Strength and Conditioning for Young Athletes

By Nate Turner – July 1, 2014

Let’s review a familiar nursery tale. Goldilocks finds the Bear Family away for the day and wanders from room to room rendering comfort judgments on each Bear’s bed: “This one’s too hard; this one’s too soft; this one’s just right!”

Now, switch the context to the trainer you’re about to hire to help your kids get bigger, faster, and stronger for next season. Which of these guys or girls do you want on the job?

Coach One: “No pain, no gain! Now, drop and give me 20!”
Coach Two: “I just want them to like me and have fun. Let’s have a group hug.”
Coach Three: “Success comes when preparation meets opportunity. Let’s get back to the fundamentals!”

One of the many things to love about Austin is the huge number of opportunities kids have to get involved in youth sports here. Drive around any afternoon or weekend, and you’ll see soccer, football, basketball, softball, fun runs, skateboard, BMX, crew, Frisbee golf…the list is nearly endless.

Underlying a safe and fun experience in most of these sports is, first and foremost, the leadership of a skilled and caring coach. A close second, however, is your child’s physical preparedness relative to the physical demands of the sport chosen. Having coached young athletes for more than 14 years, I’ve found that I field many of the same questions about the safety and effectiveness of strength and conditioning for kids each year. Here are some of the most common, with answers from some of the experts in the growing field of youth fitness and sports performance training.

Isn’t it harmful for children to lift weights?

“Contrary to the traditional belief that strength training is dangerous for children or that it could lead to bone plate disturbances, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) contends that strength training can be a safe and effective activity for this age group (children and adolescents), provided that the programs are properly designed and competently supervised.”– from ACSM’s “Current Comment on Youth Strength Training,” Sports Medicine Bulletin, Vol. 32, No. 2,

“Weight training is primarily done from an injury prevention standpoint. By increasing strength, we are improving the protective mechanisms around joints. With good instruction, care, and proper programming, weight training is significantly less dangerous than competitive sports themselves.” – Wil Fleming, Force Fitness & Performance, Bloomington, Indiana

How many days per week should kids train?

The answer to this question depends in part on what other activities the child has going on already and what kind of program is being considered. For athletes who are actively competing, we recommend one to two coached sessions per week, plus two shorter home workouts that focus on movement technique and conditioning. For athletes out of season, three to four coached workouts per week with a combination of strength, power, conditioning, and movement training is a common recommendation. Remember that they’re kids, it’s summertime, and piano lessons, swim team, and paper routes all count as activity.  Exhaustion = diminished training returns and an unhappy athlete.

Does this stuff actually work? How much improvement can my kid expect to see?

“We like to say that great athletes aren’t born, they’re made. Speed and strength are skills, and any athlete can learn to improve both, if they apply a proven method taught by a skilled coach. The resulting improvement in self-confidence is the real win.” – Bill Parisi, founder Parisi Speed Schools, Fairlawn, New Jersey

To expand on this, a healthy child at any age will see benefits in coordination, balance, and conditioning—and even strength, speed, and agility—in response to regular exercise. However, don’t expect a child who has not had a pubertal growth spurt (peak height velocity, in clinical terms) to add muscle mass. The ability to add muscle depends on the interplay of the right hormones at the right time. Strength training, when safely performed, simply adds to the body’s signal to grow under these circumstances.

How do I select a good coach/facility/program?

“Ask about experience. Don't necessarily think about experience in creating champion athletes, although that may be important to you, but what is their experience with athletes like your son or daughter? Make sure they are specific. Just because someone trained a college or pro athlete does not mean they are prepared to train your 13-year-old daughter. Also ask about training philosophy. The wrong answer is something to do with a piece of equipment (Jumpsoles, or kettlebells, etc). The right answer should be about movement, teaching, and fun.” – Wil Fleming, Force Fitness & Performance

Why isn’t my kid exhausted at the end of the session?  S/he should be really tired for it to have done any good, right?

This is one of my all-time favorite questions. No, Mom and Dad, your kid doesn’t have to toss his/her cookies for it to have been an effective training session, even though that may have happened to you once or twice. S/he doesn’t even necessarily have to be sore in two days. Complex movements, like the Push Press and Clean and Snatch, are taught first with a PVC pipe, then with an unloaded barbell, and finally, when an athlete demonstrates competency, with load. Running line drills until s/he drops won’t improve the ability to cut precisely at full speed, either.  As one of my mentors so eloquently put it, “Any joker with a whistle can make a kid throw up. That’s not coaching.”  Expect the early days to be about skill development and the harder days to follow once technique is solid.

What is “overtraining” and how can I spot it?

A great training program perfectly applied is still only half of what it takes to become a better athlete.  Proper post-workout nutrition and adequate sleep will determine if your child reaps the benefits of his or her hard work. Xbox until 2 a.m. is not a recipe for good recovery even after sleeping in until 11 a.m. Stay in tune with your child’s nutrition and sleep patterns—loss of appetite, elevated resting pulse, and insufficient or poor quality sleep are sure warning signs of overtraining. Don’t be afraid to provide a day or week off to catch up. A good coach will appreciate your insight into your child and will be for whatever helps improvement, including extra rest.

Top Five Questions to Ask Before You Sign Up

(courtesy of Dave Gleason, Director of Youth Performance at the International Youth Conditioning Association and owner/head coach at Athletic Revolution South Shore)

1. What educational credentials and experience do you have that qualify you to coach young athletes, whose developmental needs differ from those of adult athletes?

2. What type of assessment system do you utilize to find fitness and performance benchmarks as well as measure changes and improvements?

3. Do you divide the kids into groups by age and ability?

4. What specific things does your program offer to help my child increase sport-specific injury resistance?

5. What is the coach-to-athlete ratio in your programs?


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