How to Create a Strength and Conditioning Program for Youth Athletes

Structure a proper strength and conditioning program for kids ages 12-13 with this guide from STACK Expert Doug Fioranelli.

Young athletes usually have the attention span and maturity to start training around age 12 or 13. Let's take a look at how best to structure a proper strength and conditioning program for kids in that age group.

1. Do a Health History and Assessment

Don't assume that because an athlete is young, he or she has no physical issues. Mild injuries, imbalances, and even pain show up in even the youngest athletes. The sooner these issues are found, the sooner you can address and correct them.

I like to keep the assessment simple and candid so the new trainee doesn't feel nervous or overwhelmed. A simple flexibility and mobility assessment may include testing movements like hamstring and shoulder flexion and extension; performing Squats and Push-Ups; basic questions about goals, sports and positions played; right or left handed preference, pain and past injuries.

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I also like to talk to the parents to get them involved, asking many of the same questions to see whether the answers match up.

I can then draw conclusions about how to proceed with young athlete's initial training program.

2. Emphasize the importance of a proper warm-up and stretching for recovery

Let's face it: most young athletes rarely warm up or cool down properly, primarily because coaches don't emphasize it.  You can get away with ignoring a necessity until the point when you show signs of its absence. In the athletic world, immobility and tightness can lead to pain, imbalances and injury.

I always have my athletes warm up with a general foam rolling series followed by a mobility serjes. These prime the body for the training ahead while enhancing flexibility, mobility and recovery. It also creates healthy habits; the young athletes begin to associate a proper warm-up with their training.

After training, I have them run through a simple static stretching series to calm their muscles and nervous system. This helps ensure flexibility gains and aids in recovery so they are ready for their next session.

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3. Know your audience

When designing a program for young athletes, it's important to stress the basics. Mastering complete body control (mobility, stability and strength) through a full range of motion of primarily large, full-body movements should be the focal point.

There is much to be gained by performing basic bodyweight movements like Push-Ups, Squats, Lunges and Planks. They lay the foundation for success in other movements down the road.

Along with primary full-body movements, add some warm-up exercises, agility and power movements, core work and some conditioning at the end.

Most youth athletes initially see great improvements with a one- to two-day-a-week program. You don't want to overload new athletes with too much physical work, or they risk injury.

To save time, I generally like to combine two exercises that do not directly work the same muscle group. When one is working, the other is actively resting. I use sets of 3-4 and rep ranges of 8-15. I like higher repetitions initially, to allow for more practice on performing movements properly and consistently. Work back and forth between the two exercises until all sets are complete; then move on to the next block.

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Sample Program

  • Foam Rolling and Mobility Warm-Up
  • Lower-Body Warm-Up & Upper-Body Warm-Up: Two-Foot Hip Bridge & Band Pull-Apart
  • Agility & Power: Side-to-Side Hops & Medicine Ball Chest Passes
  • Double Leg Lower Body & Upper Body: Push Squats & Push-Ups
  • Single Leg & Upper-Body Pull: Step-Ups and Dumbbell Rows
  • Core Work & Conditioning: Front Plank & Jump Rope

After the workout, remember to complete a static stretching series.

I like to work the program for about four weeks so the athlete gets the proper amount of quality time learning the movements. Then I can change the exercises, based on the template, to progress the athlete appropriately.

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