by Sean Etsitty, BA, CPT
The 7th grade basketball season was the first time I noticed the weight room. I remember my teammates going early in the morning, and I was stressed out because I had no idea what to do there. I was clueless on how to get started, or what muscles were important for athletes. Biceps seemed to get everyone’s attention, and so did triceps. But how did these things grow? And how did these muscles impact my sport performance? Why wasn’t anyone worried about their legs, and what happened if I got stuck while benching?
7th grade Sean thought he was going to be an engineer at the local power plant, but here I am with an exercise science degree and a book on strength training for young athletes. Honestly, one of my biggest dreams these days is to get young Native American athletes the information they need to have a shot at playing the sport they love professionally. One integral part to setting up young Native athletes–or any athlete– for success is passing on the knowledge of how to start a successful resistance-training program.
Coaches should be aware that resistance training is paramount to sport performance, and strength training in youth is supported by the American Academy of Pediatrics, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine.
In Dr. Fleck and Dr. Kramer’s book, Strength Training For Young Athletes, two of the biggest risk factors for a young athlete starting a resistance-training program are inappropriate exercise demands and unnecessary psychological pressures from adults. Starting off on the wrong foot with an exercise program can keep the child from understanding hard work pays off, when the hard work is done smart. In order to avoid this issue, Dr. Kramer and Dr. Fleck outline 6 general guidelines you can follow when considering starting a strength and conditioning program with a young athlete.
These guidelines include:
1) Proper program design. The program should be made by a professional to accommodate and fit your child’s skill sets and needs. The child should NOT start with adult training programs. Overwhelming or underwhelming the child can feel demotivating and this can pull the child away from the sport.
2) Supervision by a knowledgeable adult. Children can and will push their boundaries, which can result in injury.
3) Advanced physical preparation to cut down on and avoid sports-related injuries. Children playing sports should not rely on their sport to get them in shape, because this can result in poor performance and injury. Athletes ages 14-16 should include sport-specific training into their strength and conditioning program.
4) Maturity from the young athlete. The athlete should have a physical performed by a physician, since there is no set limit on what age resistance-training should start. The child should understand what exercise stress is, and they should be able to physically and mentally handle this stress.
5) The ability to follow directions and perform exercises with proper form. Children with disabilities must be trained using appropriate methods and access to specialized equipment, if necessary. Gradual exercise stress leads to growth, but overwhelming exercise stress leads to injury and imbalances.
6) Realistic goals. Most young athletes will not experience significant muscle hypertrophy, but over a few months the child can significantly improve strength/power, muscular endurance, positive body composition, balanced muscles and healthy joints, increased overall body strength, and/or increased sport performance and self-confidence.
If you find your young athlete fulfills all the guidelines listed above, it is time to consider HOW to progress an athlete through a resistance-training program. Dr. Kramer and Dr. Fleck mention introducing a program too soon or giving young athletes workouts that are unrealistic can fill your child with fear, anxiety, and/or stress. If you want to set your child up for success, you should consider their guidelines on HOW to progress your child through program design.
The guidelines are broken down into 5 age brackets:
7 Years or Younger: LOW VOLUME. Program should be geared towards basic movement patterns, with little to no resistance. Proper technique and concepts of what a training session is should be the primary focus.
8-10 Years Old: SLOWLY INCREASE VOLUME. Exercise technique should still be the focal point, and a qualified trainer should slowly begin to increase the load put on the athlete while they monitor how the increased stress affects their body.
11-13 Years Old: CONTINUE TO INCREASE VOLUME. Continue to emphasize exercise technique while a trainer progressively loads onto each exercise based on their judgment and feedback. If progress is occuring, introduce more advanced and sport-specific exercises to the training program while closely monitoring form.
14-15 Years Old: INCREASE VOLUME. Continue progressing towards advanced and sport-specific exercises, and have a qualified trainer identify when to progressively overload. Praise the child for THEIR progress, and avoid comparisons to other children’s progress or your own progress and experience.
16 Years or Older: AFTER a child shows mastery of basic movement patterns and has basic level of training experience, they may start a beginner’s adult training program.
Once a child starts a resistance-exercise program it is important to continue training because “detraining” can take place. This means that all of your child’s progress can be negated by stopping exercise progression. Dr. Kramer and Dr. Fleck identify a study where children who strength-trained throughout the school year were significantly stronger than children who didn’t. But if the children did no training over the summer, all the children entered the new school year at the same baselines.
Every time a child starts or restarts a resistance-exercise program, the guidelines above should be considered. Dr. Kramer and Dr. Fleck note that a child with no previous exercise experience should be put on a program that is below his degree of understanding, and be progressed as skills/technique/understanding/strength grow. For example, if you have a 12-year old athlete who has never followed a strength and conditioning program, the top 6 guidelines should be followed AND the child should be exposed to the guidelines for age groups 8-10.
If a child loves or enjoys a sport, they will want to improve on their own. It is the job of the coach and the parent to follow the guidelines above to guide their young athletes towards successful resistance-training and progression.
About the Author
Sean Etsitty is Co-Founder of the Healthy People Project LLC, and a multi-certified fitness professional who has developed and implemented hundreds of personal training programs tailored to clientele goals. He is a graduate of the Exercise Science Exercise-specialist program at Fort Lewis College and is certified by the National Council of Strength and Fitness as a personal trainer. Sean specializes in kettlebell training and strength training for young athletes, in addition to being certified by the American Association of Diabetes Educators as a Level I Career Path Paraprofessional.