Strength Training and Youth Athletics

Posted by on Feb 2, 2014 in Articles | 211 comments

Somewhere along the way youth athletics have turned into a year around activity.  I’m an implant to Maryland so the popularity of Lacrosse was lost on me until I moved here in 2006.  Actually it wasn’t until 2010 when I opened up WS&C that I fully understood just how big lacrosse was in this state.  It didn’t take long before parents of all different sports began calling or stopping in looking for a strength program for their son or daughter.  Not all of them were lacrosse players but the overwhelming majority played lacrosse in the spring even if they were looking for training for another sport.

When I get a call the conversations usually goes like this.

Me:  Westminster Strength and Conditioning, how can I help you?

Parent:  I’m looking to get my son/daughter into a strength and conditioning program.

Me:  What sport do they play?

Parent:  Lacrosse.  (This is October, Lacrosse season is in the spring obviously)

Me:  OK, we can help them out.  We offer a program for athletes on Monday, Wednesday and Fridays at 4:30.

Parent:  They have club practice on Monday and Wednesday at that time.

Me:  Ok, how about we get them in on Friday and begin to teach him the lifts and we will see about moving him to Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday mornings?

Parent:  He has games on Saturday and in a month he begins indoor lacrosse twice a week.

Me:  Oh, I thought lacrosse was a spring sport and he/she was in their “OFFSEASON” right now.  (If this conversation is face to face I will even use the scary hand quotes when I say “offseason”.)

Parent:  Between club, indoor, travel, and school lacrosse he/she plays all year around.

Me:  So when exactly should I get them stronger and is their priority to get stronger or play indoor lacrosse?

Parent:  Maybe we can get them in here once or twice a week after practice?

Me:  No, that won’t work.  I’m sorry; I don’t think I can help you.

At this point I will I will try to explain the concept of in-season, post season, off season and pre-season strength and conditioning, the reason for getting stronger, how getting stronger is best accomplished initially when sport play is at a minimal, and how that strength is going to impact their play and injury prevention more than playing another season on top of a season.

The parent always has an epiphany when I explain this all to them but then they get a look of defeat.  They understand it but there is nothing they can do about it.  They say things like “if he doesn’t play travel he will not play varsity ball, the coach requires travel play.”  They feel stuck.  After a brief explanation of the concept of strength and conditioning for an athlete they understand the importance of them spending time in the gym getting stronger but if they pull their child from the travel team a couple nights a week they may be hurting their chances to play in the spring.  I don’t think this is actually true for a couple reasons I will discuss later but this is what the perception is.

I’ve had this conversation so many times I thought that I would put something on paper so I can just hand it to them or direct them to this page and let them read it for themselves.  Maybe they can ask their coach to read it.  I’m certain it won’t do much good but I swear for my sanity it will at least help me out.  I’m just not sure how many more times I can do this face to face or in person and still look civil.

Before we get into the how and why of strength training for an athlete there are a few concepts you need to understand.  These are universal things that most strength coaches should understand but admittedly many may not.

1.  The strength level of an athlete can be classified as novice, intermediate or advanced.  Which designation the athlete gets has little to do with their actual strength and more to do with their ability to recover between strength sessions.  Using actual numbers on a bar to determine whether an athlete is a novice, intermediate or advanced strength athlete does not work because we all have different potentials for strength.  Some will squat 600 pounds and others will never squat that much.  Genetics play a big part but we will not go into explaining that here.

So what do we mean by recovery between strength sessions determining whether the athlete is a novice or intermediate strength athlete?  If an athlete squats a certain weight on Monday and he is able to add 5 more pounds to that weight and squat it on Wednesday, provided his sleep and food intake was adequate, he is a novice strength athlete.  Regardless as to how much weight is on the bar, that weight is so far from his/her genetic potential that they can recover from that stress in 48 hours or less.

When that athlete becomes unable to recover in that 48 hours provided they had adequate rest and food intake they are then considered an intermediate athlete.  Usually at this point we will then give them 5-7 days recovery between heavy sessions.  The line between an intermediate strength athlete and an advanced strength athlete become a little more blurred but we will leave it at the novice/intermediate level because very few if any athletes will ever reach advanced levels partly because they are splitting time between strength training and sport.


