Youth Sports Conditioning: Juan Carlos Santana Speaks…


Youth Sports Conditioning

Juan Carlos is the director and CEO of the Institute of Human Performance in Boca Raton Florida. His training methodologies have been successfully applied to the full spectrum of the population; youth, geriatrics, rehabilitation and elite athletes. He has authored numerous articles, books and videos, on various topics involving optimum physical performance.

We wanted to hear from him and his thoughts on youth sports conditioning


IYCA: What’s your background in youth sports conditioning and athletics? Have you trained a lot of young athletes?


JC: I’ve been a competitive athlete for over 3 decades. I started with little league when I was 7 and I’ll compete in the USA Judo Nationals (Masters Division) at 43. I competed in all of the major combative sports -from boxing to judo.


We at the Institute of Human Performance train hundreds of young athletes ranging from middle school to college every very. We also train some of the top pros.


IYCA: 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?


JC: I have had to save more kids from overzealous coaches and parents than anything else. Coaches and parents often want to live vicariously through their children, pushing them into sports and intensity levels they don’t want or not ready for -that is ALWAYS sad and disastrous.


Kids learn by discovery – this means things have to be fun and not so organized. The intensity and volume a young body can take is certainly different than what a mature body can take. Therefore, we develop a love for movement and the sport -the "athlete" naturally follows that development. Parent and coaches often want to develop great players and a love for winning and forget about athleticism and the love for training. That is like putting the horse before the carriage.


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


JC: Is not the weights that is the problem -it is the intensity. No body would have a problem letting a 2 year old play with a 2kg medicine ball (my son is 30 lbs at 14 months a regularly plays with his 2kg ball -lifting it, rolling it, etc.) – yet this baby will lift 12-15% of body weight – is that not Weight training? You bet!


What about a push-up -most women can’t do 1 – why" It’s too much weight! Is a push-up for a woman any different than for a kid -NO!


So, all exercises are weight training!! Light dumbbells are very safe for all ages -IFFFFFF – the child’s curiosity, desire and willingness to participate is there.


Now, if you are talking about a fear about touching iron (and want to call that lifting weights – then that is a psychotic issue – I’m the expert in that:):)!


IYCA: Using your ideals, could you define ‘functional conditioning’ for us?


JC: Functional training is decided by the goal -not the training. Functional training is training that has a specific function as a focus.


Bodybuilding is functional for hypertrophy, movement training is functional to enhance movement skills.


If you do hypertrophy training, will your movement improve -YES! Can you don many movements that don’t isolate muscles that will give you hypertrophy – YES!


Which training will have the greatest carryover to its intended goal? Hypertrophy for muscle size – movement training for movement skills.


Function is a spectrum – and therefore – functional training is also a spectrum.


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


JC: About 45-60 minutes


5 minutes -to explain the session
15-20 minutes -biomotor drills using a whole bunch of toys – (Agility ladders, cones, etc.)
15-20 minutes -strength training – (body weight, med balls, stability ball, dumbbells, partner exercises, etc.)
10-15 agility and conditioning games -(obstacle course rages, tag, etc.) 5 minute -affirmations and cool down stretches


Mandatory water breaks every 10-minutes if we are outside in the heat – and every 20 if we are inside in the AC.


IYCA: 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?


JC: There is no way to separate strength from flexibility from power from agility. It is your focus that changes -but all variables are addressed to some degree by mere transfer of training. For example – As you run (speed) you get stronger legs (strength and power), as you get stronger legs you can change directions faster (agility).


However -in general terms…….

1) Develop a love for movement and training (new born-middle school). NEVER PUNISH WITH EXERCISE!!!! Movement and training is a privilege. How can an athlete learn this if you use training (e.g. running) as a punishment? If you need to discipline, don’t let them participate.


2) Flexibility and agility is best addressed during the younger years -that save you training time on the back side. I like to have my training include tons of agility and flexibility (does not necessarily mean static flexibility) from 8-13.


3) From 14 on I look to begin increasing the intensity of the training and take advantage of the hormonal environment to add on some muscle – hypertrophy and strength work and increase at this stage. The athlete normally explodes physically at about 14-17 -especially the boys.


