When you hear the term “strength training”, what do you see? What thoughts and images come to mind? Almost everyone will picture lifting weights, and most likely heavy weights. That’s strength, right?
Strength training is often applied in exactly that way. A new client signs up for training and the trainer makes them lift weights to whatever end. The issue here is this; strength training deserves a much more flexible definition.
As a strength and conditioning coach, my job is to further your ability to pursue whatever goal you have in mind. It might be better performance on the court or the field, a better physique, a better 5K time. It’s all fair game. My job can be described that simply.
You hire a strength and conditioning coach to have a knowledgeable and objective guide to your goal. It’s not my job to get you to lift more and more weights. It’s my job to make you better at the thing you want to improve at. Therefore, strength training should be considered something of a catch-all. It’s an open ended field of methods, tactics and strategies that we use to help you improve. We do this based on you; based on what you need at this point in your development.
This brings us to the crux of the youth-training issue. Many young athletes are trained like small adults. They’re given the same sets, reps, exercises, equipment, instruction. It’s assumed that what makes a strong adult will also make a strong child or teenager.
The adult body and the youth body are very different. If you’re an adult, you know this. You’ve have the benefit of many extra years in your body. You know more or less what it can do, what it can’t do, and how you can affect these abilities with training.
When training youth, you see lots of novel experiences. You may see their first ever squat performed in an exercise context. The same is true for the plank, the push up, jumps, skips, balance drills, agility work. Youth don’t really know what their bodies can do, they don’t really know what training can do for them, and they don’t really know what they don’t know.
Training a 10 year old is very different from training an adult. The adult may pick up the basics of a squat in 15 minutes and feel capable of adding weight that day. The 10 year old has literally never tried to coordinate their movement in that pattern before. They’re experiencing some of their first communication issues between the central nervous system and the body.
This isn’t a problem, it’s great! The adult can get stronger by improving technique, but we’ll only make them so much more efficient before we need to start adding weight. The youth athlete can continue to get stronger, week over week, as their nervous system gets better and better at the movement in question.
Do we need weight to make a youth athlete stronger? No. Do we need more weight? No. We need to understand that making the youth athlete stronger doesn’t mean making muscles bigger. It means making their balance, body awareness, muscle activation, technique and so forth better. There are more factors to work with. We can make them stronger with more diverse tools.
Why should we care about strength training for young athletes in the first place? Many adults grew up without strength and conditioning programs. These adults are arguably surviving fairly well. So why do kids need strength training now?
There’s been a longstanding assumption in sports that the sport itself is all the preparation the body needs. Basketball trains you for basketball. Soccer trains you for soccer. Your body will get conditioned as the sport requires.
This assumption came about for a few reasons. One of the reasons is simple convenience; you don’t need strength coaches in this assumption. The other is lack of knowledge; there’s simply more and better science on injury, rehab and performance now than there ever has been.
A general bootcamp setup may or may not help a young athlete perform better. It may or may not help them live a long and healthy life. A good strength training program is different. A thoughtful, science-based program can set kids up for better performances while building more resilient, healthy bodies for a lifetime.
Basic core drills can teach a kid to control spinal and core muscles. This is among the most important things they can learn for more advanced training as well as preventing back pain, a disturbingly common issue in the modern world.
Basic balance drills, squat technique, jump and landing training can make astounding differences in ACL-tear prevention. Avoiding this incredibly disruptive injury is one thing, enjoying the secondary benefits is another. Better balance, better squatting, jumping, landing, knee, hip and ankle health? Yes, please.
An understanding of what optimal movement looks like, why it’s important, and how we can incorporate it into our lives is something kids need. Many young athletes will become adults without hearing any of this information. Not only does this mean leaving athletic potential on the table, it also means leaving a bigger door open to injury and pain.
Ask your kid to do one of your gym exercises – one that they haven’t done. Maybe it’s a squat, maybe it’s a plank or even a breathing exercise. Watch how they do it. The breathing exercises may be the best example of all.
The first time you ask a young athlete to do some diaphragmatic breathing…nothing. We need to see the stomach moving to know the diaphragm is moving. We need the diaphragm to move to ensure we’re getting truly deep breaths; the ones that refuel us when we’re tired and calm us down when we’re overworked. Ask a young athlete to do this and you’ll rarely see the stomach move.
The athlete will look at their stomach, as though their gaze might convince the muscles to move. It takes time to get this drill down. It takes practice. It’s the simplest drill there is – breathing. But here we are, working on a fundamental skill in isolation. It may seem too gentle for strength training, but it may be the best thing the athlete can do to improve strength, endurance, pain, recovery and attention.
We don’t need our young athletes throwing around barbells, setting gym records or trying max lifts. We need to provide them a path forward that allows them to become stronger bodies, stronger minds, stronger athletes and stronger people. A sound strength training program will work on all of this.
The question isn’t “why do young athletes need strength training?”. The question is “why wouldn’t a young athlete need strength training?”.