S&C – Can you ever be too young?

Strength and Conditioning in youth sport is more popular than ever.  Many independent gyms operate “academy” sessions to help the future rugby, football and olympic hopefuls to reach the top of their disciplines.  Initiatives such as the Premier League’s Elite Player Performance Pathway (EPPP) has lead to increased investment in the football academy’s throughout England while Rugby’s academy system has been established for a number of years, with increased specialist support being made available i.e. S&C/Sports Science/Physio support.

Not all exercises are appropriate for young athletes
Not all exercises are appropriate for young athletes

There are many stigma’s attached to Strength and Conditioning training in youth sports.  We have all heard remarks like… “Weights training stunts growth…damages the growth plates” or “Strength training will make you injury prone”.

Is this the truth?

The most commonly reported injuries sustained in youth Strength and Conditioning training are a result of incorrect technique, attempting to lift too much weight, incorrect use of equipment and the absence of a properly qualified supervision – ALL of which are easily avoided with properly programmed and coached sessions (Faigenhaum et al., 2009). The reality is that there are many peer reviewed papers available that prove the effectiveness of S&C programs and injury reduction across a wide variety of sports from Aussie rules football to rugby. While there have been numerous position statements from leading organisations such as the ASCM, NSCA and UKSCA regarding the benefits of a well designed S&C program in aiding the development of young athletes, yet the publics perception has yet to change.  The fact remains there are many benefits in youth athletes undertaking S&C training programs (when carried out properly!).

 

Benefits of  Strength and Conditioning for youth athletes

There are various benefits to Strength and Conditioning in youth athletes, so many in-fact it is beyond the scope of the current blog to cover them all.  Firstly consider that the World Health Organisation recognises physical inactivity as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality for non-communicable diseases any additional physical activity that is undertaken will help combat the ill effects of modern living.  Appropriate strength training combined with aerobic and anaerobic training, along with a balanced diet, will lead to an increased amount of lean muscle mass which would be especially useful for young athletes in contact sports such as rugby and football.

“Significant gains can be seen as youth elites reach peak height velocity”

From a purely sporting and performance perspective pre-adolescent children show considerable potential for motor learning, therefore there is an opportunity to effectively develop skills such as squat and lunge patterns, running mechanics, deceleration and change of direction prior to the onset of puberty (Barber-Westin et al., 2006).  This should be achieved using exercises that are whole body in nature (no bicep curls…sorry) and aim to develop coordination and overall athleticism, which could also act as a protective mechanism against injury risks later in their sporting career.

kids bicepcurl

Puberty triggers the release of masses of hormones which are of massive benefit when trying to gain muscle mass and strength (if only I knew that 15 years ago).  This also results in changes to the muscular system and cardiovascular systems, mostly in the responses and changes noted to aerobic and anaerobic training stimuli.  While these qualities can be improved pre-puberty, significant gains can be seen as youth elites reach peak height velocity (period of quickest rate of growth, roughly 14 years old in boys/12 years old in girls, Naughton et al., 2000), while the mechanical loading undertaken during youth Strength and Conditioning will also positively influence the development of bones and connective tissues in the body.  Exercises such as sprinting, jumping, plyometrics as well as gym based work all have positive effects on the osteogenic processes.

What should young athletes do in S&C sessions?

Pre-puberty – At this stage of physical development the emphasis should be placed on neuromuscular training and consist of coaching the young athlete through various patterns and movements i.e. coaching a player not to perform a lunge pattern with a knee valgus.  Other movements to master at this stage of development are jumping, landing and change of direction skills.  Skill or game based activities are best for conditioning the aerobic system by manipulating the tasks, number of players or even the size of the area being used for the sessions.  Strength training should consist of exercises, both unilateral and bilateral, and loads appropriate for the age of the athlete.  Body weight exercises would be more than appropriate for this stage of development with a rep range of between 6-15 and 2-3 sets.

Puberty – Neuromuscular training at this stage should show a level of progression in comparison to the previously undertaken tasks e.g. progression from a bilateral to a unilateral exercise  or from basic balance exercise progressing to dynamic stabilisation exercises.  Conditioning exercises should be mostly interval based and consist of more games/skills orientated.  Strength training should show an increased complexity with more unilateral exercises and the introduction of Olympic lifts for appropriate individuals.

Adolescents – Neuromuscular training should consist of increased speed work, unilateral and dynamic stabilisation work.  Conditioning work should feature anaerobic based intervals and progressively more strenuous game/skill based work.  Strength training should progressively load the athlete unilaterally, bilaterally and in the olympic lifts (Gamble, P., 2009).

Summary

What’s not to like?  Starting a S&C program from a young age, provided it is supervised, structured correctly with appropriate progressions will enhance performance on the field and track while concurrently producing many lifestyle and health benefits.  A appropriate program will develop neuromuscular control and athleticism and gradually develop more specialised components of performance.  Ensuring this will help the young athlete reach their maximum potential and encourage physical activity throughout their lifetime.

Yours in Sport,

Conor

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