Young Athletes in the Gym
We live in an area where youth sports are very popular. From traveling baseball, soccer, basketball to city league sports and the very popular junior high and high school athletics, young athletes have many options to be active. Early specialization is becoming more common and youth strength and conditioning is becoming a trendy activity for young athletes. There are many parents that are willing to spend some money for personal trainers, speed coaches, sport specialty coaches and sports psychologists so their kid can get a step ahead. This article is about training. For kids under 15 years old, starting to work out is normal. In fact, more and more junior high and early high school students are seen at the gym working out. This is not a bad thing. What could be bad is the application of what they are doing. Too many kids still have the perception that it is about weight lifting. You have their sport specific coaches hammering "how much did you lift today" in their heads. Unfortunately this is bad coaching. Working out is mandatory for athletic kids. It will create healthier habits, reduce injury later down the road, teach them about fitness and conditioning and give them the tools to improve their coordination and performance. Between the ages of 8-15, the body is in a building and maturation phase. Most kids these ages lack coordination, movement skills, running mechanics and they seem to “flop” around like a fish out of water. I know parents are agreeing with that comment because that is the first thing they usually tell me when signing up their kid "my kid is all over the place when he/she runs". Building the right program is very important. As a coach, I am going to give the most safe and effective exercises to these ages. If all I worry about is "how much they lift" then I am not doing my job. And if you have a coach that is hammering that motto, I'd be careful. Youth strength and conditioning goes well beyond just "lifting weights". For this demographic the key is to start the foundation. The foundation must be set with bodyweight strength, flexibility, healthy nutritional habits, proper warm-ups, and safe and technical movement training in the gym.
What should kids be focusing on when they do workout?
Here are few things to think about:
1. Bodyweight strength is critical. Get this age group to become superior at bodyweight control. Even for older kids (16+) the focus should still be on mastering bodyweight control. If you can not control your own body you should not be adding external loads to the movement. Once they can start understanding their own body’s movements and strength then you can start adding light external loads. Having bodyweight strength will create a solid foundation to build on the rest of their life. Having bodyweight strength will advance an athlete's overall performance. Being able to control your own bodyweight makes you more functional and you will be able to move more freely out on the court or field. For 8-15 years old, this is such an important time to drill bodyweight movements into a routine. Once a young kid can start performing 20 perfect push-ups, and 10 perfect chin-ups then you can start adding light loads. And when I say perfect, I mean perfect! But it doesn't stop there. When you have bodyweight strength you reduce injury. Your stabilizers are strong and support your big prime movers. When you increase stability which is your ability to control movement in the presence of change, you create a better and more functional athlete.
2. Improved running mechanics. Young athletes have poor running mechanics. More and more I see kids that, plain and simple, can't run. They flop and flail all over the place. Teaching proper running mechanics can be a great way to add coordination and agility to the arsenal, all while increasing foot speed and running efficiency. These drills should be practiced before practices, before games and in training. When youth athletes improve their running, they improve their overall athleticism. Their coordination improves, their movement improves and they see tremendous enhancement in the speed and explosiveness.
3. Keep it simple. Youth athletes need the basic and simplest exercises. Getting too complicated too early means you are skipping progression steps and when you skip steps you risk injury. Focus on perfect push-ups, bodyweight squats, pull-ups, core strength and proper stretching mechanics. With young athletes you have plenty of time to progress and get better. Do not be in a rush to jump levels. Mastering the simple exercises will set them up for success later down the road.
4. Stretching is huge. I see more and more young athletes super tight and immobile. When young athletes are tight they risk chronic pain at an early age. At these ages the muscles should be stretchy and supple so we can run, jump and cut more efficiently and reduce injury. Flexibility training should be in the program at least 2-3 times a week. Focus on stretching the hamstrings, quadriceps, hip flexors, adductors, calves and glutes. And focus on good mechanics when you stretch. You should have good posture and be in good position when you stretch. Don't go to the point where you are in pain but you can feel mild discomfort.
5. If it looks cool, it probably isn’t. Too many parents will see professionals on TV working out a certain way and then want their 9-year old kid doing the same things. Go back and read #3. You must keep it simple and master the basic exercises. Repetitive jumping, lifting and crunching will lead to overuse injuries. The whole "functional training" philosophy has gotten a bit out of hand. Functional training is not standing on bosu balls doing squats or performing repetitive plyometrics for explosiveness. Functional training is a systematic, training plan with a purpose. For a youth athlete a functional training program should focus on warm-up strategies, injury prevention, running efficiency, bodyweight strength and lifestyle habit training. Just because you see it on TV, that doesn't mean it is correct.
6. Weight training is about perfect form – no exceptions. When weight training is introduced do not let technique go by the waste side. Unfortunately I can walk into many high school weight rooms right now and the weight training going on would make me cringe. There must be a period where the lifts are taught properly without any weight. Do not rush into maximal loads because this is a recipe for injury. At these young ages, learning how to lift weights correctly is fabulous. Even learning the simple olympic lifts are crucial for better development of the athlete. The focus should be on perfecting the technique of each lift. Think “technical failure”. When you no longer have perfect form the set is completed.
7. It’s about building lifestyle habits. Overall, this should be the #1 goal. A lot of kids have a dream of playing a college or professional sport but the odds are stacked against them. Teach them now how to be healthy and live healthy and they will have a healthy foundation the rest of their life.
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