There are a lot of misconceptions and false information spread around in regards to strength training. One of the most common false narratives that I have heard is the idea that it is not safe for pre-pubescent kids to begin strength training. The belief is that should a kid start strength training, his or her growth will be stunted. That is not true. If that were to be true, any kid who played sports or worked on a farm growing up would stop growing by the time they were ten years old. If anything, strength training should be encouraged, especially for kids who are committed to playing sports. As kids become further immersed into their respective sports, the physical demand is going to increase. At some point, they are going to need to be able to train to increase their strength and endurance. While strength is not the only thing that matters in sports, increasing strength generally correlates to better performance on the playing field, at least to some degree.
Build a Foundation
Just like anything else, there are several avenues to explore when strength training kids. However, there is a progression that should be satisfied. Young athletes who have not reached puberty are still growing and have underdeveloped central nervous systems, muscles, skeleton, ligaments and tendons. When building a program, that must be taken into consideration. It is not feasible to begin with loading up a barbell. Sure, they might get stronger, but it’ll eventually lead to an injury because their bodies will not be able to effectively recover from such an intense stimulus. The key is to build a foundation of strength and work capacity over time. In the beginning, teaching basic calisthenics is the perfect way to teach kids about proper body movement while building up the work capacity. Simple bodyweight exercises like pushups, pull ups and bodyweight squats help kids develop solid movement patterns and get stronger without having to bear a load on their bodies. Plyometric exercises like box jumps can also be used to help build strength and explosiveness. Doing simple bodyweight exercises will allow young athletes to build strength and endurance through exercises that they can recover from without the risk of being under a loaded barbell.
Progressing to Weights
After building the basic foundation of movement and strength, utilizing kettlebells and dumbbells could be added to your kid’s program to help them continue to gain strength. Using dumbbells and kettlebells also allows risk to be mitigated as they can be used in a manner that will not directly place a load on their bodies while teaching more advanced techniques. For example, once a young athlete is more advanced, bodyweight squats can be replaced with goblet squats. The athlete will hold the weight in the front rack position (in front and on their chest, just under their chin) and perform squats with the same movement pattern as their bodyweight squats. This change allows the athlete to continue to progress in strength after graduating from bodyweight squats. With that, the athlete will be able to learn the Valsalva maneuver, also known as breathing and bracing. This technique is what allows someone to lift heavy weight. Every powerlifter, strongman or olympic weightlifter knows, or should know, this technique. This maneuver translates well to young athletes. Learning the Valsalva will help build core strength and progress with their training. Generally, breathing and bracing can be and should be utilized in all explosive and strength movements, especially under loads. You will also be able to use the dumbbells and kettlebells to teach and progress box step ups, split squats, dumbbell bench press, rows, over head press and many other movements. Teaching these exercises using dumbbells help to teach the skill of each exercise while developing stabilization. This will carry over to better preparedness when learning barbell exercises later. I would also highly encourage the use of unilateral exercises like single leg RDLs to help cement healthy movement patterns and prevent injuries that can come with training and athletic performance. Unilateral exercises help address imbalances before they become an issue. They will also teach an athlete how to ground his feet into the floor to help build stability. To further aid in increasing strength and endurance, it’s hard to beat the effectiveness of prowlers and sleds. Prowlers and sleds are very effective and very safe. They allow an athlete to train with heavier weights without having to, once again, place a heavy load directly on the body. Prowlers and sleds are perfect for building explosive strength and help condition athletes in a way that is relevant to sports. Using these tools can get a young athlete pretty far in their training and preparation for athletics.
Barbell training is what most people generally think of in regards to strength training. The most efficient way to build strength is through barbell training. However, it is the most advanced form of strength training. The basic barbell movements consist of the benchpress, squat, overhead press and deadlift. While they are not particularly complicated to perform, they require a solid command of the body and do involve skill. These exercises require all the body parts to work as a system to complete them properly. At some point, every athlete will end up under a barbell. Contrary to what might be popular belief, teaching young athletes barbell exercises is not dangerous. However, it should be done under the supervision of an experienced lifter. Ideally the training would be under the supervision of a reputable strength coach, but strength coaches can be expensive, and unfortunately, not every school has a coach who truly understands training. When training a young athlete with barbell exercises, it is absolutely paramount that the focus be to work towards perfect technique. The risks for injury are greater. Under a barbell, the spine is under a direct load. This is where building that foundation pays off. Learning the movements, the Valsalva maneuver and all the other basic exercises help prepare the body for this style of training. When training a prepubescent athlete, the volume should be high and intensity low. Higher reps will help the athlete reinforce and cement good movement patterns. The lower weight reduces the load on the spine and makes sure the athlete can recover from the training. Remember, kids have underdeveloped ligaments and tendons. The lighter load helps keep them free from injury and able to recover. Patience will be the key; the increase to the athlete’s strength will come over time. There is absolutely no reason to rush and prematurely load the bar with weight. One day the athlete will reach puberty and will experience a new level of development on multiple levels. At that time, you’ll be able to start pushing their limitations. Until then, keep the focus on perfecting technique. Your young athlete will be better for it in the long run. The long run is what strength training is all about. Take the time to do the work properly. The process will pay dividends over the years. Your athlete will be better equipped and conditioned for their sport and increase their chances of success. Not only will proper strength development at a young age help increase performance on the playing field, it will help teach them at least a basic level of physical fitness and training. They will be able to apply what they learn throughout their life to live a healthy and strong life, long after their playing days are over.
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