Building Youth Weight Training Programs by Starting Young

Starting Young: Building Youth Athletic Programs in the Weight Room


By Shane Nelson, MSS, CSCS

People ask me all the time when is the best time to focus on building youth weight training programs. My answer is always to start young.

It is no secret that successful high school athletic programs begin with great feeder systems. Show me a prolific high school team that competes for state championships year in and year out, and I’ll show you one that has built their program from the ground up. This begins at the youth level with coaches conveying the philosophy of the varsity coaching staff and culminates with these young athletes ‘buying into” and believing in the program. Whether it is Pop Warner football, swim clubs, or youth basketball programs, it is no coincidence that the best of these (and I define “best” here as those working for a common goal and developing everyone—not just wins and losses) often breeds tremendous success as these kids get into high school.

This is an approach I have carried over into the weight room as the strength coach at Chesterton High School. Over the past several years, I have had countless athletes enter their freshman year of high school having never seen the inside of a weight room, much less having any idea what an RDL or a Pallof Press is. What I have found in these cases is that I have to spend a significant amount of time teaching these kids basic form and technique, which, in my opinion, are things that could have been taught at a much younger age. Had these athletes been taught at a young age by qualified instructors or coaches the lifts that they would be expected to perform when they enter CHS, they would be able to “hit the ground running” upon their arrival. Therefore, not long ago, I decided to be the guy who would prepare our younger athletes for life inside the weight room.

To that end, I have started running strength and conditioning camps at our high school for students in grades 5-8 with the focus of teaching the young athletes proper form and technique on every lift they may have to perform when they get to high school. Typically, these camps run for 8-12 weeks, and participants are taught the most basic progressions. At the beginning of the camp, participants go through a quick assessment in order to identify any muscular weaknesses or imbalances that need to be addressed.

Building youth weight training programs by starting young

Every session begins with both a general and dynamic warm-up. In future camps, we will implement foam rolling and corrective exercise as part of this period, as well. After the warm-up, the athletes go into the weight room to complete their prescribed workout. Athletes perform bodyweight-only exercises until they are able to complete EVERY rep with perfect form. Only then will they be allowed to add an external load. Athletes are also taught how to properly spot every exercise that requires one. Typically, I have two or three other varsity coaches assisting me with the camp to ensure that participants are executing the lifts with good form and are being spotted correctly by their peers.

As a strength coach, I cannot overemphasize the importance of getting athletes into the weight room before they reach the high school level. The key is understanding that young athletes at a young age are still physically and psychologically immature, and that fact needs to be taken into consideration when designing training regimens and building youth weight training programs. In other words, make it fun!

We all know how important the weight room is to success on the field or court in 2014, so teaching young athletes how to lift SAFELY at a young age will benefit them and their high school sports programs as much as, if not more than, teaching them the motion offense in basketball or how to zone block in football. So the most direct path to building great youth athletic programs is building youth weight training programs for young athletes.

Until next time,

Shane Nelson, MSS, CSCS

5 Responses

  1. Andy says:


    I am hoping that was sarcasm.

  2. Coach Winnekens says:

    There is nothing dangerous about a child as young as 9yo learning proper lifting form and technique. Even engaging in weight training. The problem is the knowledge of the coach.
    For example the picture above of the young lady performing a clean. That is improper form. Bar is too far forward and shoulders behind the bar.
    I had a youth athlete demonstrate a power clean to me the other day and I was amazed that a “strength coach” would say it was OK.
    One of my athletes splits time between my facility and the school because the coach told him he won’t play if he doesn’t show up.
    They had him do the clean and instructed him to jump in the air when you pull. Who ever is teaching that STOP! THat is not efficient and a poor way to instruct olympic lifts. We never jump! The highest you get is as far as you can extend on your toes. Then we pull our legs up as we drop under so that we can catch the weight low.
    They also instructed him to touch his knees with his elbows. Which is a violation in competition. The “strength coach” told the athlete that he was not training for competition. Which the athlete responded “If you’re not going to teach it right then why teach it at all?”
    Parents toss their kids into countless ssports without taking into consideration that the child is not physically ready for them. One of your comments above stated growth plates. I have seen more growth plate damage in basketball, soccer, pop warner football and baseball than in strength training.
    Strength training is a positive thing for any sport or child looking to do something healthy.
    There are NO dangerous lifts! Just dangerous coaches!

  3. jason says:

    So don’t start lifting until 14? That’s old school. What do you think kids do in the midwest when they are bailing hay? What about when little kids pick up their heavy toy and move from point A to B?

    I’m not saying heavy weight training, but kids these days need to develop proper movement patterns. I teach gymnastics, and we have “enrichment” programs starting at 10 months. By the time they’re two, they can tumble, walk a 4 inch beam, have the grip strength to hang and swing on a bar, etc.


  4. Fank Lupiani says:

    Jay, I do the same with our jr. High athletes, Only difference is we have 15 lb. “O” bars and we have are kids benching from day 1.
    The lighter bars really speed up the learning process with all the lifts, including O lifts.

  5. Tracy Asbury says:

    Speaking as an elementary PE teacher–k thru 5th, proper technique with unweighted movements dont come easy for pre pubescents. So in my experiences, the youth will be performing body weight only loaded movements until puberty shows up anyway, due to kinesthetic challenges. This is not absolute, of course there are exceptions, but throughout my 35 yrs of working with youth, the technical boundry limiting external load application has held true. Let them play and develop their coordination pre-puberty prior to external loading.

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