Strength Training Program For Young Athletes
Strength training program design can get very complicated, but it doesn’t have to be. The bottom line is that you need to develop a well-rounded, comprehensive program that encourages hard work and progressive overload of the musculature. If those components are in place, you are well on your way to helping your athletes reap the benefits of a strength training program for young athletes. Keep in mind that “young athletes” can mean just about anyone under 18 years old. In this case, the program is mainly geared toward athletes 12-18 years old.
Strength Training for Young Athletes Component #1: Comprehensive
A strength training program for young athletes should address every major muscle group in the body: chest, upper back, shoulders, biceps, triceps, neck (for collision sports), abdominals, lower back, hips & glutes, quadriceps, hamstrings and calves. Certain sports will focus more on a particular body part or require specialized work on smaller muscle groups (i.e. baseball pitchers will train the rotator cuff extensively), but all major muscle groups should be addressed. In general, an equal amount of work should be done on each side of a joint.
A strength training program for young athletes should address every major muscle group in the body.
Deficiencies can be overcome through a strength training program, but it generally takes specialized assessment to determine which muscles are deficient, and that is beyond the scope of this article.
Strength Training for Young Athletes Component #2: Progressive
In order for any program to be effective, there must be a systematic and progressive overload of the musculature. In other words, athletes should systematically attempt to perform more work on a given exercise. For example, an athlete who can perform a maximum of 10 push-ups today should attempt to perform 11 repetitions at some point. When 11 can be performed, 12 should be attempted, and so on.
Progress can be made through any of the following: increasing the number of repetitions, increasing the amount of weight, increasing the number of sets, increasing the number of training days per week, decreasing the amount of rest time between sets, or a combination of any of these.
One of the easiest approaches is called “double progression.” To use this method, start by determining a range of repetitions you are going to use, for example 6-10 reps. If the athlete is unable to perform at least 6 reps, the weight is too heavy. If more than 10 reps can be performed, the weight is too light. During each workout, one more rep should be attempted until the top of the range (10 reps in this case) can be performed. When the top of the range is achieved, the weight will be increased at the next workout by the smallest amount possible.
Strength Training for Young Athletes Component #3: How many sets?
The number of sets used on an exercise or within a complete workout can vary greatly, but the following guidelines can be used. In most cases, 1-3 sets will be performed for each exercise and 15-20 working sets (not including warm-up sets) will be performed in the entire workout.
If fewer sets are used, each set should be performed with maximum intensity. In other words, the set should be taken to the point of momentary muscular fatigue, or no more reps can be performed. If the athletes are unable to perform with maximal intensity, it is generally a good idea to complete multiple sets of an exercise.
Strength Training for Young Athletes Component #4: How many reps?
While there is great debate of the number of repetitions that should be used in a set, it really should not be confusing. In general, it is recommended that 6-20 reps be performed on each set. While this is a large range, it offers a guideline in which to create smaller rep ranges from. It is best to choose smaller ranges such as 6-10, 8-12, 10-15, or 15-20.
As long as your program continually challenges the athlete to perform a greater amount of work, strength gains will be made. Any rep range will work. There are, however, some subtle differences between the benefits of each rep range.
Lower rep ranges (i.e. under 6 reps) will stimulate the nervous system to a greater extent, but actual tissue changes may be more limited. Very heavy weight (relative to the athlete’s strength) must be used, which can be potentially dangerous because athlete may have a tendency to use improper technique to lift the weight.
In general, it is unnecessary for any middle-school or high school athlete to use weights that cannot be lifted at least 6 times with good form. Prepubescent athletes should generally use weights that allow for at least 10 reps. This allows more repetitions with good form to solidify proficiency at the exercise.
Medium rep ranges (i.e. 6-10, 8-12, 10-15) offer the benefits of increasing strength, eliciting positive tissue changes, and allow for greater safety than very heavy weights. These rep ranges are recommended for most sets with young athletes.
Higher rep ranges (i.e. 15-20) offer the greatest results when muscular endurance is the goal. Endurance athletes may want to consider higher rep ranges. Young athletes or beginners may also consider higher rep ranges because it offers the opportunity to practice good technique. Strength will still be gained with higher rep ranges.
