Parents and coaches are beginning to realize the benefits of training at a young age as many of the previously held beliefs that it was not safe are starting to disappear. A properly designed strength and conditioning program is not dangerous; being weak is! Strength training allows young athletes to perform their best and avoid injuries.
Keeping youth strength and conditioning simple will ensure your athletes have a fun, effective and easily understood program in place. Here are some guidelines I’ve found to be effective over the course of my career as a strength coach.
1. Make them earn it
If an athlete can’t perform a proper bodyweight Squat, I won’t give them the chance to show me a Barbell Squat. If they can’t do a Push-Up, they’re not touching the Bench Press. I’ve seen great results with progressive variations of bodyweight-only exercises with athletes in various age groups.
2. Don’t overlook the basics
Hopping, skipping, shuffling and jumping can make up the majority of a training session for younger athletes. This sounds beyond basic, but trust me, it’s essential. It’s surprising and sad how many kids can’t do these fundamental movements. Strength and conditioning at a young age, such as the 6-10-year-olds, may consist of nothing more than skipping, crawling and gaining kinesthetic awareness.
3. Realize the power of games
The Pro Agility Test and T-Test are staples in NFL combines. Both drills test an athlete’s quickness, agility and ability to change direction. Know what else does this? Dodgeball! Guess what option is more fun for an 8-year-old? Implementing games into your program will serve two purposes. First, the athletes will have fun. This is so important. If you want to build a lifelong passion for health and fitness, make it fun for the participants. Secondly, games such as dodgeball or tag help develop coordination, agility, quickness and reaction time. Having a game of dodgeball is a great warm-up or reward at the end of a training session.
4. Train kids like kids, not pros
Pro athletes are all over social media with amazing videos of their training session. They use a variety of equipment—sleds, kettlebells, battle ropes —and perform advanced exercises with relative ease. While motivating, these commercials can lead people to believe that young athletes should do the same exercises to achieve the same results. As mentioned earlier, build a foundation of strength through basic Push-Ups, Pull-Ups, Squats and Planks. If you skip the basics, you’re setting your athlete up for injury. Training volume is equally as important. The high-intensity, high-volume workouts performed by pro athletes are too much for the average person, and even more so for kids.
5. Know your audience
Youth strength training is a very broad term. The needs and abilities of a 6-year-old are very different than those of a 16-year-old. Your training program should be different as well. Children aged 6-9 should focus on fundamental movement skills. As they get older, you can incorporate training with barbells, plyometrics and other more advanced methods.
Here are a few ideas for fun, effective training sessions:
Incorporate games into your program.
- 10-minute warm-up
- 20-minute strength circuit: Push-Ups, plank variations, Squats, Lunges, Burpees, etc.
- 20 minutes of game time
- 10-minute cooldown
All of this can be accomplished with only one piece of equipment—a ball for the game. This can be appropriate for all ages. Simply adjust the strength training component to include more advanced exercises for experienced athletes.
Design an obstacle course
An obstacle course can be a fun challenge for your athletes. The course should consist of “stations” that require the athlete to perform tasks such as running, jumping, crawling, rolling and climbing. Allow the athletes to go through the course a couple of times without instruction—let them figure it out. Next, you can divide them up into teams and have time trials.
Visit the playground
Who needs a gym when you have monkey bars? Monkey bars are great for grip and upper-body strength. For your younger athletes, coordination and rhythm are also developed by learning to go from one end of the bars to the other. As your athletes get older, the playground provides you with a variety of chin-up bars, equipment to do Dips, and hanging abdominal exercises. You’re only limited by your imagination. Know what else is usually located at the playground? An open field, which is great for running, calisthenics and unstructured games.
The neuromuscular system is highly “plastic” in children aged 6-10. From an athletic perspective, this means that athletes have an optimal window to enhance their strength and neuromuscular coordination during this time. This window will close quickly if you overcomplicate things. If it’s too complicated, your athletes will become frustrated. Frustrated athletes will lose interest, and eventually, give up on your program. Complicated routines increase the likelihood of injury. Injuries get in the way of progress. Be smart, keep it simple and have fun!