An Introduction to Strength Training for Young Athletes
By Ben Hawkes, Hammer Throw athlete
BASICS OF RESISTANCE TRAINING
When I was 14, or 15, there was about a 6 month period where I would be constantly getting kicked out of the weights room in the local gym, with staff telling me it would stunt my growth, get me injured, or just hurt me in some way, shape or form. It became somewhat of a game to sneak in and train by the time I left that gym, and one I quite enjoyed.
It wasn’t the staff’s fault - they were just doing what they were told. But ill-informed policies and dogma around youth resistance training like this can have a massively damaging effect on young people looking to develop an interest in health, fitness or sports performance.
Young people aren’t always the most trustworthy or sensible folk. But with supervision or education from the right coaches, they are more than capable of looking after themselves when it comes to resistance training, probably more so than most adults.
BENEFITS OF RESISTANCE TRAINING
Contrary to seemingly popular belief, resistance training is actually really important for young people. Participating in (and crucially enjoying) a resistance training programme can have myriad benefits for young people. Increases in movement competency, coordination, strength, speed and power gives them a sense of task mastery, improved wellbeing, and other psychological benefits (Lloyd & Oliver, 2012).
Supervision and education in youth strength & conditioning should NOT be reflective of that given to adult populations, though. Trying to copy (or feeling like you need to copy) stupid workouts is perhaps one of the biggest factors influencing injury rates and motivation toward training in youth populations.
This is where the art of youth resistance training comes into play because the physical demands of training need to be balanced with effective instructional strategies that maximise enjoyment, foster socialisation, and spark an ongoing interest [in health and fitness]. That is, the most effective youth fitness professionals are able to use different pedagogical approaches to address individual learning styles and developmental needs. Faigenbaum & McFarland (2016), American College of Sports Medicine
7 VALUES OF YOUTH STRENGTH TRAINING
These values are what really characterise youth strength & conditioning sessions. Later in their paper, Faigenbaum & McFarland outline the “P.R.O.C.E.S.S.” of setting up a strength training session for kids:
The demands on a growing body have to be gradually introduced and progressed slowly over time. This principle basically means: please don’t think the kids need to be throwing up and lying on the floor at the end of the session. Longitudinal progression allows for continual adaptation, a wider variety of stimuli, interest in the program, and potentially a greater appreciation for long term thinking. Moreover, progression comes in many forms - increased intensity or volume, yes, but also difficult new movements or cognitive challenges too.
Similar to anything, the adage ‘use it or lose it’ rings true here. Participation on one or two non-consecutive days per week is necessary to see real changes and benefits from a programme. This helps foster social connection within the group and maintains physiologic adaptations.
This is somewhat an extension to the progression principle; the body has to be placed in novel situations - stressed further than previously - to stimulate adaptation and growth. This principle also helps create a sense of task mastery, with kids taking pride in new achievements in training.
Sensing some child-like energy in yourself can help no end as a coach. Being imaginative with exercise selection (or creation) can help you find novel ways to get a group moving. It also helps build trust and enjoyment in the sessions because you’ll (probably) make a fool of yourself in the process. For me, this is the most fun element of training youth populations.
Youth sessions have to be fun. Especially in this age with attention spans shortening and shortening, you must make your sessions FUN. That involves creativity, physical and cognitive challenges, autonomy, socialisation, and so much more. Make. It. Fun.
Kids are inherently social creatures. It’s no fun for them to have a 1-1 session with an unengaging ‘instructor’ telling them what to do all the time. They (mostly) want to work in teams, solve problems together, and build shared experiences. The relationships we build through sport and those shared experiences are special, and we, as coaches, can do a lot to foster their development.
To implement a sustainable, effective programme, you genuinely need a coach who understands the requirements of young athletes and can outline a model such as this PROCESS to get the best out of the kids.
This is especially important when it comes to individualised programming, whether that be for social, physical, psychological or sex differences. Boys are not the same as girls. Kids who really want to be there are not the same as kids who would rather not be there. Early maturers are not the same as late maturers. Being aware of and reactive to those differences is key to implementing all elements of this model.
STRENGTH TRAINING READING AT HOME
There is so much more to discuss on this topic, but the scope of this blog just can’t encompass it all. Some easy reading/watching is linked below: