Strength training for Youth Athletes: Here’s how
Strength training is an important aspect of a young/ youth athlete’s development within their sport, or sports. When it is properly supervised and appropriately planned it is a SAFE and an effective method of developing strength and power. Here’s why youth athletes, coaches and parent’s should be paying attention to this!
Stages of youth development
Youth strength training, especially between the ages of 13-18, falls in the early to middle stages of a Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model. These models are based primarily on physiological adaptations and can show how athletic potential can be developed alongside biological growth. Essentially, they give coaches, teams, and organisations “windows of opportunity” where developments can be made.
Typically, the five stages of a LTAD would be similar to this, where the focus at each stage changes for both the player, the coach and even how the game should be approached:
- FUNdamentals – Ages 5-12 (early childhood – Prepubescent)
The player should just play the game, the coach should guide, and the game should be fun
- Learn to play and practice/Learning to train – 12-14 (late childhood – early puberty)
The player should explore the game, the coach teaches, and the game should be more structured.
- Train to Train – 15-17 (Early puberty – late puberty)
The player should start to focus on the game, the coach should start to challenge the player, and the game should be performance based
- Train to Compete 18-21 (Late Puberty – early adulthood)
The player should start to specialise, the coach should facilitate changed and the game should be outcome based
- Train to Win – 21+ (Early Adulthood – adulthood)
The player should be innovative, the coach should empower the player to improve, and the game should be result based.
During these stages the focus changes due to both chronological and biological age as maturation affects development. These children, or young athletes, will develop at different speeds. Those who mature early may have a greater advantage in sport due to strength and power gains initially, however those advantages may ‘disappear’ when others have grown as well. This can be seen in age group sport. Football or Rugby for example, when players are grouped by chronological age (Under 13, Under 15 etc…) some players may have 6 months or more on others in terms of biological maturation and age. Player A – birthday in Sept/Oct compared to playing in same age group whose birthday isn’t until May/June time may have an advantage. Regardless of level of maturation, developing key skills and strength qualities from an early age will lead to a clear advantage at later stages of development.
This LTAD model can be carried across into the gym and the young athletes’ strength and power development. There is no ‘minimum age’ that a young athlete needs to be to start strength training, however they should be mentally and physically ready to engage in their sport and training and be willing to accept instruction.
A newer perspective
Building on the LTAD model, the Youth Physical Development (YPD) Model proposes a slightly different view (as the ‘windows of opportunity’ theory can be limiting) for youth athletes. This considers a comprehensive approach of the development of males and females using Puberty as a marker for varying the focus in training, which essentially changes on a sliding scale throughout childhood, puberty and adolescence. This model suggests varying the emphasis of the following physical qualities as male and females age and progress through Puberty – Fundamental Movement Skills (FMS), Sport Specific Skills (SSS), Mobility, Agility, Speed, Power, Strength and Hypertrophy.
During the Prebutertal stage (roughly 11 and younger) both males and females should have the same focus, that is building a mastery of fundamental movement skills (running, jumping, balance, catching, throwing just to name a few) while introducing speed and agility.
There is an importance of strength training for women at all stages of development and should not be underestimated. Females also start puberty earlier than males (around the age of 10) and so their focus shifts towards Agility, speed, power, and hypertrophy earlier than in males, possibly by a couple of years.
Strength training in youth athletes can result in significant increases in strength, power, agility and reduced injury risk which could have long-term implications for their sporting careers as well as additional health benefits such as reducing body fat and controlling weight; strengthen bone; and possibly increase self-esteem and psychosocial wellbeing. The YPD model suggests that strength training should be a priority throughout a child’s development.
It has been suggested that initial gains in strength and power are from neuromuscular activation, so from learning how to control your body through various movement, and this can be limited due to low hormone levels, then growth occurs, first height, then weight through puberty, which also causes a large hormone release throughout the body which can then increase further strength and power. The largest increases in strength and power tend to occur at onset of peak weight velocity, which is typically between 6 months to a year after peak height velocity, as the body starts to develop more lean mass.
Key points for training youth athletes
As mentioned, there are different stages of biological maturation with the same chronological age, and as a coach, you need to be aware that individuals within the same age group may require a different approach to their training, therefore it is hard to set a strict program of youth strength development, where as a framework to follow from would be more beneficial.
Irrespective of age, initial focus for youth athletes should be on fundamental movement techniques, pure strength development should be a long-term goal, that is properly planned for and periodised within long-term development. With strength fundamentally underpinning power, this should be developed this first, while refining the technical skills required for weight training.
Training age is also a factor that needs to be included. Training age is, simply put, the length of time that an individual has been training for, in years. And as you increase in training age, the complexity and intensity of your training can also increase, however I believe this requires a subjective view from a coach and is intertwined with biological and chronological age – just another variable to think of.
So taking all this into account, it leads me onto my proposed framework for youth athletes (between the ages of 13 and 18) and their strength training. Everyone should progress through all stages, however, some may progress quicker than others, for example, those who start later (both in chronological and biological age) may be able to progress sooner than others.
Ages 13-14/Early puberty – ‘learn to train’
Training should focus build on fundamental movements advancing to sport specific skills. Strength training should cover movements such as squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull and carries.
As athletes progress through this and as they master the movements, the movements themselves should be progressed, bilateral to unilateral movements (squats to split squats) for instance. Movements should be kept general to develop a sound movement base to build from in future.
Sets should be kept low in this stage, 1-2 sets of higher reps, 15+ in some cases. Sessions should include multiple movements can be trained to allow for repeated practice overtime.
For Females, Hypertrophy work will be as equally important as Agility, Speed and Power.
Ages 15-16/Early-Late Puberty – ‘Train to train’
Training should focus on increasing the load that the athlete is experiencing, this is where strength development starts.
Increases in biological age (through puberty) will allow the body to adapt to the new load that is being introduced.
2-3 sets of 8-12 reps in movements that have been mastered in the stage prior and that have been determined to be key in the athletes chosen sport
Hypertrophy work should be introduced for males whereas for females it should already be a key focus within their training.
Ages 17-18+/Late Puberty-Early Adulthood – ‘Train to Compete’
During this later stage, training intensity should be the key focus. The athlete will likely be competing to play at the best level they can do and sometimes transitioning levels, for example training and competing for a professional contract when leaving a football academy.
The athlete is likely coming to the end of puberty (there still can be some growth changes past this point, however maybe not as pronounced) and will be able to adapt to the increased stimuli.
3-4 sets of lower reps (4-6) at higher loads. At this point you may be wanting to work from one rep maximum percentages.
Strength and Power are the key physical qualities will be trained in this stage for both males and females.
If you’re looking for support as a coach/ parent of a youth athlete to help them to reach their potential, we have options from youth development memberships to 1-1 coaching. Contact us here for more information. Don’t forget to check out our instagram at FX Performance Club.
Michael Dickinson MSc, CSCS
Strength and Conditioning Coach, FX Performance