Strength Training and the Young Athlete – Part II

LessonCourt Leedale-BrownBy Damon Leedale-Brown, Sports Scientist & Conditioning Specialist

Continuing on from last issue’s theme of strength training and the young athlete, let’s consider common questions including: what age to start; how much should they do and what structure should be followed; what exercises to include, etc?

What age to start?

Although there is essentially no minimum age requirement to begin strength training, children should be at a point where they have the emotional maturity to accept and follow technical instructions. In general, if a child is already involved in organized and structured sports, then they should be ready for some form of structured strength and conditioning activity. Within the U.S. it seems increasingly the case that parents are happy to put their children into heavily organized competitive sports at very young ages (frequent weekly practices, games and weekend travel teams), yet often express concern and question the need for a well- rounded athletic conditioning pro- gram. Many children who enter the world of structured and competitive sports at young ages are poorly conditioned and ill-prepared to handle the physical demands of practice and game situations, far too often leading to injury, burnout and ultimately frustration and disappointment for the young athlete.

Children who are already very active in organized sports will need to make adjustments to their schedule before introducing strength training into an already full program of physical activity. In reality, any sports development program for young children should include a major component of athletic conditioning and movement skills training but, unfortunately, this is rarely the case. Squash coaches should ensure the structure of any group training sessions/camps with young players provides a good all-round balance of general physical preparation (particularly in the areas of strength, mobility and movement), alongside the development of sport-specific skills. This can obviously present challenges for coaches who do not have the appropriate background knowledge and expertise to deliver this type of training to youngsters. In such situations, coaches should look to engage with local strength and conditioning experts to assist with sessions or refer players to them. Every squash coach working with juniors would benefit immensely from attending a course/seminar on strength training in young athletes delivered by a recognized organization (i.e. NCSA, NASM etc.).

Guidelines on Structure of Youth Strength Training Programs

It is important to remember that children are not merely miniature adults and, as such, standard adult workouts are not typically appropriate for young athletes. The following serves as a useful set of guidelines for strength training with young athletes (adapted from a 2009 position statement from the National Strength & Conditioning Association).

• Provide qualified instruction and supervision at all times.
• Ensure the exercise space is safe and free from any potential hazards.
• Start each session with a 5-10 minute dynamic warm-up focusing on movement and mobility.
• Begin with light loads (in many cases bodyweight alone is enough) and always focus on correct technique.
• Perform 1-3 sets of 8-15 repetitions on a variety of strength exercises focusing on whole body and multi-joint movements.
• Include exercises that help strengthen the abdominal and lower back region.
• Focus on symmetrical muscular development and appropriate muscular balance around joints.
•Cool-down with less intense movement drills and light stretching.
• Sensibly progress the program according to each individual’s rate of development.
• Begin strength training 2-3 times a week on non-consecutive days.
• Introduce variety in exercises and movement patterns to keep the program fresh and the body challenged.
• Coaches and parents should be supportive and encouraging to help promote and maintain interest in the young athlete.

Next month we will look at a series of exercises that provide an excellent foundation for any young squash player’s initial introduction to strength training.