Future-Proofing Youth Athletes - Part 3

Future-Proofing Youth Athletes-Part 3

Part 1 and Part 2 focused on how to improve youth athlete’s ability to focus on relevant sporting cues, or perceptual-motor skills and the movement response. 

Today’s post will focus on the why, how, when and what of strength training for youth athletes and the role it has to play in future-proofing the youth athlete. Entire books have been written on this topic so today’s post will keep things actionable. 

Before we get into the meat and potatoes of today’s blog, let’s start with a definition of strength training.

Personally, Vern Gambetta’s definition of strength training is one that resonates a lot with me..

“Strength Training is coordination training with appropriate resistance to handle your bodyweight, project an implement, move or resist movement of another body, resist gravity and optimise ground reaction forces”

One of the main reasons I like this definition so much is because when people think of strength training…they automatically picture barbells, dumbbells and perhaps muscle-bound men grunting loudly…whereas Vern’s definition helps us appreciate that any resistance, including that provided by our own bodyweight…is technically strength training.

It also touches upon the main mechanism by which youth athletes get stronger…improved coordination. 

Strength Training for Youth Athletes: Myth Busting

Before we discuss the multiple reasons your child could benefit from strength training…let’s discuss the elephant in the room.

Will lifting weights stunt your child’s growth? Is strength training safe?

Firstly, there is currently no scientific literature that supports the claim that weight training stunts growth. 

What has been reported in the scientific literature is that:

  • stress is needed in order for bones to adapt and grow stronger

  • appropriate strength training (more on this later) improves the bone mineral density in youth athletes

  • Young weightlifters have stronger bones than youth athletes and adults who have not been exposed to strength training

Injuries in sports such as weightlifting are much less common than they are in team sports such as hockey, football and lacrosse.

When it comes to safety think about this for a second, of the 2 options which of these might be safer:

  • Predictable environment (e.g. any field/court/contact sport) v chaotic environment

  • One where the coach CAN directly control (exercise selection, speed of movement, sets, reps etc) vs one where the coach cannot (opponents’ action, playing surface, weather conditions etc)

  • Non-contact sport vs contact sport

  • Sports where impact forces have been shown to be as high as 10 x bodyweight vs a strength and conditioning session where youth athletes handle fractions of their own body weight

Now I’m not saying stop your child messing around in the playground, or to avoid collision sports…but hopefully, you can now see why performing basic movement patterns, either with bodyweight or very submaximal loads, under the supervision of accredited strength and conditioning coach, is far safer than you perhaps initially thought.

Those who point to empirical evidence of gymnasts and weightlifters being small are often confusing correlation and causation.

Being small in gymnastics makes it easier to perform more rotations in the air…and subsequently, more likely a gymnast can record a higher score.

Being small in weightlifting means the bar does not have to travel so far and makes the squatting position involved in receiving the weights much less awkward than those with longer femurs/legs.

So now we’ve clarified that lifting weights is as likely to make you smaller as playing basketball is to make you taller, let’s get into reasons why your youth athlete should strength train.

Strength Training: The Why

Now we’ve busted some myths…why should your child strength train?

Infographics:

  • Reduces the risk of overload injury

  • Strength training improves force production, which can help youth athletes jump higher and sprint faster

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On the subject of bodyweight training…are elite gymnasts strong? Too freaking right!! 

And if you surveyed 100 parents would they have any problem with their children attempting handstands where they stack their entire bodyweight over their wrists? 

Now, what if we ask these same parents how they feel about their son or daughter pressing a weight such as a 20kg barbell over their head?

Sports coaches might routinely dish out press-ups, which for a 50kg child involves lifting... You guessed it - around 50kg. Yet a pair of 10kg dumbbells? 

Strength Training: The When

As soon as your child is mature enough to understand instructions…they can strength train.

Going back to an earlier point, strength training for an 8-year-old (for argument's sake) might simply involve working basic squat, hinge, push and pull patterns with their own bodyweight. 

Strength Training: The What

Any child who can demonstrate competency in a bodyweight squat, a hinge to the wall and a strict push-up position plank is in a truly awesome place from a physical perspective.

But why these specific movement patterns?

  • an efficient hinge pattern will make teaching jumping easier 

  • a solid push up position plank will make teaching pushing and pulling movements easier 

  • a technically sound squat will make teaching deceleration/stopping and landing easier 

Strength Training: The When - Peak Height Velocity:

As your child gets older it is inevitable that they will encounter a growth spurt. In some (but not all) kids this can lead to a break down in previously established movement patterns. Rather than a necessary concern, this provides a prime opportunity to progress through complexity rather than load used and really perfect the basics (squat pattern, hinge pattern, pushing patterns and pulling patterns)

Progressing through complexity doesn’t mean we are now standing our athletes on bosu balls…it can be as simple as changing the direction of a movement or including more moving parts of the body.

So rather than adding weight to a split squat, which is a movement where both feet remain fixed to the floor, the split squat might be progressed to a forward or reverse lunge. In the case of the reverse lunge the youth athlete has to have a greater understanding of where their body is in time and space to control what the free leg is doing.

