Common misconceptions about training for adolescents get slapped down by science.
Article written by Alexis Bennett
Misconceptions, misinformation, controversy, and a heap of misunderstanding have kept more than a few young bodies out of the weight room and away from strength training programs for the last, well, almost ever. Yet, the availability of soccer and baseball leagues, dance lessons, karate, and even gymnastics classes are never in short supply. It hasn’t been until recently, with the tidal wave of fitness guru-ism hitting the scene, that the perspective that keeps young athletes out of the gym has started to change. There’s been a growing realization that with proper programming and supervision, weight training can not only act as a mode of fitness for kids who don’t play sports, but also as an effective tool to develop better coordination, athleticism, health and, god forbid, strength in adolescents.
Concern about injury is the hot button for most parents, and rightfully so, no responsible adult wants to intentionally put their child in harm’s way. So, I get the hesitance when parents shoot skepticism toward weight training and especially strength-testing sports like power and Olympic-style lifting.
Training, with or without an implement, should always be done with an emphasis on correct movement before weight is added to the equation. This isn’t any different than progression for adults. Most responsible coaches wouldn’t let a new lifter jump under a barbell for a max effort bench press without first making sure the lifter can handle the load, and there’s no difference here. Starting with basic, bodyweight movements or using light implements (PVC pipes and aluminum barbells) will ensure that a youth athlete has the ability to complete an exercise with good form, first. For an athlete learning an Olympic lift for example, you might start with a PVC pipe, breaking the movement down into manageable parts before the entire lift is completed. Or with an exercise like the farmer carry, buckets filled with water might be a more appropriate selection than a 53-pound kettlebell due to weight and grip diameter.
The emphasis is quality over volume for young athletes. Adolescents don’t chemically react to training the same way that adults do, so shouldn’t be treated as mini adults in terms of weight selection, volume, and repetitions prescribed in a program. This is something to keep in mind when a coach, or parent, allows their kid to train. So, then how should they train?
Fewer, high quality repetitions of an exercise have been found to be most effective for complicated movements like plyometrics, kettlebell training, and most barbell movements. Low-rep schemes will ensure that efficiency, speed, and good movement patterns are maintained throughout the set. Bodyweight movements and even barbell movements like the squat, presses, and pulls can be done at higher rep-schemes. Appropriate weight is based on proper form and can be left to the discretion of a coach or informed adult. Just like adults, young athletes like to show off and push their limit, so don’t let them choose their weight if they’re unable to maintain good movement. I know, I know. We all want to lift heavy and adolescents are completely capable of moving some serious weight, but again, the focus should be on form before anything else. Otherwise, someone is likely to get hurt and then that guy will ruin it for the rest of the kids who are looking to improve and are willing to take the time to do it right. The strength will come in time regardless of the athlete’s base and simply moving in new ways will active motor neurons that’ll shoot capacity up quickly—don’t worry.
In terms of workout structure, it’s best to program complicated or larger-muscle exercises near the beginning of a session with smaller-muscle exercises to follow for the reasons already mentioned. If you start with complex movements first, the athlete will be better able to focus on sound execution and will progress more quickly.
Gains Upon Gains
Adolescent and pre-adolescent (six to 11 years old) athletes have a tough time putting on mass, plain and simple. Limited production of testosterone reduces lean muscle mass growth. But that’s no reason to bag strength training. This age group is capable of strength gains far superior to the old guys. In fact, some studies indicate that just a short eight- to 12-week program can produce a 13 to 50 percent strength increase, depending on the individual. That’s huge! And, oddly enough, hypertrophy isn’t to blame. Instead, gains come through neural adaptation. Moving and learning new lifts improves the number, coordination, and firing rate and pattern of activated motor neurons; more efficient motor neurons mean better utilization of pre-existing strength.
Improved strength, coordination, and athleticism aren’t all about enhancing a kid’s in-the-gym ego. The skills developed in the weight room should carry over into all other aspects of the adolescent’s life and activities. For youth who will play another sport in their lifetime—and it’s probably safe to assume that most fall into this category—weight training is supplementary to other sport-specific training as well as a way to prevent injury. Studies show that increases in broad jumps and explosive power are the greatest byproduct of strength training exercises. Coordination and kinesthetic awareness are two other skills that develop when adolescents undertake the task of learning weight-training movements, and especially the more complicated lifts. An athlete with better body awareness can pick sports up more quickly and display more finesse in their execution than those who struggle with spatial awareness.
Aside from performance, a well-balanced body built through strategic programming will produce an athlete who’s less susceptible to injury either due to overuse or more instantaneous damage such as, muscle sprains, strains, or tears. A strong shoulder girdle, for example, created by targeted muscle strengthening will help a baseball or volleyball player keep their arm strong and intact long into their career. A sprinter can avoid injury by developing a strong posterior chain to balance strong quadriceps. Research also indicates that strength training, combined with plyometric exercises, will prevent incidences of ACL injuries, which are devastating to an athlete’s athletic career. If longevity is the goal for an athlete, then it doesn’t pay to skimp on strength development.
The concern about stunted growth and development is something that needs due consideration when developing and implementing a youth program. It’s also one of the major apprehensions parents have when they consider whether or not their adolescent, or even pre-adolescent, is fit to train. Sub-maximal loads are recommended to reduce risk of injury, but little research has been done that indicates that strength-testing sports cause more injury to epiphyseal plates than other activities. Similar to geriatric age groups, strength training promotes bone mineralization, which improves bone density. Increased bone density lessens the likelihood of bone breaks or fractures in general, and in sport-related activities.
In regards to strength-specific sports, if athletes and coaches are sticklers for good form, then activities, such as Olympic-style weightlifting, will be no more risky than participation in other high-impact, high-torque sports like baseball and gymnastics (which even young kids participate in regularly). While the misconception that weight training causes bone damage persists, research finds quite the opposite to be true.
Keep It Fun
Even adults can get bored if there’s no variance in training. Unlike kids, adults can more often maintain a long-sighted approach to training; they show up even when they don’t want to because it means that they’re one step closer to their goal. While some adolescents may function in this space, many don’t, and must enjoy what they do or they’ll lose interest. I’m not saying throw the program out the window in favor of a completely random sequence and practice of movements, I’m suggesting that training should be fun.
First, create a positive training environment, whether that’s one-on-one between an athlete and coach, or within a team setting. Athletes should be able to laugh when it’s fun, buckle down and work when it’s not, and celebrate each and every day they put in. But, at the end of the day they still enjoy it. A good program and a skilled coach can produce some serious results in youth athletes, but if the atmosphere sucks, they won’t show up.
Be creative with this age group’s training. Go outside; lift and move odd objects around the yard, park, house, garage, and even the gym. Carry rocks, play on monkey bars, hop up and down hills, throw med balls around the parking lot, do anything that’ll keep kids interested while they progress. There will be days when an athlete shows up to train, but struggles to grind out rep after painstaking rep with a barbell in hand in the gym. So it’s best to always have a plan B. And, don’t worry if the day doesn’t go as written on paper. Remember, the more movement, the more motor neurons are firing, which means the more strength and conditioning will improve. It matters less that the movement is done on a platform, in a rack, or on a machine, than that the movement happens at all.
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