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Youth Strength and Conditioning

Resistance Training in Youth

A statement such as “resistance training can be safe and effective for children and adolescents” might be considered controversial within the mainstream these days, despite the growing amount of sports science research that supports the claim. I dedicated a lot of research for my MSc towards youth strength and conditioning because of my role with the English Ice Hockey Association which primarily focus’ on youth performance and development. The aim of this blog is to highlight my current thoughts about the mainstream view of training with children and adolescents and offer some practical advice for training youth athletes safely to maximise their athletic potential while giving them the best chance of staying healthy long term.

It’s not about being old enough to lift weights, it’s about making sure the weight is lifted with proper technique and control. I have seen 10 year olds lift with better form then some of my adult clients.

Problems with the Mainstream View

When it comes to reducing injury risk in general, science suggest that increasing muscular strength is the best way to prevent injuries across all ages. This is because the definition of strength is to produce force, if an individual can increase their force output, they are more likely to be resilient to injury in the event they are exposed to high force moments.

The problem in the current climate is there’re limited situations where the youth get to practice force production in a measured manner. In the UK it’s quite difficult to get a gym membership if under the age of 16, and it’s my humble opinion that physical education in schools doesn’t provide an environment where there is enough supervision to safely practice general strength development.

For adolescents that play competitive sport, the physical demands are not getting any easier. It’s quite interesting to note that sports like ice hockey, rugby, football, netball, and gymnastics have the highest injury rates across youth sports, while risk of injury from weightlifting and resistance training is much lower for the same age groups.

When a young athlete trains in a gym supervised, the variables related to movement pattern, load, repetitions, rest, and technique can be controlled. The work done in the controlled gym environment is to help prepare the athlete physically to play sport, where there is a lot less environmental control, and the risk of injury is much greater.

Resistance Training During Adolescents Results in Increased Athletic Potential

Leading governing bodies including the NSCA, UKSCA and the ASCA all suggest youth resistance training is safe and effective if supervised by a professional. Rhodri Lloyd and John Oliver, in my mind the two leading researchers in youth strength and conditioning, state proper strength and conditioning during adolescents’ results in those individuals having increased strength and athleticism as an adult.

During peak height velocity (the adolescent growth spurt), there is a window of opportunity to maximise adaptations in strength and motor control because of the dramatic physiological changes that are occurring in the body. Peak height velocity typically occurs at 12 in girl and 14 in boys (but can vary per individual), it’s around this time that gains in strength, hypertrophy, agility, speed, and power can be the most profound of any point in life.

Rather than allowing our youth to start training at 16, we should be teaching them how to train properly from much earlier ages, so that they are already proficient lifters by the time they hit adolescents (11-13).

It’s Not All About Lifting Weights

While weightlifting type training is deemed safe if supervised by a professional, there are many ways to reduce the risk of strength training through bodyweight exercises, using plyometrics, tempo or isometrics to increase intensity in absence of load, while turning focus towards improving an individual’s ability to train safely. Michael Boyle is a primary advocate of the ‘take weight off the bar’ approach, and some of the athletes that have come out of training at his facilities have gone on to be some of the best sporting athletes in North America. The Train Body Smart Basic Strength Tests are an example of bodyweight strength tests that can be applied for all ages.

Youth strength and conditioning with Train Body Smart

When Should Training Start?

Resistance training could start at any age, but early on the focus should primarily focus on allowing them to practice co-ordination, moving well and improving resistance training skill competency (RTSC), a term used to determine an individual’s skill level towards training. For the years pre-peak height velocity, improving RTSC should be the primary goal to prepare the individual for increased training intensities during and post peak height velocity. Below is a guideline of what the recommended training focus should be through early childhood, late childhood, adolescents before finally reaching adulthood.

Early Childhood: Ages 6-9 for Males and 6-8 for Females
FUNdamentals Stage

During this stage, training should be fun and involve tasks that teach coordination and foundational movement patterns. Resistance training skill competency will be low.

Train to Improve
  • Plyometric play, balance, and coordination (throwing/catching, jumping/hopping).
  • Speed and agility play (relay races).
  • Introducing foundational movements: squats, lunges, hip-hinge, push, pull.
  • Bodyweight strength and muscular endurance.
Late Childhood – Ages 10-13 in Males and 9-11 in Females
Learning To Train Stage

Improving Resistance Training Skill Competency is paramount at this stage, as athletes should be able to execute lifts well by the time they hit adolescence and can maximise potential adaptations available during peak height velocity.

Train to Improve
  • Structured plyometric training with focus on landing/jumping technique.
  • Speed and agility with greater focus on technique.
  • Introduce free weight training including barbells and dumbbells prioritising technique.
  • Master foundational movements: squat, lunge, hip-hinge, push, pull.
Adolescents – Ages 14-18 in Males and 12-18 in Females
Training To Train stage

This age presents the golden opportunity where training adaptations can be maximised to the greatest extent due to increases in neural plasticity and anabolic hormones during peak height velocity. 

Train to Improve
  • Plyometrics with greater emphasis on deceleration (small jumps to single-leg landing).
  • Speed and agility with greater focus on testing (timed sprints, 5-10-5).
  • Master foundational movements with incorporation of barbells and more complex movements: squat, lunge, hip-hinge, push, pull.
  • Strength and hypertrophy training, intensity can begin to increase to achieve desire physical adaptations (only if technically proficient).
  • Conditioning generalised to suit all energy systems (aerobic and anaerobic).
Adulthood – Ages 18+
Training To Compete stage

The individual will be post peak height velocity and training can become more specific to the sporting/personal goals of the individual as maturation status is less of a factor. If the athlete has trained throughout childhood and adolescence, they should now be in a good position to specify training to suit their sporting and athletic endeavours. 

Train to Improve
  • Plyometric, speed or agility training to suit the sport specific demands.
  • Strength and hypertrophy to encourage the growing/retention of lean body mass.
  • Requirements will differ depending on the sport, but improving relative strength (strength/weight ratio) is useful for most activities.
  • Conditioning training to suit dominant energy system requirements for the sport (anaerobic and aerobic.
Whether a youth athlete goes on to play sport at a high level, study at university or enters the world of work, learning the process of how to train effectively in the years prior to adulthood will serve them for the rest of their life.

Youth Strength and Conditioning Book Recommendations

Strength and Conditioning for Youth Athletes: Science and Application

Rhodri Lloyd and John Oliver

The most comprehensive research sources in my opinion for youth strength and conditioning come from Rhodri Lloyd and John Oliver. Their book ‘Strength and Conditioning for Young Athletes’ does such a great job at summarising hundreds of research papers into relevant information that’s easy to read, while using the information to provide recommendations to be apply safe and effective training for children and adolescents.

Functional Training for Sports

Mike Boyle

The purpose of Functional Training for Sports is not exclusively designed for youth strength and conditioning, but many of the practices mentioned transfer very well to training younger athletes. The book itself is very easy to read, providing lots of valuable information while moving away from scientific language, making it easier to interpret for a broader audience.

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