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.
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