Carrie squatted 225 pounds as a 15 year old strength training in her off season preparing for basketball.

If you are a parent reading this or a coach at the high school level, I can almost guarantee your son/daughter athlete is a novice strength athlete.  It doesn’t matter how strong you think they are,  I’m here to tell you they are more than likely not an intermediate.  With this in mind the most efficient and fastest way to get them stronger is to strength train 3 days a week until they can no longer recover from those sessions.  Remember, at a time when kids are playing multiple sports strength training with efficiency is critical.  We don’t have much time to waste. We are lucky to get a couple months between seasons.


2.  Initially while you are a novice athlete and strength training 3 times a week, putting weight on the bar every session, you are better served only strength training.  When you are in the weight room and you squat, pull and press heavy we are stressing your body.  In essence we are making it weaker.  You get stronger during your time outside of the gym between training sessions.  This is the time when you eat and sleep to let the body rebuild after the stress from squatting, pressing, and pulling.   The athletes time outside of the weight room becomes just as or more so critical than his/her time in the weight room.

3.  You will inevitably encounter those in this industry who either does not understand these concepts or are willing to take your money and tell you they can properly strength train the athlete during season.  Either results will be less than lackluster or the lack of understanding of recovery capacity can lead to injury.  I have turned as many athletes away after a brief conversation with the parent as I have started on our program.  If you are in wrestling season and you want your child to strength train I will kindly decline our services.  Don’t take it the wrong way but also understand you will more than likely find someone willing to do it.  This does not make it right.

Now that you have a little background let us look at why your priority should be to build strength as quickly as possible and why things like agility, vertical jump training, conditioning, and an entire host of other things are really just a waste of a novice strength athlete’s time when said time is a rare commodity.

Jim Cawley gave us a pretty good list of what he termed the 10 domains of fitness.  Things like cardiovascular/respiratory endurance, stamina, strength, flexibility, power, speed, agility, balance, coordination, and accuracy.  Depending on the athlete’s sport of choice they will need varying levels of each of these.  For instance, an Olympic lifter needs high levels of speed, power, strength, flexibility but really only needs enough cardiovascular endurance to be able to make it through his Olympic lifting workouts.  He doesn’t need the respiratory endurance to run 16 miles.  On the flip side a marathon runner doesn’t need staggering levels of speed, power, strength or flexibility but does require high levels of cardiovascular endurance.  This is not to say the marathon runner does not need some levels of speed, power and strength.  They do.  Running, regardless of distance still requires force production (strength) and still requires you to outrun your competition at the end of the race (speed/power).

The important concept to understand about the 10 domains of fitness is the fact that only one of those domains affects the other 9.  Strength will improve endurance, building strength is the first step in improving speed, it’s about the only way to improve power production in a novice, it helps agility and when strength is built properly, it will improve balance, flexibility, coordination and accuracy. For these reasons building strength should be the FIRST stage of athletic development.  It’s the foundation upon which all other desirable traits of an athlete are built.

I don’t know how many times I have had a parent stop in and explain to me that their child’s coach told them that the child needs to work on their agility.  The statement on the surface is probably true but the solution is not what the parent or the coach has in mind.  When they ask me to help them with their child’s agility they immediately think about ladders, cones, change of direction drills, jumps, skips, bounds and the endless other selections of agility drills. There is a major problem with this and it goes back to whether the athlete is a novice or intermediate strength athlete.  We already know that your child is more than likely a novice strength athlete, remember the picture of the 14 year old girl squatting 225?  Use her as a metric.

