The 3-4-5 System for Young Athletes




Young Athletes Training System

Stephen Holt has long been considered one of the fitness industry’s top personal trainers. He has been highlighted by NSCA, PTontheNet, Fitness Magazine, IDEA and Health and Fitness Source, to name a few. Additionally, Stephen has been named "Expert of the Year" by AllExperts.com and "Personal Trainer of the Year" by the American Council on Exercise.



BG: What’s your background in youth sports and athletics? Have you worked with young athletes?


SH: Hi, Brian. First, let my point out that I’m really glad to hear about your book. Far too many trainers and parents are forcing kids into programs designed by and for adult bodybuilders.


Back to your question & That depends on your definition of "young." When I started as a personal trainer over 20 years ago, I set a minimum age of 16 for clients. Later, as I took more courses and read more books and articles on training young athletes, I lowered that minimum to 14, then eventually 10 or so, depending on their mental and physical maturity.


Most of the young athletes I help are girls’ lacrosse players with the youngest being 11. (We started when she was 9).


Although I focus on lacrosse (it’s a major sport here in the Baltimore area), most of the girls are three-season athletes and also play soccer, field hockey basketball and/or tennis.


If the athlete is a little younger (9-11,12), I’ll typically train them along with one parent. It seems to keep all of us happier.


BG: There are a lot of coaches, parents and even trainers who treat young athletes as if they were "little adults". What I mean by that is they will take the training routine of a superstar athlete and use it as a guide when working with youngsters. Why, if at all, should we warn against that kind of training?


SH: I agree that, unfortunately, there are too many young athletes being forced to specialize in a single sport.


Although it may appear counterintuitive at first, it’s better for young athletes NOT to specialize in a single sport. A single sport will limit that athlete’s motor development. Diversity puts the young athlete in various positions and requires different motor patterns and different strategies of muscle and muscle fiber recruitment.


You’ll find that most successful adult athletes were well-rounded athletes when they were younger.


BG: The age old debate is "How old should an athlete be before they begin lifting weights." What’s your view on that controversial topic?


SH: For years we’ve heard the myth that weight training will stunt a young athlete’s growth, but most scientific evidence shows otherwise.


In fact, recent studies indicate that young athletes can make gains in strength and, in some cases, even muscle size (which we once thought was impossible) at any virtually any age.


What you do what to avoid, however, are structured weight training "routines" based on traditional bodybuilding for adults.


Young athletes respond better both mentally and physically to workouts that are more like play. Games using medicine balls work well, for example.


We also know that the adult heart rate charts don’t work for children and neither do the %RM vs. reps charts. It’s clear that the "rules" that we often use in training adults don’t apply to young athletes and can even be harmful.


BG: Using your ideals, could you define "functional conditioning" for us?


SH: It’s interesting that "functional" is probably the most popular buzzword in the fitness industry these days, yet most people, even trainers who claim that they’re "functional," can’t define exactly what they mean.


My definition of functional is "fortifying the way the body is designed to work based upon anatomy, movement patterns and biomechanics."


I use what I call the "3-4-5 System."


This is a little technical, but … I make sure that my clients work all three planes (sagittal, frontal, transverse), all four outer unit muscle systems (anterior oblique, posterior oblique, deep longitudinal and lateral) and all five basic motor patterns (pushing, pulling, rotation, moving your center of gravity, and working on one leg).


If you’re doing the math and think that’s a lot of exercises, it doesn’t total up to 3 x 4 x 5 = 60 different exercises. You simply select exercises that cover multiple categories.


The scientific basis is a little complicated, but the exercises are not as complicated. I explain it all in my book and through free excerpts that I publish in my "3-4-5 Fitness Newsletter." Most people pick up the system quickly and easily.


BG: If you were training a healthy ten-year-old athlete, what would a session with you look like? Length? Exercises?


SH: Oops, that’s right it my limit. Assuming we’re talking about a very mature 10-year-old …


A workout should never be a "routine." Frankly, it’s hard for me to think on a 10-year-old level for too long, so I always work with at least two people at a time – either two comparable athletes or the athlete and a parent.


Young athletes often like to compete, so after I get a feel for what each athlete is good at, I’ll get them to compete on a low level in a way that lets each athlete win about half the time.


I avoid standard barbells, dumbbells and machines and typically use medicine balls, weighted vests (< 5% bodyweight), tubing, and SideWinders (tubing that attaches to the ankles and leg movements).


We play games of tag (resisted and un-resisted) and catch with the medicine balls throwing at different angles and in different stances.