4) As strength and stability increase -more extensive power training can be attempted – usually 16-18 -depending on the degree of physiological and mental development of the youth sports conditioning for the athlete athlete.


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


JC: At a young age (4-13), the more sports the better! These are the years where athleticism is developed. The player is refined after the ingredients for play (athleticism) are in place – at about 14-20yers. Then, the elite athlete peaks in their 20’s – depending on the sport and specific athlete.



10 Responses

  1. This is a GREAT interview, Brian. Glad you dug it up for us!

  2. Josh Leeger says:

    Great interview, Brian!

  3. Ros Pause says:

    Great interview, very informative, thanks Brian.

  4. Dave Snook says:

    Thanks Brian and Carlos. This goes to the heart of youth training and how it should be presented.

  5. Michelle Hill says:

    I am so glad Juan said not to use exercise as a punishment. Growing up, I hated PE althought I liked movement and sports.It wasn’t until I got out of school and learned about fitness and the body that I freely appreciated exercise. That really addresses some of the reasons why some kids and even adults have unhealthy ideas about exercise.

  6. vince james says:

    Hello Brian, excellent article!! My belief is that we simply use the body weight of the athlete. My feeling is that we take achance of possibly causing future harm to the student athlete?? why take a chance????? I’m finding out that, 14,15 and 16 year olds are being thrown into strengeth and conditioning programs, without any athletic base, especialy fb playrs. we are seeing to many knee, elbow and shoulder injuries w/ our athletes, both boys and girls. Preperation of the student athlete(elem,jr.highlevels)is not working!! We are not focusing enough on movement in space, body weight, balance, positioning and confidence. In other words, we are not preparing our kids to receive the rigours of weight training and conditioning!!!!!!! Longterm affects?????? lets do it right and not take the chance. Thanks Brian (awesome job)

  7. Mike Skoflanc says:

    Great interview. Especially the comment about NEVER PUNISH WITH EXERCISE!!Being a Coach, I see this happenning far to often in my profession. (Neanderthal thinking going on there!!) Also would have to agrre that kids should be playing as many sports as possible and not trying to SPECIALIZE in one sport. IYCA and Brian keep up the good work. I am one of the “original 50” and hope to get my Level 2 Cetrification this summer. Can’t think of a better way to invest my time and money!!!

  8. Mike says:

    Brian, As usual great material that reflects the proper way to work with young aspiring athletes. I also agree that exercise should not be a punishment.

    Thanks again for the great information.

  9. brian, i,m a pysicians assistant for a major pediatric orthopedic group in miami. we are really starting to see kids with overuse injuries due to overzealous , poorly educated ,rogue trainers. some injuries are disasterous i.e. growth plate injuries)education is the key for anyone working with young athletes.kids are not small adults . they have special needs that nedd to be addressed.

  10. Mike Griffiths says:

    Good Interview; Brian always good hear from other peoples insight on subjects were there is so many controversy All I can tell you as I was growing up my daily choirs was as rigorous as any workout I had in school. I wrestled, played football, boxed amateur for 7 years after I got out of school. And still play a little slow pitch softball. And never ever did I have any injuries. And I believe it was because of the physical condition I was always in The proper preparation for strength training is a must. Too many people go in to it to fast and expect results right a away. And in more times then not the results they get are injuries from the weight lifting. So that being said weight lifting for young kids must be bad. Wrong: Just there parents or coaches my daughter has been doing some sort of weight training since she was 11 and participates in 5 different sports. And the difference I see is the number of kids that are getting hurt. And it is my believe is that they are not condition or strong enough or both to endure the rigorous stress they are trying to put on there bodies. P.S. She can deadlift twice her body weight and = her bench press. I know what some people might think WOW what pushy father or a parent who is living there dreams in there children’s lives. And they couldn’t be any further from the truth .The fact is I didn’t care if she played or not I just wanted her to do it right. And that’s all it took because once she started reaping the benefits from it she was on auto pilot I’m just her work out buddy and she is mine. She is now down to three sports track and field and cross country, and softball she has three state championships in two sports and placed 8th in cross country her first time out . She has her goals to win a state title before she gets out of high school and I do not believe this could be possible with out weight lifting. ( properly). P.S. She has never had any injuries.

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