Youth Strength Training and Performance

Previously, the safety of strength training and its role in reducing youth athletic injuries was discussed. We now turn our attention to the role of resistance training to optimize performance in young athletes. High levels of muscular strength and power are essential for maximizing sport performance in any young athlete. Muscular strength is defined as the maximum force which can be exerted during a given movement. Power is the product of force and velocity and relates more to the speed at which strength can be expressed. Strength and power can be significantly improved through properly designed, supervised, and progressed resistance training programs for athletes of any age.

When to Start Youth Resistance Training

Children as young as 10 years-old can achieve substantial performance improvements through properly supervised and progressed resistance training programs. A 2014 study1 in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research showed young children engaged in resistance training with free weights, Olympic weight lifting with barbells, or plyometrics significantly improved vertical jump, long jump, balance, speed, agility, strength, and power. Resistance training combined with plyometrics results in superior performance gains compared to resistance training alone3. Correct performance of each exercise with proper movement patterns is always emphasized and little importance is given to the amount of weight lifted. Pre-adolescent athletes can show substantial improvements in strength and power due to neurological adaptations. Large changes in muscle mass or body composition do not occur until puberty.

Priming the Athlete to Flourish in Adolescence

Peak height velocity, or a child’s “growth spurt”, marks the point in maturation where hormones (i.e., testosterone in boys) rise exponentially and many physiological changes occur. In boys, this is the point where muscle mass spikes and young athletes begin to show large improvements in muscular strength and power. A 2016 systematic review5 in the Journal of Sports Sciences, showed boys adaptations to resistance training are greatest during and following their peak height velocity. Ideally, these athletes should have already developed the foundational movement pattern competencies during childhood. During peak height velocity, increasing the training volume and intensity often results in profound improvements in strength, power, and performance. Athletes without prior resistance training experience, or those who have not mastered fundamental movement patterns, will be at a disadvantage compared to athletes who began training earlier in childhood.

How Much Youth Strength Training is Enough

Research shows a dose-response relationship of strength training on performance in young athletes4. In order to maximize power and strength development, high school athletes should train at relatively high intensities, 2 to 4 times per week, with multiple sets per exercise, 6 to 8 repetitions per set, and with long rest periods between sets (3 to 4 minutes). High school athletes should incorporate Olympic lifts (clean, snatch) in order to maximize power development. A 2008 study2 in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research showed Olympic lifts resulted in superior improvements in vertical jump compared to training with traditional power lifts (squat, dead lift, and bench press).

Conclusion

The underlying key to success with any youth strength and conditioning program is related to supervision and progression by a qualified professional. Safety and performance outcomes can only be achieved when young athletes are coached appropriately. When implemented correctly, strength training can positively alter the trajectory of any young athlete’s athletic career or life.

References

  1. Chaouachi A, Hammami R, Kaabi S, Chamari K, Drinkwater E, Behm D. Olympic weightlifting and plyometric training with children provides similar or greater performance improvements than traditional resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2014;28(6):1483-1496.
  2. Channell B, Barfield J. Effect of Olympic and traditional resistance training on vertical jump improvement in high school boys. J Strength Cond Res. 2008;22(5):1522-1527. doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e318181a3d0.
  3. Faigenbaum AD, Mcfarland JE, Keiper FB, et al. Effects of a short-term plyometric and resistance training program on fitness performance in boys age 12 to 15 years. J Sport Sci Med. 2007;6:519-525.
  4. Lesinski M, Prieske O, Granacher U. Effects and dose – response relationships of resistance training on physical performance in youth athletes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med. 2016;50:781-795. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2015-095497.
  5. Moran J, Sandercock GR, Ramírez-Campillo R, Meylan C, Collison J, Parry DA. A meta-analysis of maturation-related variation in adolescent boy athletes’ adaptations to short-term resistance training. J Sport Sci. 2016;414:1-12. doi:10.1080/02640414.2016.1209306.