If the athlete is a novice strength athlete there really is no way to improve things like speed, power, and agility WITHOUT BUILDING STRENGTH FIRST.  Don’t believe me?  Think about this.  Your son weighs 170 pounds.  His max back squat below parallel is 150 pounds (this strength level is not uncommon and is representative of nearly every high school athlete that walks in our door).  You or the coach

Matt squats 365 for 5 training over the summer for his senior year of high school football.

would like to find an agility coach who can get the athlete to accelerate his 170 pound body as fast as he can and then decelerate it as quickly as possible and change directions.  How will this ever happen when the force displayed on his leg as he plants and tries to change direction is WELL OVER 170 POUNDS?  Remember, he can only squat 150 pounds with both legs yet we want him to decelerate 170 pounds and change directions?  No amount of agility training will change the physics dilemma.  The only way to improve his agility is to take his back squat to 350 pounds.   Every step on the road to a 350 pound squat is doing more to improve the athlete’s agility that any amount of agility training you can think of.

Need to improve your vertical jump?  This one is even easier.  The first step in improving a vertical jump is to get stronger.  Remember, we are talking about novice strength athletes here.  If we use the above athlete as an example, the biggest initial increase you will see to their vertical jump is by gaining strength.  Think about what is happening during a vertical jump.  The body is able to produce force quickly and overcome gravity for a short period of time to propel the body upwards.  It simply cannot do this without initially building strength.  Still don’t believe it?  How about this?  Below is a video of me dunking at age 36.



At the time of the video I weigh 235 pounds and stand 6’1”.  This was the first day I discovered I could dunk a basketball.  A glorious day by the way!  When I played basketball 20 years earlier in my “prime”, I was 6’1” and weighed 170 pounds but I COULD NOT DUNK.  Trust me it was not from a lack of trying, I practiced every day.  What’s the difference between then and now besides the fact I haven’t touched a basketball in about 20 years?  I was not strong enough then to dunk.  Fast forward 20 years, 65 pounds of muscle on my frame and probably 4 times the strength and I had no problems dunking.  Want to jump higher Get stronger.  But doesn’t getting bigger slow you down?  Seriously?  NO.  Don’t ever let someone tell you that gaining muscle will slow you down.

But there is actually a more important reason to focus on building strength first.  Building strength hardens the athlete.  It makes us less likely to get injured and as Mark Rippetoe would say “strong people are harder to kill”.  When we place a bar on our back, squat down with it and stand back up we are strengthening more than just our muscles.  Every system in our body must adapt to the load placed on our back and strengthen.  Muscle bellies merge to form tendons.  These tendons originate and insert into our bones to manipulate our bony levers to create movement.  As the muscles become stronger so do these tendons.  As the tendons pull harder and harder on the origins and insertion points on the bones, these attachment points become stronger.  As more and more load is placed on the bones they also adapt and become stronger, laying down new bone mass to accommodate the ever increasing load.  The ligaments and cartilage that articulate the joints of the body begin to adapt also and become more robust.  As the muscle mass above and below the joint becomes bigger and stronger the likely hood of injuring that joint becomes less.

Cory hits a 300 pound PC training for football tryouts.

It actually goes far beyond just bigger, stronger and more robust.  Last week I had a mother contact me about strength training for her son.  He is well over 6 feet tall and just turned 14 years old.  This basketball season he suffered a concussion.  He saw the neurosurgeon for evaluation and he recommended her son strength train.   Do strength training to prevent concussions?  Well yes, of course.  My guess is that her son probably didn’t get hit in the head by another player.  I’m guessing he fell on the court and his head bounced off the wood.  You see, lack of strength in the musculature of the neck is a problem when you fall.  It prevents you from stabilizing your head which in turn makes your head hit the ground with considerably more force.  Want a stronger neck?  Squat 350, deadlift 450 and press 200 pounds.  The neck, core and the rest of the entire body AND nervous system will have no choice but to become stronger.

You see how this building strength thing gets a little more serious when we are talking not just about increased athletic performance but about safety?   Increasing your child’s strength will do more to improve their safety in sport than any other thing you will do.  Are we ready to make it a priority?  I hope so.

So you get it.  Building strength is the first stage of developing the athlete.  You are starting to understand how important an “off-season” is for your child.  Not only do you understand the importance of having a few months off to build strength but you are starting to see how this will have a bigger impact on athletic performance and safety than playing the sport for an extra 2 or three months.  Maybe taking a break from the actual sport (working on skill development only) for a few months and putting on strength and size will not cost them a spot on the varsity team after all.  Maybe when the athlete returns to the sport with 15 pounds of added muscle mass, twice as strong, with increased speed, agility and power the coach might just find room on the roster for them.   Add to that fact, they will be decreasing the likelihood of suffering a concussion or knee injury and the answer seems pretty clear.