Strength Training for Young Athletes Component #5: How much weight?
Once a rep range is determined (for example 8-12 reps), selecting a weight is fairly easy. Have the athlete perform a set of as many reps as possible. If the athlete cannot perform at least 8 reps, the weight is too heavy and should be decreased at the next workout. If the athlete can perform more than 12 reps, the weight is too light and should be increased at the next workout.
Within 2-4 workouts, the optimal weight will be selected. This selection process gives the athletes the opportunity to practice technique and experiment with different resistances without having to go through maximal or sub-maximal testing.
Strength Training for Young Athletes Component #6: How often should you train?
Selecting the number of training sessions per week is dependent upon many outside factors such as practice time, game schedule, outside activities, facility availability, etc. Generally, there will be more time available for strength training during the off-season than during a competitive season.
The following are some guidelines for the number of training days per week during different phases of the competitive cycle, with routine ideas in parenthesis:
- Off-season: 2-4 days/week (2 or 3 total-body workouts per week T & Th, 2 upper & 2 lower body workouts/week M-T-Th-F or 3 days/week alternating upper & lower body routines M-W-F)
- Pre-season: 2-3 days/week (2 or 3 total-body workouts per week, or 3 days/week alternating upper & lower body routines M-W-F)
- In-season: 1-3 days/week (1- 3 total-body workouts per week, or 2-3 days/week alternating upper & lower body routines)
Strength Training for Young Athletes Component #7: How long should the workout take?
Each strength training session should last 20-60 minutes. There is no reason for any high school strength workout to last more than 60 minutes.
Rest between sets should last about 1-2 minutes. This allows time for a partner to complete his/her set and the next exercise to be set up.
Work large muscles first.
In general, the order of exercises should begin with the largest muscle groups and move to smaller muscle groups.
Large muscle groups include the chest, upper back, and hips & quads. Smaller muscle groups include the shoulders, arms, hamstrings, calves and abdominals. An example of the order of a total body routine would be:
- Explosive/plyometric Exercise
- Hips & Quads (squatting-type movement)
- Chest (upper body push)
- Upper back (upper body pull)
Strength Training for Young Athletes Component #8: Variation
A workout routine should be changed every 6-12 weeks to offer new stressors to the body. A change can be very small such as changing the rep range, changing the number of sets per exercise, adding a new exercise or two, or changing the order of exercises. Change can also consist of a completely new routine. Small changes are all the body needs to continually make progress so don’t feel that it is necessary to create brand new programs.
The process of changing the workout routine is called periodization. This can get very complicated, and there are entire books written on the subject. To get started on a strength training program, it is not necessary to understand the intricacies of periodization. This workout is for beginner lifters, so for now, all that is important is to modify the workout every 6-12 weeks. More advanced programming should be reserved for athletes with much more lifting experience.
Changing the routine too often does not allow the muscular tissue time to gradually adapt to the stress. If the routine is changed too quickly, it is difficult to determine whether or not the routine is working. Building strength requires a great deal of patience and persistence, so encourage athletes to be diligent.
Variety, however, can often keep athletes engaged, so it is encouraged to offer something slightly different every couple of weeks. All this means is that every 2-3 weeks, you change one or two things about the program for that day. You can increase or decrease the number of reps on an exercise, add additional sets of an exercise, add 1-2 new exercises, or give an unexpected day off. Anything to make the workout a little different for the day in an effort to keep the athletes engaged.
Strength Training for Young Athletes Component #9: Off-season vs. Pre-season vs. In-season
The time of the year is going to create more differences in your strength training program for young athletes design than just about anything else. While this can get very complicated, once again you are encouraged to keep it simple. The major differences between the programs you will design for each “season” are as follows:
- Off-season: The off-season is the best time to make strength gains because fewer physical demands are placed on the body at this time. Overall training volume will generally be increased during the off-season. This means that more days per week may be used, more sets of each exercise and more energy overall will be spent on strength than any other time of the year. In general young athletes will train 2-4 days per week and use 15-20 total working sets per workout. Aerobic and anaerobic conditioning is generally de-emphasized during the off-season to allow more energy to be spent on gaining strength or the improvement of other deficiencies. Developing speed is another common priority during the off-season.
