REPOST: Strength Training For Young Athletes

I enjoy the repeat questions because it means more often than not, people's mode of thinking is changing and they are starting to ask the right questions. I do however, need to do a better job in the FAQ linking to many of the topics that keep coming up.

I received a question from a CFFB certified high school football coach and thought it would be a great chance to repost my write-up on strength training young athletes.

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John,

What is your opinion on doing Crossfit Football with young athletes, 7-12 years old.  I have some parents that I work out with asking about doing a CFFB type camp for their kids.  Is lifting weight at a young age a good idea?  Is it better to just work with body weight movements and really focus on the speed and agility?

Strength Training For Young Athletes

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Lets take a look at how kids unfold. As children grow in size and develop muscle mass, they also develop increased strength. These strength improvements are independent of any training stimulus. Children will grow bigger and stronger until full maturity. Boys will naturally continue to get stronger as girls will begin to plateau. This comes from a flood of testosterone that takes place during puberty.

We know one way to increase strength is to increase the diameter of a muscle. Theoretically, a larger muscle will be able to support more weight. Another way to increase strength is through training the central nervous system. These strength improvements are independent of training. Children will grow bigger and stronger until reaching full maturity. Boys and girls diverge as they hit puberty when high levels of testosterone flood the male system and account for extra upper-body bone growth and muscular hypertrophy.

Natural strength development comes in two forms: increased muscle mass and maturing of the nervous system. Since we concluded that a bigger muscle can support more weight, breaking down the muscle and forcing the muscle to adapt to the new stimulus will cause the muscle to grow. Maturing of the nervous system comes in the form of major changes occurring throughout childhood is the myelination of the nerve fibres. Myelination, for those you that have not had the pleasure of hearing Raphael Ruiz speak, is the ‘insulation’ of the fibres to allow faster conductivity of the electrical impulse. Full myelination happens in adolescence, generally taking 10 or 12 years before even a general development is complete.

“Not all the natural development of strength is due to gains in muscle bulk. Strength also improves because of maturation of the neural systems. One of the major changes that occurs throughout childhood is the myelination of the nerve fibres. Myelination, in lay terms, is the ‘insulation’ of the fibres to allow faster conductivity of the electrical impulse. Full myelination is completed in adolescence, and so until then coordination and reactions will be limited. There is some evidence to suggest that muscular recruitment also improves with age; adults are able to recruit more motor units when performing maximum efforts, compared to children. In addition, the coordination of synergistic and antagonistic muscles develops with age.”

Since we know that puberty and age will increase strength and size, the question becomes, can make a more dramatic effect with strength training at a young age? Then we get into a bigger can of worms with…at what age should you start strength training? What constitutes “strength” training and more importantly what should that training look like?

I was pointed to an interesting article called “Strength Training by Children and Adolescents” published in Pediatrics. The article states, “In addition to the obvious goal of getting stronger, strength-training programs may be undertaken to try to improve sports performance and prevent injuries, rehabilitate injuries, and/or enhance long-term health.”

“Similar to other physical activity, strength training has been shown to have a beneficial effect on several measurable health indices, such as cardiovascular fitness, body composition, bone mineral density, blood lipid profiles, and mental health.”

“Multiple studies have shown that strength training, with proper technique and strict supervision, can increased strength in preadolescents and adolescents…In preadolescents, proper resistance training can enhance strength without concomitant muscle hypertrophy. Such gains in strength can be attributed to a neurologic mechanism whereby training increases the number of motor neurons that are ‘recruited’ to fire with each muscle contraction. This mechanism accounts for the increase in strength in populations with low androgen concentrations, including female individuals and preadolescent boys. In contrast, strength training augments the muscle growth that normally occurs with puberty in boys and girls by actual muscle hypertrophy.”

Most importantly, “Appropriate strength-training programs have no apparent adverse effect on linear growth, growth plates, or the cardiovascular system.”

Bulgaria's Kostova competes in the women's 53 kg weightlifting final A competition at the European Weightlifting Championships in Minsk
I have few thoughts concerning adolescents and strength training. A few months ago I got a call from a friend who was on location in Bulgaria filming the Conan the Barbarian remake. For those of you who are MMA fans, will know the name Bob Sapp. He had gone to a local junior school for an appearance and was blown away by what he saw. The kids were training in a large gymnasium with a 400-meter track and kettlebells. Many were Olympic weightlifting and practicing gymnastics. He asked me if CrossFit had made its way to Bulgaria as the training he saw looked like many of the CF videos he had seen on YouTube. I informed him…GPP training was first theorized by the Russians 50 years ago and the workouts he saw were the practical application of a general physical fitness program implemented during the cold war.

On a separate occasion, I was relayed some information by a friend who had trained with Angel Spassov. Just for some reference, Angel spent 25 years as Professor of Strength & Conditioning at the Bulgarian National Sports Academy in Sofia, Bulgaria. Angel had told me friend they used the vertical jump as way to assess adolescents that had athletic potential. The ability to generate force at young age (displayed by a vertical jump), before strength training had entered the equation, was a solid way to assess the most genetically gifted.  Angel was credited with saying, “Who wants to be normal? Who wants normal results? We want to be exceptional. Exceptions confirm what is not normal”.

