Strength Training for Junior Athletes
As both a strength and conditioning coach and secondary school teacher, helping young individuals to develop and achieve through sport is a great passion of mine. A topic that is often a hotbed of discussion is strength training for junior athletes. What does this look like? What exercises should they be focusing on? Should they be lifting weights?
Endurance coaches often approach me for advice on how to develop strength amongst their younger athletes. What we hear more and more is the general concern that these juniors are suffering from niggles and injuries often seen in much older athletes.
Being immersed in the endurance community, I have noticed a big difference as the new generations of sporting stars come through the ranks. The clear difference between this generation and the generations before is the sole focus around one particular sport, often with a much higher training volume.
Through a simple and effective strength program, we can develop the strength and stability to limit the damage, prevent injury and help them develop into competent athletes.
Young athletes nowadays are commonly ‘talent spotted’ at a young age and set on a path to excellence, rather than having a more general approach whereby they participate in a wide variety of sports. The advancements in coaching, education and sporting opportunities are greater than ever, and with enthusiastic parents behind them, these young athletes are training upwards of 10-15 hours a week in their chosen disciplines.
Don’t get me wrong these opportunities are fantastic, but the problem is that their training often becomes too specific. Juggling a focused training schedule with schoolwork and weekends of racing means they are missing out on the physiological benefits of ‘play’ and team sports.
I have seen numerous young athletes who possess a certain level of ‘fragility’, as a result of training in only one plane of motion. Yes, they may be fast in the pool, on the bike or out on the track but as soon as you place these athletes in an uncertain environment, they fall apart. There is a lot to be said about the benefits their parent’s experience, growing up playing ball or team sports and developing a more robust physiology as a result.
What can we do to combat this?
We know that focus, and hard work is a strong determinant of sporting excellence – equally, we aren’t suggesting that our young athletes go about swinging recklessly from tree branches or that we get them involved in the local rugby club scrum. But there are things we can do to make sure they grow into well-rounded athletes.
This is where basic strength training can be so beneficial. Through a simple and effective strength program, we can develop the strength and stability to limit the damage, prevent injury and help them develop into competent athletes.
Keeping Mobile As We Grow
Throughout childhood, our bones are at times growing at such a rate that our muscles are put under additional stress as they try to adapt to the rapid changes. High impact activity like running can often put more stress on the muscle-bone attachment points and cause pain that is often referred to as growing pains.
This is why mobility is key. Through mobility, we are simply looking to increase the range of motion and end range strength around the hip, knee and ankle, and major joints. By doing simple and dynamic stretching, we can create a greater range of motion around our joints and surrounding muscles, lowering the chance of injury, improving form and therefore increasing our efficiency.
Commonly we see fast growth spurts in our young male athletes, who seem to shoot up in height overnight. If muscles such as the hamstrings are tight, this can often cause lower back pain and other problems. Dynamic exercises like the one below are great at encouraging some mobility into the area.
Inch Worms –
- Start by hinging at the hips, keeping your legs straight as possible reach down towards your toes, only bending your knees when you reach your stretching limit.
- Note: do not bounce in the bottom position.
- Walk your hands out into a rigid, push up position, perform a push-up (optional) then walk your hands back in towards your feet, while maintaining straight legs and come to standing.
How often have you heard of young talented athletes, who were training really well (maybe too much) and have just been diagnosed with a stress fracture? Growing bones are less mature than those of a fully-grown adult and, therefore, are more susceptible to overuse injuries. As we know, resistance training strengthens bones by increasing the bone density and thus reduces the likelihood of trauma. Great coaching is seen in the ability to achieve a balance between effective training, preventative measures and not overtraining.
The problem with a lack of variety and unpredictability in training is that we are at greater risk of becoming vulnerable in other areas. By developing the strength and structure of our athlete’s joints, we are essentially making them more durable and resilient to cope with anything that gets thrown at them, whether it be bursts of speed or the undulating ground on a cross country course.
Focus on great movement, not load
Too often when we talk about strength training, we immediately picture weightlifters, bodybuilders and power-lifters, which would understandably make any parent concerned. But the strength training that our young triathletes, runners and cyclists need to be doing is much more simple and controlled. With an emphasis on proper movement patterns and technique even a body weight routine, a few times a week can be highly beneficially in strengthening the body to prevent injury and encourage great performance.
Group sessions – incorporate it into the beginning of a run, swim or swim session. Whether you do it as a family or squad session, training together will help with motivation and accountability.
Make it fun!
Use it as a time to learn about the body. So many adults I work with aren’t even aware of some of the muscles they have simply because they have never used them. Strength training is a great opportunity to learn how your body is feeling. Is it tight? Does it feel stronger on one side to the other?
Start with body weight, perfecting the movements.
Be individual – even if athletes are the same age, they can be very different in size and strength.
Ask a professional – if you are in doubt as to what you should be doing, ask a strength training professional, guessing is just asking for trouble especially when load is added.
Strength & Performance Coach
Seeing the need for better athlete education and understanding with regards to Strength & Conditioning for the Endurance Athlete. Kriss works with a variety of athletes from Age Groupers to Professionals, developing programs that support and heighten their endurance performance. Kriss is based in Byron Bay with his wife (Professional Triathlete) Polly Hendy. He has both a local & International client base that use his Online Strength
For further details or to contact Kriss: www.khstrengthandperformance.com
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