One of the most popular drills is One Leg Tug of War with tubing. The two athletes can face in any direction – as long as they stay there. I ask them to stand on one leg and have them grab a single resistance band (typically) with the opposite hand.


For about 30 seconds, they yank on the resistance band and try to get the other person off balance without losing their own balance.


It’s a lot of fun and works the almost all of the muscles in your body at the same time in addition to developing balance in precarious positions.


In the meantime, I’m getting them to strengthen their hip ab- and adductors, peroneals, anterior and posterior tibialis, and a lot of other muscles that they don’t appreciate and would never strengthen on their own with traditional bodybuilding workouts.


BG: Is there a particular criteria or path that you follow when developing young athletes over a long period of time? For example, at what age is it best to develop flexibility? Power? Coordination?


SH: Research points out the following "Sensitive Training Periods" for various biomotor abilities:


Biomotor Ability Age


Reaction Speed


Maximum Speed

Maximum Strength







Similar to adults, flexibility programs must be individualized. We have to be especially aware with young athletes that growth spurts can lead to flexibility issues.


BG: Should athletes specialize in a particular sport at a young age or participate in a number of different sports? Why?


SH: As I alluded to earlier, it’s best to do other sports in addition to your main sport. Research on cross-training proves that, ironically, you improve more in your main sport by dabbling in another sport.


Cross Training gives overworked tissues time to rest, recover and repair while it also trains other tissues and metabolic systems in ways that augment rather that detract from your main sport.


Anecdotally, reports from the former Soviet bloc trainers indicate that soccer may be the best choice for many young athletes since using the feet with dexterity is completely different from using the hands.


Likewise, soccer players chose basketball as their preferred form of cross training.


Even the American Academy of Pediatrics (my wife happens to be a pediatrician) states in an official policy statement:


Children involved in sports should be encouraged to participate in a variety of different activities and develop a wide range of skills. Young athletes who specialize in just one sport may be denied the benefits of varied activity while facing additional physical, physiologic, and psychological demands from intense training and competition.


The focus should be on expanding the athlete’s "motor vocabulary" so that they are able to respond to any athletic situation quickly, easily and safely without an undue loss of agility, coordination, balance or strength.



Learn more about the intricacies of working with young athletes and youth fitness participants



6 Responses

  1. Donovan "DFitnessguy" Owens says:

    Great interview.

    I completley agree with the word “functional” being a big buzzword that trainers are using nowadays without having the knowledge of what it really is.

    I always use the comparison to getting in and out of a car. Think about how many different movements are involved there.

    Training those movements would be functional…weird too many…but damn functional.

    Think about a child running at full speed and getting bumped by another kid and knocked of balance and having to react. That movement needs to be trained.

    Just think about all movements that happen during the course of any day, any sport and any situation and train that way.

    Off my soap box…

    Thanks for the interview Stephen and BG!

    Donovan “DFitnessguy” Owens

  2. nima says:

    It was a really cool information,thanks and keep up your great job .

  3. Russ Logisse says:

    Stephen HIT IT on the head…..functional is the KEY. GREAT POINTS !!!
    I was also wondering about his theory on rest for young athletes and what he tells parents. Here in Canada many of my young(11-16)year old hockey players have TOO much hockey(games, long seasons, tournaments, summer hockey, roller hockey, hockey camps) and not enough strentgh & conditioning and No Time to recover once you do add S&C to their current schedule. Many of these kids at the higher levels(AA & AAA) in each age group have hockey almost all year round give or take a month.

  4. I am familiar with the 3-4-5 system by Stephen Holt. Its a excellent concept that I use when planning out my personal training sessions with clients. One of thing it addresses is the “time” issue difference training personal training clients vs athletes. With so many things to do how do you fit it all in. The answer for me is 3-4-5 system which allows for me to cover all the necessary aspects of training in a 30 min session.

  5. Joanne says:

    Fantastic interview and post. And what a great concept. A variety of sports, especially using different skills is definatlely the way to go, combined with games that develop skills and movements that may not be involved in the chosen sports. For kids that are not competitive, these game based sessions also provide a way for them to gain the same skills and maybe pave the way for them to be involved later.
    I am going to visit your website right now

  6. Great article. I have one comment, however, regarding this quote: “You’ll find that most successful adult athletes were well-rounded athletes when they were younger.”
    I know of no research to support this or the cause and effect of varietal youth activity leading to success in adulthood, although it may exist. I suspect it is a belief based solely on anectodotal biased opinion. It may well be that the best adult athletes were born with superior coordination abilities that also led them to success in a variety of activities as a youngster, although it is very sensible that a variety of activities at a young age assist in developement.

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