Young athletes can benefit greatly from strength training, including improved motor control, superior coordination, better movement mechanics, decrease of injury risk, and building habits of mental focus and physical discipline.
Commonly cited problems with youth strength training usually result from poor instruction, coaching, or misuse of equipment rather than the actual training itself. There are many misconceptions surrounding youth training with regard to health and effectiveness.
Focus on maximizing enjoyment and mastery of the basic common athletic patterns—squat, press, pull, hinge, and carry.
First, let’s clear up some of common misconceptions about youth strength training.
#1: Lifting weights causes damage to growth plates and ultimately stunts growth and adult height.
- This myth has been around for a while , despite much scientific evidence that shows that not only does strength training inflict less compressive force on the joints and injury compared to other sports involving running and jumping , but that strength training can help prevent injuries to bones and growth plates . This myth is also the result of a misconception of what youth strength training really looks like, as most people think that strength training has to mean heavy lifting and straining against maximal weights. This is not at all the case, especially for youths, and training with bodyweight or light free weights can provide a great, safe, effective foundation of strength for a young beginner athlete. “The rare case reports of epiphyseal [growth] plate fractures related to strength training are attributed to misusing equipment, lifting inappropriate amounts of weight, using improper technique, or training without qualified adult supervision .”
#2: It will make youths bulky, musclebound, and slow on the field OR that the only point of strength training is to get bigger muscularly so there’s no point in doing it until puberty
- Increasing muscle size is largely dependent on testosterone, but strength is not. Until puberty, testosterone is very low so therefore, muscle size will neither be a goal nor a result for a pre-pubescent youth athlete. However, youth athletes can still definitely get stronger from strength training via neural connections. At a young age, the athlete’s brain and central nervous system are highly adaptable, so improved neuromuscular coordination and mastery of basic movement patterns can increase muscular strength rapidly . The athlete is then primed for serious growth when they reach puberty because they will have already mastered the basic lifts, improved their neuromuscular coordination, increased their strength, and laid down a great foundation for future gains .
#3: Strength training is not necessary until they’re “serious” about their sport.
- Youth strength training is highly beneficial for not only the physical benefit of greater strength via improved neuromuscular coordination, but for the mental benefits of improved focus, and mental and physical discipline.Additionally, by designing a program with the goals of enjoyment and mastery in mind, many youth athletes will take to strength training quickly and will greatly enjoy the process of getting faster and stronger and taking that to the field. Many youths want to strength train anyway, but it’s up to you to get them on the right path.
The single most important element of a youth training program is quality instruction of basic movements with dedication to mastery of those movements.
Without excellent instruction, sports training both on the field or in the weight-room can result in injury. However, with excellent instruction and coaching, young athletes can use sports training to improve their motor control and coordination, develop better movement mechanics to improve sport performance and decrease injury risk, and build lifelong habits of mental focus and physical discipline.
Motor control and coordination: it is particularly important for youths to begin with bodyweight or free weight training rather than machines and cables. By learning how to control their bodies in space, young athletes develop balance and movement patterns that will contribute greatly to later sport performance and longevity in their sport. By contrast, young athletes who rely on machines learn how to activate individual muscles in isolation, but not as a cohesive unit as is required on the field. This lack of early development of muscular coordination can set them back greatly behind their body-and-free weight training peers.
Movement mechanics: strength training builds the muscles of the quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, and calves required to correctly accelerate, decelerate, and change direction, while reinforcing the same movement patterns and joint positions used in those skills. Examples of this includes the knees tracking in line with the toes (not valgus knee position, shown at left), keeping the chest over the hips, and other fundamental athletic positions.
Mental focus and physical discipline: learning how to focus on the task at hand and push oneself physically under fatigue will directly help the athlete in their sport. Strength training also helps develop work ethic and long-term habits that will help the athlete both on the field and in other areas of life.
Okay, let’s train. What are we working on?
Strength coach Dan John helps us out by breaking movement patterns down into five easy groups, which can then be scaled down to the appropriate level. These groups are: squat, press, pull, hinge, and carry. Through mastering each of these categories, young athletes can develop a varied skill set that can help them in any sport they choose. These exercise variations can all be found in my Exercise Guide.
- Most basic: Bodyweight squat
- Next level: Goblet squat
- The most basic squat version is the bodyweight squat, with proper positioning of knees in line with the toes, a neutral spine (flat back), and stable torso with the weight balanced evenly between the heel and the forefoot. Once the athlete has mastered the bodyweight squat, they could move through the weighted squat progression of: goblet squat, back squat, front squat, and single-leg squat.
- Most basic: Pushup or Elevated Pushup
- Next level: Weighted pushups, overhead press, and/or incline bench press
- All athletes must master the push up before progressing to weighted variations. A good target for the high school male athlete is 40 pushups in a row. 10 full (not on knees) pushups for females. Stable shoulder joint (“packed” scapulae) and torso and a fluid movement between the up/down phases of the exercise are essential skills to master before moving on to the overhead press, incline bench press, flat bench press, and overhead push press.
