If you would like to sign up, you can do so by visiting, or use the contact form below: [easy-contact] 

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