Another bit of information coming out of the eastern bloc of old, pertains to a study involving prepubescent kids. One group was exposed to strength training before puberty and others were not. Then at the age of 13-14 all the subjects were put into a general strength-training program. On average, the group that had been exposed to strength training gained muscle and strength at a greater rate than the non-exposed group. They theorized there was a “priming of the pump” effect within the muscles and nervous system in the kids that had been exposed to physical training. The gains can be attributed to the hormones released during puberty; the body is flooded with testosterone and those kids that had the “priming of the pump” effect made greater physical advances, as their body was more able to utilize/maximize the hormone release.

So now this begs the questions…what should the training look like in pre-puberty?

In the prepubescent stage boys and girls have similar strength, and at this age children are working on developing their neuromuscular systems. Strength training for kids should consist of skills, coordination, stability, movement, agility, kinesthetic awareness, flexibility and balance. This should include big muscle groups the utilize body weight movements and free weights with light manageable loads. Things like Olympic weightlifting, gymnastics and plyometric movements. If these exercises and movement patterns are taught at a young the athlete will have a greater advantage in technique as they progress in age and strength. On a side note, strength training in youngsters has been shown to promote increased bone mineral density. The gymnastics movements teach strength in the trunk, shoulders and limbs that is not found anywhere else. Plyometric movements have great carry over to speed, aid in the Olympic movements and vice versa.

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How do things change once testosterone enters the equation?

We have already established that boys will benefit from the rush of testosterone and strength training will result in acceleration of strength and hypertrophy. The gains and progress that can be made in size and strength at this age are like no other. Taking the basic novice program in Starting Strength, and utilized in CrossFit Football, will result in gains that will create a foundation of strength and muscle that will last a lifetime. Since the young male athlete has already laid a solid foundation of skills and movements in pre-pubescent training, he can progress into adult like training and make great gains.

What about the girls?

Girls do not have the benefit of a massive testosterone rush to account for strength gains. As a result, girls will need to compensate for this disadvantage by prioritizing strength training from puberty going forward. If not, strength will level out and decrease over time. Girls naturally do not have the upper body strength associated with males and will need to give this extra attention in their training. If girls do not continue to train, a decrease in their maximal strength will be a limiting factor in athletic performance. However, many will argue that women lifting weights will result in bulky muscles, however, the likelihood of this happening is small. Without sufficient caloric excess and a training program specially designed to create hypertrophy, woman will not build muscles like men. Look how many skinny guys you see at the gym that can’t gain a pound of muscle to save their lives and yet their body produces testosterone. Is it safe say that a women not producing a significant amount of testosterone will not magically develop “Incredible Hulk” like muscles by doing some squats.

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When should the training shift?

“When deciding when to start and progress weight training, it is best to use biological and not chronological age as your guideline; otherwise, certain individuals may be starting too late or too early for optimum development.”

Posted in Football, Power Athlete, Talk to Me Johnnie, Training | Tagged | 14 Comments

14 Responses to REPOST: Strength Training For Young Athletes

  1. NFL

    Thanks John, as always you are incredibly inforamtive and helpful! I do remember reading your first post on this subject and the repeat is perfect timing as I have a 13 yr old coming to the garage for some training. He plays hockey in a competitive level and this will be fantastic to pass this info on to his parents.

  2. Ted

    As a father of 3 young boys I appreciate this article. I have always gone with the theory that gym work with younger boys should favor what active boys would be doing anyway. Is picking up a heavy rock, climbing a tree, or jumping a wide creek nothing more than early stages of training? To sum it up, thank you for a great article.

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  4. Gray

    Thanks for a great article.

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  7. Matt

    You have to be very careful with recommending stuff like this for younger athletes. I agree that overall training is good. But explosive movements have to be checked by someone VERY well versed, and should not be trained at the same weight levels. The problem is growth plates are open, soft and malleable and have been separated with very heavy weights. A young athlete would never recover and the cost/benefit is too high in my opinion. Calisthenics. Plyometrics. Lighter weight lifting. Stress form and no heavy weights.

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  9. Matt – Did you read the write up? I am not sure you did as I felt I dispelled your mode of thinking. And if you know much about plyometrics, the rule of thumb for starting athletes in a plyo program is a 2 x body weight back squat. Calisthenics? What is USA in the 1950’s?

  10. Matt

    John,

    I think you addressed the issue somewhat; but not directly. I would humbly posit that this might not be the best idea if you’re giving advice to a highschool coach who may or may not have a great understanding of physiology and growth. I know you got a lot of your information from American Academy of Pediatrics recommendations but I feel like you shied away from some of the concerns that were reported.

    “most strength-training machines and gymnasium equipment are designed for adult sizes and have weight increments that are too large for young children”

    “Explosive and rapid lifting of weights during routine strength training is not recommended, because safe technique may be difficult to maintain and body tissues maybe stressed too abruptly” (they don’t go directly into it, but literature research will show they are alluding to growth plate tears).

    I REALLY enjoy your website; here and on football. I would agree your idea that strength training for young athletes is good; is correct. But in the wrong hands the idea could cause serious problems. I just think that letting people with MUCH less understanding of form, function, goals etc. believe that they are doing the right thing without fairly large cautions and guidelines is maybe not the best idea. Especially in an open forum where you don’t particularly know your complete audience.

    Again, thanks SO much for all that you put out for little to no money. I find it a great resource. All the best.

    Matt

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