Strength Training and The Growing Athlete – Part One

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The common myths about strength training the growing athlete are:

  • Before puberty the young athlete cannot put on muscle mass or make significant strength gains because of the lack of androgenic hormones
  • It will limit flexibility and hinder skill development as well
  • It stunts growth because of stress on the growth plates

Over the years these myths have grown without any basis in fact. Anecdotal evidence gathered over the years by coaches who work with young growing athletes completely refute each of these myths. In fact in each case the opposite is true. The growing athlete who undertakes a comprehensive progressive resistance program will incur fewer injuries than their counterparts who do not strength train. The myths are usually propagated because the popular press goes to so-called experts for advice, usually doctors, who have no actual experience working with growing athletes. Typically the parent is referred to the family physician that has no background in exercise or training. This was certainly not part of their medical training. Growing children and developing athletes are not miniature adults. Sometimes we are fooled by appearance. After puberty when the athlete’s linear growth is greatest they look like adults, but they are still growing, therefore copying programs from mature athletes can eventually lead to problems with injury and overuse. The principles governing strength training are the same for the growing athlete or the mature athlete. Train movements not muscles –The brain does not recognize individual muscles, it recognizes patterns of movements Therefore for optimum return in terms of strength gain and actual transfer to coordination we want to train movements. We do not want to isolate out specific muscles because that creates neural confusion and we want to create an awareness of the whole body and how the parts work together to produce efficient movement. A popular of expression is to train the go muscles not the show muscles. Train Core before extremity strength – The core- the hips, abdomen and the low back- is the relay center of the body. Without a strong and stable core to as a transmission to transfer force produced off the ground or from above by the upper extremities it is virtually impossible to produce efficient movement there forte functional core training in standing positions that put the body perpendicular to gravity are the foundation of the growing athletes strength development program. Core training is part of every session. Train Body weight before external resistance – We must start with the ability to handle bodyweight, overcome gravity and effectively interact with the ground. The basic principle then is bodyweight before external resistance. The growing athlete must be able to effectively handle bodyweight in a variety of movements and specific exercises before even thinking about any significant external loading. How do you do this? The basic bodyweight exercises are pull-ups, pushups, dips, rope climb, crawling, body weight squats, lunges and step-ups. Use your creativity and imagination to design exercises and routines that incorporate the following fundamental movements: swinging, pulling, pushing, reaching, extending, bending, jumping, hopping and bounding. Work against gravity with the bodyweight as resistance will strengthen the bones, tendons, and ligaments and muscles in preparation for further external loading work to follow. Think of it as a small upfront investment for a large backend return. Every exercise regardless of the age of the developing athlete should incorporate multi-joint and multi-plane exercises. Starting with bodyweight only serves to reinforce the concept of total chain training that essentially means that the body is a kinetic chain with all the links connected to produce efficient motion. Starting with bodyweight serves to allow the growing athlete to gain awareness of their body. It serves to improve coordination and recruitment. I feel that it increases self-confidence and self-image. There is no doubt that strength gains will be reflected in better skill acquisition and development. As the athlete grows strength as measured by the ability to handle body weight should increase commensurate with growth. Train Strength before strength endurance – Initial strength gains are neural; essentially the initial strength gains come from learning the movements. There is plenty of time to incorporate strength endurance once a good foundation of strength has been established. The primary means of developing strength endurance is through circuit training. Over the years I have learned to beware of artificial limitations imposed by so called experts who probably have never worked day to day with the growing athlete. The growing athlete is highly adaptable provided the stress is carefully applied in a progressive manner after a sound fitness base has been established. Once again the level of expectation determines the level of achievement. Often times you get what you look for. If a proper sensible criteria based progression is followed then strength training is a very appropriate activity for the growing and developing athlete.

Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta

Director at Gambetta Sports Training Systems
Vern is the Director of Gambetta Sports Training Systems. He has been the a conditioning coach for several MLS teams as well as the conditioning consultant to the US Men's World Cup Soccer team. Vern is the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox and New York Mets. He has lectured and conducted clinics in Canada, Japan, Australia and Europe and has authored six books and over one hundred articles related to coaching and sport performance in a variety of sports. He has a BA in teaching with a coaching minor and an MA in Education with an emphasis in physical education from Stanford University.
Vern Gambetta

@coachgambetta

Athletic Development Coach & Consultant. Founder of GAIN Network. Proud dad. Love to read everything.
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