When working with and designing a strength program for youth athletes (ages 13 and under), the goal is to keep it as simple and appropriate as possible for their needs but also to keep it fun and engaging to challenge the kids and encourage their hard work. This balance creates a successful training session, program, and relationship with the athletes.
Strength Training for Youth Athletes
Strength training is a crucial aspect of the development of a youth athlete. Although this is one of the most debatable topics in the field, an appropriate, structured strength training program has been proven to have several physical benefits. Strength training has been shown to improve bone mineral density and the development of tendon and ligament strength to help better prepare the athlete for the physical demands of sport.
Along with the physical attributes that strength training builds, the non-physical attributes are just as, if not more, important, in my opinion. The confidence a young boy or girl gains through improving their strength and achieving things that once weren’t possible cannot be measured. The key to all of these positive benefits, though, is an appropriate strength training program. The technique, progressions, and regressions of each movement must be evaluated and monitored regularly.
4-Week Strength Training Program for Pre-Teen Athletes
The layout below is going to be an example of a four-week strength training program for athletes under the age of 13. There will be three full-body sessions per week, and each session will emphasize basic movement patterns such as pressing, pulling, squatting, hinging, jumping, and carrying. When designing a program, it is not always a one-size-fits-all approach, so there will be a specific movement listed for the program, and the needs of the athlete will dictate which exercise is selected. There will be multiple variations provided for each pattern. This will create flexibility and control in the program, as not all individuals are on equal levels of biological or emotional maturity.
Each session will begin with a 5- to 10-minute dynamic warm-up. When working with younger kids, you must keep the training fun and maintain their attention to have an efficient training session. A 10-minute session where the kids are 100% engaged is better than a 60-minute session where the kids could care less about what is happening. The goals of the warm-up are to elevate body and tissue temperature, heighten central nervous system activation and prepare the body physically for the demands of the session. With kids, it’s also about preparing them mentally for the session. The warm-up is a good time to establish that a session of hard work can also be fun.
- Jumping Jacks 20x
- Seal Jacks 20x
- Bodyweight Squats 10x
- Bodyweight Lunges 10x each leg.
- Bodyweight Squat Jumps 10x
- Bodyweight Split Jumps 5x each leg.
- Push-Ups 10x
- Prone Y’s & T’s 10x each.
- Lying Scorpion 10x each leg.
- Lying Iron Cross 10x each leg.
- Roll Over to V 10x
Movements such as crawling and gymnastics-based movements such as cartwheels and rolls can be great additions. Adding these movements will introduce skills the kids have more than likely never been exposed to—and the kids will absolutely love them. These movements increase the relative strength and will also improve kids’ balance and other proprioceptive abilities. Proceed with caution as safety should be a top priority. Yes, these movements are fun, but help the kids understand each movement serves a purpose.
Games also can be implemented into the warm-up. They are a good ice-breaker and can get the kids engaged with working with one another. Examples include dodgeball and tag variations. These games will satisfy the warm-up’s goals and will be very fun for the kids.
1A) Squat Variation 3-4×5-10
Examples Include Bodyweight Squat, Bodyweight Box Squat, Dumbbell Goblet Squat, and Dumbbell Goblet Box Squat.
1B) Bodyweight Trunk Isometric Hold Variation 3-4×20 seconds
Examples include Front Elbow Plank, Push-Up Plank, and Reverse Plank.
1C) Upper Back Variation 3-4×8-12
Examples include Band Tears, Band Face-Pull, Prone Y’s.
2A) Jump Variation 3-4×5
Examples include Box Jump, Broad Jump, Hurdle Jump.
2B) Posterior Chain Isometric Hold Variation 3-4x 20 seconds
Examples include Reverse Hyper Iso Hold, Glute Bridge Iso Hold.
3A) Posterior Chain Variation 3-4×5-10
Examples include Bodyweight or Dumbbell Step-Up, Band Pull-Through.
3B) Pull Isometric Hold Variation 3-4x 20 seconds
Examples include Inverted Row Isometric Hold, Band Row Isometric Hold.
1A) Press Variation 3-4×5-10
Examples Include Push-Ups, Dumbbell Floor Press, Standing Band Chest Press.
1B) Band Trunk Isometric Hold Variation 3-4x 20 seconds
Examples include Band Pallof Hold, Partner Pallof Holds.
1C) Posterior Chain Variation 3-4×8-12
Examples include Seated Band Leg Curl, Physioball Leg Curl.
