Q: Hey Joe,
First off, I thank you for all of your insight and expertise that you give to us free of charge. Your principles and training methodologies have truly made a difference in the way I train my clients.
My question is regarding speed training for youth athletes. I have just taken on a ten year old baseball player as a training client whose goals are to increase his linear speed and general power. I have him for one hour on Mondays and Wednesdays. What would you recommend in order to accomplish this goal? Are there any reservations or obstacles that need to be addressed for such a young client, such as training implements and techniques? Would you do anything different for a youth athlete as opposed to an older client? Thank you for your advise.
Thanks for the question. I feel that there is not nearly enough quality information regarding the training of young athletes. Everyone wants to know how their favorite pro athlete trains, while youth athlete development is an after-thought for most people. The fact of the matter is that the adolescent years are when the most critical “training” takes place. But, please don’t take the previous statement the wrong way. Even though the adolescent years are “critical training years”; you don’t want to be the parent or coach that has your 10-year-old kid running with parachutes attached to his back, squatting with chains or performing other advanced training techniques!
Here are some of my guidelines for training pre-pubescent kids. These guidelines are based on my own personal observations during the past 15 years in this industry. (Many people aren’t aware that the first five years of my career were spent predominantly working with kids ranging from 7-12 years old.)
Joe D’s TOP 5 Youth Training Guidelines
#1) THINK LONG-TERM
You don’t want to think of a 10-year-old kid’s training in terms of “sessions”. Never promise a parent that you will make their child “as fast as possible” or “as strong as possible” in “X” number of sessions. Youth training should not be about the ‘quick fix’. It should be about developing proper motor patterns, skills and structural integrity in order to form the foundation for long-term development. After all; would you rather have the strongest and fastest 10-year-old…or would you rather have the strongest, fastest, most powerful 17 or 18-year-old? I would rather have my child starting to “peak” during the latter part of his/her high school years. This is when sports really start to matter.
#2) DON’T SPECIALIZE TOO EARLY
Before a child reaches puberty, their nervous system/spinal cord is literally like clay – it can still be “molded” during these early years. This is a great time to develop balance, coordination, kinesthetic awareness, etc. These traits are much more difficult to “train” during later stages in your life (when your nervous system is fully developed). This is why it’s important to expose your child to a variety of activities and sports during this crucial developmental period. (Youth gymnastics, dance and martial arts are great choices to “mold” your child’s nervous system and develop high levels of motor skills and relative strength.) The more variety they are exposed to; the greater their foundation will be when they get older and want to specialize in a specific sport.
#3) Favor Lower Intensity Training
The intensity of exercise must be closely monitored during resistance and conditioning sessions for youth athletes. It should be common sense to stay away from high intensity weight training (heavy loads, low reps) when training youth athletes. “Strength training” should consist of bodyweight exercises or using a light external resistance that enables the child to perform 10-20 reps with proper technique.
Special attention should also be given to “conditioning” intensities as well. It is extremely unfortunate that every year we hear about young children who collapse on the athletic field and have “heart attacks” or other fatal conditions. Many times, these deaths are linked to hypertrophic cardiac myopathy – a condition linked to a thickened left ventricular wall. Although there are children that are genetically predisposed to this condition, it can also be caused or exacerbated when youth athletes participate in high intensity training (associated with higher heart rates) before their bodies are prepared for it.
In other words: If little Johnny shows up to the first Pee Wee football practice “out of shape”, it is the coach’s responsibility to gradually get him “in shape” (starting with lower intensities, adequate recovery, etc.) Don’t punish 10-year-old’s by having them run gassers until they puke; it may be causing way more harm than you realize!
#4) DON’T TEACH THEM TO FLY IF THEY CAN’T LAND!
Running and jumping are two activities associated with most youth sports. The “problem” with these two activities is that most parents/coaches never teach their kids proper landing or deceleration technique! You wouldn’t get on a plane if the pilot never learned how to land, would you? Then how come we let our kids run and jump around all day without teaching them the “landing”. It’s no surprise to me that over 70% of ACL injuries in youth sports are a result of non-contact injuries! (This means most kids “blow out their knee” when they land improperly from a jump or try and stop or change direction during a sprint.)
If you’re a parent or youth coach, please don’t overlook these very important aspects of running and jumping!
#5) DEVELOP RELATIVE STRENGTH
Kids are participating in competitive sports earlier than ever. They are also being injured more than ever! It’s obvious that their bodies are not able to meet the physical demands of their sport! Check out the picture below…
It still baffles me that many parents are scared to let their kids “strength train”, yet they have no problem throwing their kid on a football field or wrestling mat!
In my opinion, strength training is the most important thing a young athlete can do. The primary function of the body’s 600+ muscles is to contract to move body parts. And remember that only muscle can cause movement. The stronger the muscles and the more forceful the contractions, the faster the athlete will run, higher he will jump, further he will throw/kick, and harder he will hit. Strong, healthy muscles also act as a “suit of armour” to help support and protect the body against injury.
Unfortunately most parents associate “strength training” with powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting or professional bodybuilding – all of which are sports in and of themselves. But the truth is that “strength training” merely means performing exercises that help strengthen the muscles of the body. At the pre-pubescent level, these exercises should consist mainly of bodyweight exercises — push-up variations, chin-up variations, bodyweight squats, walking lunges, abdominal planks, etc., are all very safe/healthy choices. Light dumbells can also be incorporated in a young athlete’s training, as well as basic medicine ball throws (2 – 5lbs.); I also have no problem with light sled dragging. (I highly recommend staying away from exercises that directly load the developing spine, aka, barbell squats and overhead pressing.)
Hopefully these guidelines will help you develop an intelligent program for your youth athletes.
*Follow DeFranco’s Gym on Twitter!