- Most basic: Inverted bodyweight row or assisted chinup
- Next level: Chinup and weighted rows
- Pulling exercises help avoid injury by developing a balanced muscular system and building up the structural muscles of the neck and upper back. Basic pulling exercises for youth athletes include the inverted bodyweight row, chin or pull-up, and then the weighted versions of rows.
- Most basic: Dumbbell Romanian Deadlift
- Next level: Barbell Romanian Deadlift
- The hinge motion is the foundation of most movement in sports and helps develop strong back, glute, and hamstring muscles used for powerful sprinting and jumping, as well as making contact. While the hinge motion is used in other exercises such as the squat and push press, training the hinge motion specifically starts with the basic Romanian Deadlift followed by the elevated deadlift (or block pull), the regular deadlift, and the good morning.
- Most basic: Sandbag carry with ~25% bodyweight
- Next level: Dumbbell Farmers Walk
- Often neglected in training programs, carrying an object teaches the basic movement patterns of torso bracing and effective use of the legs, arms, and grip. Basic carries include the front-held sandbag carry, the farmer’s walk, and the shoulder carry. Carrying is also great for mental toughness and competition.
The second most important element of youth sports training is enjoyment.
Training youths is a fine line between sticking to the lesson plan and deviating enough to encourage enjoyment to build long-term habits. However, an effective training session also cannot consist entirely of 100% enjoyable activities. It’s about finding the balance between teaching the young athlete basic skills, getting some work in, and making sure that each session is at least somewhat enjoyable to keep them coming back for more. To increase enjoyment, set up sessions to include rewards, like an activity or exercise that they athlete enjoys. Incorporate games or challenges to the workouts. Let them pick the music. Many youths essentially have their lives programmed for them, so give them some choices when possible–I like to provide a bank of exercises that all accomplish the same goal, then let them pick exactly which one to do. If we’re doing a carry, for instance, let them pick between a sandbag carry or a farmers walk. Finally, both from a standpoint of physical health as well as mental, youth training is not the time for grueling training sessions that test the body and will. Their bodies aren’t ready for it yet and it runs the risk of decreasing enjoyment, leading to injury or burnout in the long-term.
In addition to the five basic categories above, sport training should also include an agility component to introduce some sport specific skills, teach correct movement mechanics for starting, stopping, and changing direction, and further improve on balance and muscular coordination. Examples of basic footwork drills can be found in the Footwork and Agility for Lacrosse article.
Each session is largely determined by time and available training equipment. By maximizing benefit from simple bodyweight exercises, a youth trainee doesn’t necessarily need to step foot in an actual weight-room for the first 9-12 months of their training, as long as proper instruction can be provided at home or on the field. Below is an example of what an on-field workout for an 7-13-year old athlete who has recently begun training might look like.
2-3 box drills done 5 times each or roll through the wall sprint drills. As discussed in Footwork and Agility for Lacrosse, agility drills should always be done in a non-fatigued state to maximize benefit and minimize risk of injury. We want to teach the athlete how to move quickly before having them move quickly under fatigue. Conditioning work and some light strength training can be done under fatigue once the basic movements are mastered.
No rest, straight from one exercise to the next
5 bodyweight squats
5 lunges on the left leg
5 lunges on the right leg
Carry a 20-50lb sandbag 40 yards, then repeat the whole sequence twice more.
Combining the exercises in a circuit allows for more work to be done in a shorter amount of time and allows many athletes to participate at the same time. In my experience, athletes usually enjoy circuit training more than doing one exercise at a time in the traditional gym setting. Bodyweight circuit training can only be done for so long before it is simply not enough to develop strength. While they will certainly get the athlete tired and breathing hard, circuits of 20+ reps are too aerobically taxing and not effective for gaining strength. At this point, the athlete would need to progress to weighted versions of basic exercises through the progression I outlined above.
“Any age is a good age. But there does seem to be something special about the time from about age 7 to 12. The nervous system is very plastic. The kids are very eager. It seems to be an ideal time to hard-wire strength gains and movement patterns. And if you structure a program right…it can be so much fun that it never occurs to the kids that they’re getting quote-unquote ‘strength training’ at all ”
Further reading: Sport Specialization Is Not the Answer
- Gretchen Reynolds, NY Times, “Phys Ed: The Benefits of Weight Training for Children,” 2010.
- British Journal of Sports Medicine, “Physeal injuries in children’s and youth sports,” 2006.
- American Academy of Pediatrics, “Effects of Resistance Training in Children and Adolescents,” 2010.
- Sport Health Journal, “Strength Training in Children and Adolescents,” 2009.
- Lon Kilgore, ExRx.net, “Misconceptions About Training Youth,”