It has become common knowledge that high school and collegiate level athletes will benefit from strength and conditioning training; utilizing resistance training as a large part of their athletic development. However, the spotlight has become increasingly focused on the prepubescent athletes and the benefits they too may see from strength and conditioning training, beginning at a young age.
An important factor to note when talking about strength training for youth athletes; age is not strictly a chronological number; there is a developmental age too and this can differ from athlete to athlete and is ultimately what really matters in this setting. All athletes develop at different rates and this makes the chronological age less relevant. There are several things achieved in strength and conditioning training with youth, specifically prepubescent athletes, including improved motor control, increased force production and strength, more efficient movement patterns, and a reduction in injury rates.
One of the main focuses when training athletes this age is their general coordination and overall body control. Teaching these young kids how to manipulate their center of gravity and improve their balance is a key method to injury prevention; the better your body control the more safely you can react to the various stimuli that occur in game play. Research shows that resistance training can increase synchronization of motor units and increase neural drive which will improve that overall coordination. Improved motor skills also lead to increased sprint speed and vertical jump performance.
Force Production & Joint Stability
This is the area that usually concerns the parents the most. When we think of strength training we think of loading up weights and pushing or pulling them around, but the fact is load bearing at this age is very minimal. There are no barbells on backs or excessive amounts of weight being moved, but light levels of resistance will do several things for the athletes including increasing ligament and tendon strength, increasing bone density, and improving overall joint stability. By utilizing lighter loads through either weighted or banded resistance, in either single limb or split stance positions athletes are forced to utilize their stabilizing muscles. Band resistance training at this age is a great option as this requires athletes to control the force in both the eccentric and concentric phases, meaning all force production has to be in a controlled manner. At EBA we also like to utilize the sleds and prowlers for force production exercises which mitigates most injury risks.
One of the most common things we see in athletes this age are movement pattern dysfunctions due to muscle imbalances. By training athletes to intentionally fire muscles they are underutilizing we can correct some of these patterns and help them become more efficient and effective athletes. The most common dysfunction seen is knee valgus upon loading (knees caving in). This pattern puts athletes at a much higher risk of knee injury as this strains the major ligaments of the knee under load and we always want to correct this when it is seen. This age is a perfect time to build baseline mechanics that they can build upon with a greater volume of strength training down the line. Instilling a technical competency and attention detail from the start will build a foundation for effective progressions down the line.
What the research says about prepubescent training
Studies show that strength and power exercises in addition to plyometric training can greatly benefit general athleticism while cognitive training aids in the sport specific skills (1). Another study cites resistance band exercise as an effective method of technique training in combination with running and jumping mechanics training for youth athletes (2). A third article, focused on in-season deficits, states that U10-12 (soccer) players experience decrements in sprint speed, change of direction ability, and lower body power despite increases in relative strength. It’s advised that these athletes continue working with an S&C specialist to develop speed, power, and change of direction throughout their sport season (3). A fourth study suggests two days a week of plyometric training for enhance sprinting, jumping, change of direction, endurance, and max dynamic strength in youth athletes (4). Lastly, the final study had a great deal of insight into the disruptions that occur to motor control and movement patterns during the adolescent growth spurt. There is a phase of this growth called the Peak Height Velocity where several asymmetries typically come to light. Excessive frontal plane motion at the ankle, decreased knee flexion during jumping, quad dominance, and poor core stability are all high risk factors. The same article states that injury prevention programs can reduce injury rates up to 40% in youth athletes (5).
The NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) which is a governing body for the most respected certifications in the industry, has a model called the Long Term Athletic Development LTAD that addresses many of these concerns amongst coaches and parents. According to the NSCA, recommended aged to begin training is 6-8 with a 1:10 coach player ratio. With an increase in sport specialization at increasingly lower ages this supplemental training becomes even more important to these athletes development. By learning to move in different planes and address the overworked musculature we can increase the longevity of these athletes single sport careers.
We all know strength training has numerous benefits such as increased cardiovascular efficiency, increased work capacity, healthier body compositions, improved flexibility, improved blood lipid profiles, and increased self esteem and confidence; by incorporating a proper strength and conditioning program into their regimen we can bring all these benefits and more to our prepubescent youth athletes.
Sources: (1) The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, NSCA, Volume 34, Issue 7. (2) The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, NSCA, Volume 34, Issue 8. (3) The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, NSCA, Volume 34, Issue 9. (4) The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, NSCA, Volume 34, Issue 10. (5) The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, NSCA, Volume 34, Issue 6.