2A) Pull Variation 3-4×5-10
Examples include Bodyweight Inverted Row, Sled Row, Band Row.
2B) Press Isometric Hold Variation 3-4x 20 seconds
Examples include Push-Up Plank, Elevated Push-Up Plank, Band Chest Press Hold, Single-Arm Band Chest Press Hold.
3A) Upper Accessory 3-4×8-10
Examples include Band Tricep Pressdown, Curls, Standing Band Reverse Fly.
3B) Hip Isometric Hold 3-4×20 seconds
Examples include Band Hip Flexor Hold, Kneeling Hip Extension Hold, Seated Abduction/Adduction Holds.
1A) Hinge Variation 3-4×5-10
Examples include Dumbbell Sumo Deadlift, Band RDL, Dumbbell RDL.
1B) Carry Variation 3-4×20-40 yards
Examples include Dumbbell Farmer’s Walk, Single-Arm Dumbbell Farmer’s Walk, Overhead Carry.
1C) Upper Back Isometric Hold 3-4×20 seconds
Examples include Prone Y,T,W, Holds, Band Face-Pull Hold.
2A) Jump/Throw Variation 3-4×5
Examples include seated Box Jump, Lateral Bounds, Medicine Ball Throws.
2B) Press/Pull Variation 3-4×5-10 *
Examples include any of the previous movements listed in category.
3A) Posterior Chain Variation 3-4×8-12
Examples include Reverse Hyper, Lateral Lunges, Sled Drags.
3B) Press/Pull Isometric Hold *
Examples include any of the previous movements listed in category.
* – If a press variation was chosen for 2B.) then perform a pulling isometric hold for 3B.)
* – If a pull variation was chosen for 2B.) then perform a pressing isometric hold for 3B.)
You can see the above program has a simple structure. Youth athletes need to learn and develop these big compound movements. Treat strength as a skill to them and always begin with the most basic variation and ensure complete mastery of the movement before progressing.
Notice that a majority of the big compound movements are set at 5-10 repetitions. This range is set because if you have a new or younger athlete, it’s best to keep the repetitions lower, closer to 5. This is done to ensure technical proficiency for the movement. The repetitions are limited, so we have to ensure the five reps are held to a high standard. Also, the risk of fatigue leading to the breakdown of form is also limited.
Once that athlete has shown they can easily handle the sets of 5, we can progress them to the higher rep ranges. For some athletes, that may only take a week or two; some may need more time.
Do not rush the progressions of youth athletes. This is the perfect time to go slow and steady and develop this skill set, so if they do choose to continue on with high school or even college sports, they have a solid base set.
Moving forward with the program, you can adjust or modify things based off of your resources and what you feel is appropriate for your athletes. Consistency is key, and I recommend sticking to whatever movement you initially selected, at least for the 4-week period.
The athletes will need time to keep practicing and working to progress the movement. If you continually switch movements and structure, the athletes won’t have time to learn the pattern and reap the exercise’s benefits to the fullest. The other training variables may be adjusted, but the movement pattern itself should remain the same.
When progressing the movements, less is more. Rarely is an increase in weight the best possible answer. Manipulation of other training variables, such as time under tension, alterations to the tempo, or total volume in terms of sets and repetitions, is a smarter and more manageable approach to challenging the kids.
Another answer could be adding increased variety to a movement. Challenging the kids occasionally to competitions, such as who can hold an Inverted Row the longest or who can perform the most Push-Ups with proper form, can really ignite a session and help break up the monotony. Kids love to be challenged, and doing so in a healthy group environment can lead to tremendous results.
Another large factor of the program is the use of various isometric pauses. This has been touched on in previous articles and lays out the importance of isometric strength for youth athletes. Demonstrating control is a key factor in their beginning strength training program, and we will accomplish this through isometric holds from different positions and angles. These isometric holds can be relatively short times to ensure boredom doesn’t overcome the group, but it can be a very effective, challenging 20 seconds if done properly with appropriate resistance and making sure that the athlete is actually engaged in the movement. Physically showing the athlete where to squeeze and what to engage is the best coaching cue you can offer.
Training with youth athletes, although challenging at times, can be one of the most rewarding experiences to have as a coach. You essentially have a blank slate, and you can work with and educate these young kids to understand the benefits and value of a structured strength training plan. You are their first introduction into this physical culture, and your interactions with them can have a lifelong effect.
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