There are, however, numerous scientific papers (see here) and position statements from the governing bodies of the UK, Australia and America clarifying the benefits of strength training, these include, but are not limited to:

  • Reduced risk of overload injury

  • Improvements in measures of force production including jump height, acceleration, throwing velocity, kicking velocity etc

Strength Training: How

A UKSCA accredited coach, who understands the implications of working with youth athletes, is a great place to start…however, that’s not to say a sports coach cannot provide a great foundation by including the fundamental movement skills as part of a warm-up.

As cheesy as it sounds strength training for youth athletes should initially focus on putting the FUN in fundamentals. If kids are to pursue strength training they need to enjoy it first and foremost.

The fundamental movements (squat, hinge, push, pull, jump/land, brace, rotate) are just like any other skill…the more deliberate time spent practising them…the better kids become at them. In order to make kids want to practice these movements… they have to enjoy them. Once a kid moves competently and has a basic understanding of how to perform movements, these movements can be loaded.

Compared to the sport, I can understand why kids might find lifting weights somewhat dull. One way to keep kids engaged with what they need to do is to integrate drills that improve physical qualities within the session.

With personal experience, I have found using a partner to provide resistance (partner carries), mirrored plyometrics/landings (perturbed landings) and trunk stability works well (partner pallof presses) for disguising physical qualities as part of ‘play.’

Whilst these variations are only as limited as your imagination it is important to start with the physical qualities you are aiming for …and work backwards from there. Stealing/borrowing the work of others is great when it comes to engaging kids in strength and conditioning…however…you must know WHY you are having your youth athlete or child perform a certain drill (on a side note I am absolutely okay with using a drill simply because it looks fun…if that is your aim and you find a drill that ticks that box…good job you).

There are some practitioners doing some unbelievable work in this area (Shane Fitzgibbon, Jeremy Frisch, Howard Green). I would highly recommend stealing their stuff for your youth athletes.

Below are my teaching progressions that I have used, however, it is important to note that depending on what your goal is, these variations may come in a different order.

Progressions:

  • SQUAT PATTERN: Goblet squat | Overhead squat | Front squat | Back squat  

  • HINGE PATTERN: Bum to wall touch | Face against wall sumo deadlift | Face against wall sumo deadlift | stood on blocks | Kettlebell/Barbell RDL | Barbell Deadlift 

  • PULLING PATTERN: Bent leg inverted row | Straight leg inverted row | Feet elevated straight leg inverted row | Barbell Row

  • PUSHING PATTERN: Push up position plank | Hands elevated press ups | Dumbbell bench press | Press up | Weighted Press ups 

  • STEPPING/LUNGING PATTERN: Split Squat | Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat | Step up/step down | Single leg squat to high box, medium box, low box, no box

The reason why the previous blog posts focused on perceptual motor skills is that a kid who cannot effectively understand how to tell his/her body what to do will be much harder to coach and will have a frustrating time learning both the fundamental movement skills and the sport specific skills that these movements provide the foundation for. 

Strength Training: How Much

I’ve previously seen and heard parents/sports coaches ask questions such as …how much should my *insert age of said child here*, be lifting. 

The truth is age is irrelevant in comparison to technical competence. Although gyms probably do it for insurance purposes, a child does not change dramatically overnight where aged 17 years 364 days strength training is bad… But 24 hours later it is perfectly safe. The truth is, under poor supervision, using inappropriate/incorrect technique, using too advanced progression - just like any sporting activity - all carry the risk of injury.

An 8-year-old with perfect squatting technique is at much less risk than an 18-year old whose knees are practically touching each other in a squat. 

Essentially the ‘how much weight should my child lift’ is all a question of competency.

Conclusion:

  • Children can start strength training as soon as they are old enough to listen to instructions

  • Increased strength helps reduce the risk of overload injuries and improves measures of physical such as jump height and sprint times

  • Focus primarily on movement patterns, with appropriate load, sets and reps, appropriate reps including hinge, squat, pull, push, carry

References

Conroy, B. P., Kraemer, W. J., Maresh, C. M., Fleck, S. J., Stone, M. H., Fry, A. C., & Dalsky, G. P. (1993). Bone mineral density in elite junior Olympic weightlifters. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 25(10), 1103-1109.

Written by Todd Davidson

About the author

Todd Davidson is a UKSCA accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach currently working at Downe House school, in charge of the scholarship athletes' strength and conditioning program whilst introducing athletic development into the P.E curriculum.Todd's current interest on youth athletes was sparked by gaining experience with University, Paralympic and Olympic athletes as part of his internship roles with Duham University, Middlesex County Cricket Club and the English Institute for Sport, with GB Boxing and Paralympic Table Tennis, and speaking to other practitioners as to how this journey can be scaled more effectively to reduce injury risk, enhance performance and improve athletic development in youth athletes.


Todd can be found via:

Twitter: @todddavidson93
Facebook: search Todd Davidson P2P coaching
Instagram: @ToddDavidsonP2Pcoaching 

SEPTEMBER 12, 2019