Now there's a question I get asked often.
The myth that strength training isn’t safe for young athletes has been debunked by research. Studies go into neuromuscular, motor skill development and other benefits. (You can read more about these topics I've covered in other blogs HERE.) However, when I answer the parent's question with “Now”, the follow-up question is, "How should they train?"
For starters, I consider the style of training that I’ve coached from the beginning as traditional strength and conditioning. My preferred term was athletic development. I even called my first gym the Athletic Development Center.
As I evolved over the years, I developed what I call Modern Old School Training (the M.O.S.T). I have always taken the old school training methodologies and techniques and modernized them. Yet, I still consider it fundamental, foundational, functional training. There can be adaptations for sports performance depending on the sport.
Another thing I believe in is culture. I create a culture where athletes know they'll work hard, yet also have fun. Having a good sense of humor and being able to laugh while you work is important.
The pandemic drove everybody online for training programs. More businesses and entrepreneurs than ever are working on branding their own style and finding their niche for the market.
However, something designed for adults who are recreational weekend warriors isn’t necessarily for a youth athlete training for a competitive sport. Anybody can make you sweat, but can they make you better?
Whether it’s something designed for military, first responders or women’s boot camps, you have to ask the question, “What are they training for?”
Instead of listing training styles or brands, I want to get into three main features found in different styles:
Some programs out there are all about high intensity. I’m not talking about screaming while blasting rock music to get pumped before a heavy set. Intensity is often a misunderstood term.
The formula is work divided by time, or how fast you complete work. For example, running 400 meters in two minutes is not nearly as intense as running 400 meters in one minute. Adding more load into a shorter time frame significantly increases intensity. Doing a regular workout faster also increases intensity.
The faster you lift, the more reps you can perform, and the more volume you can achieve.
Your one-rep max of something is 100 pounds, then:
→50 pounds is relatively light. HOWEVER
→if you do 50 reps with 50 pounds,
→you’ve lifted 2,500 pounds
→in a short span of time. So, even if you’re only doing your body weight, 100 reps of your body weight is high intensity.
Workouts designed to be fast AND heavy for higher intensity, aren’t best for kids. Youth cannot do as high of intensity as mature adults. I’ll get into a term called rhabdomyolysis in a minute.
Nominal resistance training can strengthen the bones of elementary school kids that are prepubescent. Their bodies will respond to stress differently than high school athletes who are past puberty and can handle more intense physical activity. The age group matters.
Kids certainly need to train with body control and at a proper tempo. They definitely don’t need to race, especially if they’re doing Olympic lifts. Box jumps and other plyometric exercises don’t need to be done recklessly, either. The risk of injury increases when an athlete is not focusing on good technique. One misstep and they’re in a walking boot or a sling.
Nobody invented the push up or the pull up, and nobody invented the 100-meter sprint.
There’s nothing wrong with optimizing body weight. As a matter of fact, kids need to master body weight movement. Calisthenics are also a great low budget-no budget option. However, not all body weight movements translate to athletic performance. I’ve never wondered why I don’t do more handstand walks with my clients.
Maybe the most significant issue you’ll see with training programs that aren’t designed for youth athletes is the omission of pure speed training. Again, nothing wrong with focusing on general cardio when you’re retired. However, if there is no emphasis on change of direction, agility, acceleration or improving top end speed, the program doesn’t cater to athletic performance.
Athletes need to be coached on speed. Those movements need to be both linear and lateral, straight ahead or shuttling.
One thing that makes me laugh is when a coach or trainer describes the movements they do as functional. Yes, I personally have never practiced non-functional training. I certainly hope you’re not practicing dysfunctional training. If your program adds gymnastic movements, it might make you question what functional really means.
As for incorporating Olympic lifts and power lifts, this will always be essential. Some styles don’t utilize these lifts because of resources. Young athletes need to get proficient with them, though. If they go to the next level, they better know how to move a bar.
It also matters how you’re doing them. I coach Olympic lift reps as individual sets. In other words, a set of five cleans could take over a minute with proper set up and breathing. With some programs, that set could be completed in 15 seconds.
Some styles are about efficiency. Timed workouts fit with the nature of business professionals needing to hit it and quit it. However, this leads to a culture of “racing” workouts. In other words, the workout becomes the competition; fitness becomes the sport.
Also, some workouts may only feature limited movements. If using compound movements, even two exercises superset together can achieve total body work, but there is a place for isolation and single-joint movements for youth development.
Variation with different modalities comes in two forms.
1. Different workout formats where time is the main factor.
•EMOM (Every Minute on the Minute)
•Rounds for Time
•Tabata Style (15 seconds work, 30 seconds rest)
•Arbitrary Rep Schemes (x amount of rounds)
2. Types of equipment.
Beyond barbells and dumbbells, different styles can utilize:
•battle ropes (aka conditioning ropes)
Some modalities aren’t scalable. The more you modify it, the more you’re changing the style. When you scale down a rope climb, muscle up, or hand-stand walk, you’re essentially modifying it to, you guessed it, traditional training. Those movements also have greater risks. Kipping can tear a labrum just like that. Kids need help with injury prevention.
So, while scaling is important for levels and progression, when you’re making it FOR kids, you’re just turning into fundamental, foundational, functional training. Where have I heard that before?
Another important thing for parents to understand is that some adult training styles can have serious consequences for adults. To be clear, it may be rare, but it’s real. That’s why it would be even more dangerous with kids. Kids aren’t mini adults. Kids are kids.
I had a former athlete that transitioned from a successful collegiate basketball career to training high intensity as an adult. He had a workout where the following day, something in his muscles didn’t feel right. A day later, it got worse so he went to the doctor and was diagnosed with rhabdomyolysis. The doctor told him if he had waited an extra day, he could have experienced kidney failure.
While adults have the freedom to push their boundaries, youth athletes can’t be pushed to the point of rhabdo, no matter what waiver they signed. Safety measures would look like:
•not loading eccentric movements
•removing exercises such as jumping pull-ups or full range GHD sit ups
•not going too heavy on kettlebell swings or certain exercises
Yes, you want to try to make fitness fun, and like all of us coaches and parents, we want to address the problem of childhood obesity. Training can and should be enjoyable, and we can all agree that childhood obesity can and should be dealt with.
Yet when it comes to youth sports, physical literacy needs to translate to sports performance. Athletic development accomplishes this, which combines speed training and strength training.
But it still brings it back to teaching sound mechanics. Not everything needs to be high intensity.
Learning movement patterns such as how to pull from the ground as with deadlifts and knowing how to properly squat are foundational skills every athlete should have no matter the sport. Being able to hold your body weight on a bar and eventually pulling yourself up is a bar reflects on your fitness level, which can definitely translate to athleticism.
At the end of the day, kids should start training as soon as possible. If they are participating in sports, they need speed training. They need sport-specific training. They need proper progression and they need safety.
One of the goals in my training version of traditional workouts is to create longevity. That is so athletes can retire to recreational competition and/or keep fit with an adapted form of the training they did for sports. Nothing new to learn, just backing off a bit.
All things “traditional” training is all about.