- Pre-season: Strength training will continue through the pre-season, but the overall volume will gradually decrease as more time and energy are spent on conditioning or fitness. In general, strength training will consist of 2-3 days per week and 12-15 total sets per workout. The intensity of each set may be increased as the volume of work is decreased.
- In-season: It is absolutely imperative that strength training be continued through the competitive season. The total volume of work will be reduced, so the relative intensity can be increased. The workouts will be less frequent and shorter in duration. Athletes should strength train at least one day per week, and no more than three days. Workouts will take 20-40 minutes with a total of 10-14 working sets per workout.
The number of training days per week and volume of each workout will depend upon the competitive schedule and physical demands of the sport.
Decide what time of year it is, think about the facilities available, and consider which exercises you feel are most appropriate for you to teach and for your young athletes to perform.
Below is a partial list of exercises for each body-part. By choosing exercises from each group, you will begin to create a comprehensive, well-rounded program. Balance all sides of a joint by performing equal work on each side. For example, if you two sets of upper body pushing, you should balance it with two sets of upper body pulling. This is a basic guideline to follow when getting started with young athletes.
Quads & Hips: Pick 1-4 Exercises
- Squat, Goblet Squat or Front Squat
- Deadlift or Trap Bar Squat
- Leg Press
- Lunges DB
- 3-D Lunges
- Leg Extension
- Glute Ham Raise
- Airball Squat
- Hip Thrust/Glute Bridge
Hamstrings: Pick 1-2 Exercises
- Leg Curl
- Airball Leg Curl
- Glute-Ham Raise/Hyperextension
- Kettlebell Swing
Calves: Pick 0-1 Exercise
- Standing Calf Raise
- Seated Calf Raise
- 1-Leg Calf Raise
Upper Body Push: Pick 1-3 Exercises
- Bench Press, Incline Bench Press, Decline Bench Press
- DB Bench Press, Incline DB Bench Press, Decline DB Bench Press
- Machine Press
- Push Ups
Upper Body Pull: Pick 1-3 Exercises
- DB Row
- Cable/Machine Row
- Close Grip Pulldown
- DB Pullover
- Inverted Row
Shoulders: Pick 1-3 Exercises
- Overhead Press, Seated/Standing with DBs or Barbell
- Machine Military Press
- DB Lateral Raise/Front Raise/Bent Over Raise
- Band Pull-a-parts
- Internal Rotation External Rotation
Biceps: Pick 0-1 Exercise
- Barbell Curl
- DB Curl
- Hammer Curl
Triceps: Pick 0-1 Exercise
- Close Grip Press
- DB Overhead Extensions
Forearms/Hands: Pick 0-2 Exercises
- Wrist Curl
- Wrist Extension
- Reverse Curl
- Wrist Roller
- Farmers Walk
- Towel Chins
- Plate Pinch
Abdominals/Low Back: Pick 1-3 Exercises
- Hanging Leg Raise
- Russian Twists
- Plank Variations
- Side Planks
- Back Extension
- Ab Rockers
Neck: Pick 1-3 Exercises
- Machine or Manual Resistance Neck Flexion, Extension or Lateral Flexion
And There You Have The Building Blocks of a Strength Training Program For Young Athletes.
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About the Author
Jim Kielbaso is currently the director of the Total Performance Training Center in Wixom, Michigan where he still trains athletes every day. He went to Michigan State University for a BS in Exercise Science and became a traitor when he went to the University of Michigan for his M.S. in Kinesiology. Jim got his NSCA-CSCS back in 1995, and did the NASM Certified Personal Fitness Trainer certification back in 1993 when you actually had to go to Chicago and do the whole thing live, in-person. Jim was the Strength & Conditioning Coach at the University of Detroit Mercy from 1996-2002 and earned the distinction of NSCA Strength & Conditioning Professional of the Year for the Midwestern Collegiate Conference (now the Horizon League) in 1998. Jim was also an adjunct faculty member at UDM, teaching several courses in the Department of Sports Medicine. He also served as the State Director for the National Strength & Conditioning Association for six years, and Regional Coordinator for four years. He has written several books and contributes regularly to the IYCA.