Youth Strength Training Mistakes




Youth Strength Training Done Right

Should pre-adolescent kids lift weights or shouldn’t they? Will it stunt their growth or increase their likelihood of future sporting success? Is growth plate damage a real concern or merely an exaggerated issue?


This debate has raged on for years.


Hopefully, this article will help clear up some of the concerns on youth strength training.


To start, there are definitive differences between adolescent boys and adolescent girls with respect to strength and strength production. In boys, absolute muscular strength (the greatest amount of force an individual can produce) grows consistently between the ages of 7 – 19. In girls, strength gains are incurred on a consistent level until about the age of 15, when a period of stagnation occurs and strength gains plateau, and in fact begins to fall. By the end of the pubescent ages, boys are roughly 50% stronger than girls.


There are several factors to consider when programming strength training for young athletes –


Central Nervous System Maturity – The true argument with respect to children and weight lifting should not be based on the maturity (or in this case immaturity) of the child’s muscular system, but rather the advancement of the child’s CNS. Within proper application of load, volume and intensity, a child’s muscular system will not be compromised by weight training activities. However, a lack of motor control (a function of the CNS) will affect the child’s ability to perform weight-training exercises safely. It is therefore the maturity of the CNS that is the ultimate determining factor.


Cross Section Of Muscle – A larger muscle infers a greater strength potential. While hypertrophy of this sort is not hormonally possible with pre-adolescent athletes, this fact is why I advocate that early adolescent athletes train with hypertrophy-based responses in mind.


Biological Maturity – Biological age, unlike a child’s chronological age, is not actually visible. Biological age is based in large part to the “physiological development of the various organs and systems in the body” (Bompa, 2000). For example, the adequate development of bone, the efficiency of the heart and lungs to transport oxygen; these are examples of items that comprise biological age. This becomes important when determining the volume or intensity of the training program for the young athlete.


Hormonal Issues – Androgenic (muscle building) hormones are low in pre-adolescent athletes. This means that hypertrophy-based responses are all but impossible. Strength gains, however, are very possible.


Technical Issues – Providing a proper foundation of the technical merits of youth strength training is paramount when working with youngsters.


On the argument of effectiveness, adequately programmed strength training has shown considerable positive effects with regards to pre-adolescents. A study quoted by Dr. Drabik in his wonderful book, “Children & Sports Training” shows a 40% increase in strength for boys and girls (aged 10 – 11) following a nine-week strength-training program. In terms of danger or contraindication, the greatest concern lies in ligament or bone damage. Elastic, young skeletons and connective tissue can be injured if loads are excessive. That follows the mantra that with kids, loads must be kept low and proper form strictly followed.


Of interesting note is the argument regarding strength training and stunted growth. In the event of bone or growth plate damage (which is unlikely during strength training if the program is designed correctly), growth can in fact be stunted. But, if proper strength training parameters are prescribed, than the opposite is true. Muscle pull (which refers to the tension or ‘tugging’ where the muscle attaches to the bone and is incurred during muscle contraction), is a significant factor that stimulates bone thickness. More over, ‘intermittent use of submaximal resistance stimulates height growth’ (Drabik, 1996).


One keynote point that I have preached endlessly is the fact that an orthopedic assessment MUST precede any strength training prescription. Postural defects can be made worse by incorrect application of strength training and conversely improved by correct application. An assessment is a mandatory precursor to any child’s strength training program.


Here is a list of exercises to do with young athletes –
(Dr. Drabik adopts thisl ist from "Children & Sports Training")


The exercises in this list get progressively more difficult. Start younger athletes on the earlier exercises, and progress them systematically over the years:


  • Obstacle courses, rope pulling, climbing

  • Vertical strength (standing push-ups), hanging exercises

  • Bodyweight exercises and medicine ball based activities/throws

  • Horizontal strength (push-ups, pull-ups)

  • Dumbbell & barbell exercises

  • Single leg squats, deadlifts, step-ups, good mornings




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12 Responses

  1. Rob says:

    One of the things that I’ve seen that really bother me as it pertains to young athletes is coaches loading kids up with stuff they read on the internet or got at a clinic. They have them doing plyometrics and have the kids can’t even perform a simple skip in warm ups. One of the things that I have learned from Brian and Kwame is that there has to be a progression and that firm foundation should be established before trying to add load other wise all your doing is placing load on top of bad movement.

  2. Phys Ed Teacher says:

    Progressions are important. If you teach a difficult activity before you teach the easier activities first you are open to a law suit if the child get injured. You MUST teach proper progressions to be be free from any libality issues.

  3. Luke says:

    Brian your right on. My competitors have no idea of how to train youth athletes. I had a secret shopper go to another sports performance facility that is endorsed by pro athletes and collegiate coaches. My secret shopper is 9 years old and to make a long story short they said he was not “fundamentally ready” to train. He was denied. Little did they know the 9 year old was my step son. That tells me they train their youth clients like adult athletes.
    Parents and coaches are being blinded by these facilities associating themselves with pro athletes and trainers being former athletes has the way to go to train youth athletes. It frustrates me that this is happening.
    Any ideas you have to give us to reach out to the public and educate them on the truth of youth athletic development would be great!

  4. There needs to be more people trained in youth development who can bridge the gap between athlete and coach and parents. Get the course and apply the teaching s and you can make a big difference in your community one athlete at a time. Steve Edling D.C.

  5. Craig Galloway says:

    One question I would ask is what you think contributes most to the 40% strength gains in a 9 week program? My feeling is that this is related primarily to the development of the CNS learning how to recruit additional muscle fiber as well as in the sequencing and coordinated effort of muscle activation for the more functional and complex movements.
    I would like to hear your thoughts.
    Thanks. Great Post.

  6. David says:

    I like to keep things simple especially when working with youth athletes:

    One must crawl before they can walk, one must walk before they can run, one must run before they can run fast.

    Progression, progression, progression. There are to many coaches. trainers etc who are trying to put the cart before the horse. Result: Poor movement patterns and injury. Stick to the basics and keep it simple. And more importantly, keep it fun.

    Thanks, David

  7. A problem I see is that coaches talk a good game as far as not adding a lot of weight until the young athletes have perfect form with various lifts, but then they don’t practice what they preach. They say perfect form is the most improtant thing, but then they put up rankings of the kids who bench, squat, or clean the most weight. It’s just very hypocritical and confuses the athletes.

  8. Rizz says:

    I agree with Ryan in saying coaches don’t teach perfect form. I have seen coaches just show kids what to do then they leave them to do their own thing. At a High School gym I saw a kid doing rotator cuff exercises,with light weights of course and the coach told him to put that down because he wasn’t gonna get big doing those exercises…No Clue!!

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