The initial movement from a novice strength athlete to an intermediate does not take that long.  If we focus on strength acquisition only during that first off-season we can get it done in 3-5 months.  During this time the athlete should be only strength training 3 times a week.  Remember, conditioning is of secondary concern and if we try to condition the athlete (who probably already has a pretty good base of conditioning from playing the sport nearly 12 months of the year) while building strength in the novice strength athlete; we only delay the process of acquiring strength.  Delaying the strength acquisition process is not something we can or should do; we only have a small window of time between seasons.  I promise you it’s not conditioning that an athlete with novice strength levels need.  It’s strength.  Lack of strength can be confused with lack of conditioning when an athlete’s performance suffers on the field but it’s rarely the case.  The winner of any engagement in sport will nearly always be won by the stronger athlete.  To take that a step further, the one aspect within the athlete’s control is their strength acquisition.  Our athletic ability may very well be determined but we can always work to be stronger than our opponent.

Why is an off season so important?  The more we try to do in our off season the less it resembles an off season.  At least during novice strength acquisition, the athlete should not be doing anything outside of the weight room except low intensity drills geared toward sports skill.  Remember earlier when we talked about recovery?  We actually get weaker when we strength train and recovery happens outside of the weight room.  Another way to think about this is to look at the athlete’s recovery functioning as a kitchen sink.  You have the faucet, the sink and a drain.  The drain is big enough to handle the water from the faucet turned on maximum output as long as the drain is clear and working properly.  The water pouring into the sink represents all the things the athlete is doing, in this case strength training.  The drain is their ability to recover (sleep and nutrition).

The more we pour into the sink, the more recovery we need and the more it takes away from our ability to recover from heavy strength training sessions.  As we progress closer to an intermediate strength athlete, the more managing the stimulus (amount of water) into the sink matters.  Playing indoor soccer twice a week while trying to recover from heavy strength training 3 times a week quickly begins to over flow the athlete’s sink.  When these ‘drain clogging’ events happen, strength acquisition becomes difficult or impossible due to the athlete’s inability to properly recover (empty the sink).   Remember, we are talking about novices only.  Once an athlete becomes an intermediate these things can be managed better because we are increasing the amount of recovery between heavy strength sessions from 48 hours to 5-6 days.  This is the time when we can add conditioning work or more sports play during a slower strength progression, because at this point, the athletes are ALREADY STRONG.

Hopefully this highlights why it may be beneficial to step away from the sport for a few months to focus on getting stronger.  It is difficult as a strength coach to watch an athlete who needs to be stronger not find the time to do it correctly because a coach is pressuring them to play in the off season.  Or the parent is worried about them missing a few months on the elite travel team because they think it will hurt their chances for a scholarship or to start on the varsity team.  These things are simply not true and are short sighted on both the coach and the parent’s part.  Taking the time to properly build strength now builds a healthier, hardened and physically stronger athlete later.  I promise it doesn’t take 12 months of playing basket ball to be a great basketball player.  Somewhere in there, the athlete will benefit more from building strength and becoming stronger than their competition.


Lastly, because it comes up often, I will touch on when your child is ready for strength training.

Weight training is extremely safe for kids.  The thought of it affecting the proper development of their growth plates is simply not true.  Kids that grow up on farms are accustomed to hard physical labor and lifting heavy objects at a young age.  Surprisingly, growing up “farm strong” does not equate to small, meek kids.  It’s actually quite the opposite.  These kids are some of the strongest and most physically capable kids you will find.  What I will tell you is to let the kid be a kid.  The time to start strength training is probably not when they are 12 years old.  There will be plenty of years to get them into a weight room.  We turn a lot of kids away because we feel time would be better spent letting them be kids.  Instead, encourage them to be outside, run, jump, climb and do things kids should be doing outdoors.  If you have questions about when your child may be ready for a structured strength program let us know and we can help determine if they are ready or not.


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