Strength Training and The Growing Athlete – Part Three


The key concepts to consider as precursors to beginning a comprehensive strength training program are:

  • Build a broad a base of activity and general fitness
  • Build a firm foundation in movement skills
  • Young growing athletes are not miniature adults therefore we must adjust everything to the size, weight and maturation level of the youngster
  • Always weigh biological age against chronological age
  • Always teach first then train. Do not assume that because it is taught that it is learned. Make sure that the skill or movement is mastered before you let the athlete begin to train with a particular exercise or method.
  • Incorporate variety as much as possible to force adaptation and to maintain mental freshness.
  • Machines are not necessarily safer, they must fit the athlete, most machines do not.

The following chart is adapted from: Growth and Development Considerations for Design of Training Plans for Young Athletes by Lyle Sanderson. SPORTS. Volume 10 #2, 1989. This chart can give us a good template to guide the progression of strength training throughout the athletic lifespan.

Phase / Duration of Phase / Stage of Development

Initiation / 3-4 years / Early School Years

Basic Training / 5-7 Years / Pre-pubescent and during puberty

Buildup Training / 3-4 years / Post-pubescent

Systematic High Level Training / 6- 10 Years / Adulthood

The following are the stages of strength development relative to the stages of development in the above chart:

Foundational Strength Development Phase (Initiation)
In the beginning it should be play in the form of crawling, climbing, tug of war, hopscotch. In other words it should be playful and FUNdamental.

We are not East Germany or Bulgaria- Beware of false prophets bearing gifts, you do not have begin specializing in a single sport at this age to be successful in later stages. This should be very unstructured and should occur with a frequency as often as the youngster feels like participating. The key is to put the youngster in an environment where there are a variety of strength building activities are available.

Functional exercise criteria also apply to children. Therefore the exercise should engage the whole body in multi-joint, multi-plane activities that are of high proprioceptive demand. These criteria apply to all levels of development.

Developmental Strength Development Phase (Basic Training)
A good strength base will go a long way to prevent injuries.

Start with developing a routine and good training habits.

During the early stages of this phase strength training workouts should be scheduled two to three times a week gradually increasing to four and possibly five workouts a week in the later stages of this age span.

The resistance spectrum begins with bodyweight and then adds loading such as weight vest or weighted belt that allows the body to perceive the resistance as an internal load. The next step is to add external loading in the form of medicine balls, stretch cord, and dumbbells. The last step is to add resistance in the form of a bar with weight. The key is to progress gradually through this spectrum with gradual incremental jumps that allow the young growing bodies time to adapt.

Strength is the precursor to speed. It is an enabler that will make significant improvements to agility, coordination (motor control). It can also make significant contributions to endurance by improving posture.

Teach technique of the Olympic lifts during the skill hungry years. Use a broomstick or a bar appropriately sized to the athlete’s bodyweight so that correct skill is ingrained.

Specialized Strength Development Phase (Buildup Training)
Strength training should be schedules a minimum of three workouts a week and sometimes up to five workouts a week.

We must also consider development of muscular bulk for the growing athlete participating in sports that demand this emphasis. This is necessary for armor or protection in collision sports like football and hockey to the increase body mass in the throws.

As far as training programs go, one size does not fit all. Ninth grade boys should not be on the same program as senior boys. There is too much of a gap in development. This phase has some of the biggest discrepancies in biological age.

This is the age where the greater proportion of work is done with external resistance in the form of free weights and dumbbells.

Application Strength Development Phase (Systematic High Level Training)
This period really does not encompass the growing and developing athlete. This is where more advanced strength training methods are applied.

Specific Recommendations

  • Strength training equipment and implements must be of appropriate design to accommodate size and maturity differences.
  • Do not base the strength training programs on chronological age; instead carefully consider biological age (maturation level).
  • Strength training program should be bodyweight based, with the core strength and stability emphasized first.
  • Overhead lifting or loading of the spine should be de-emphasized until sufficient core strength & stability is developed.
  • The child must have the emotional maturity to accept instruction and follow a program.
  • Strength training should be part of a comprehensive fitness program.
  • Qualified adults must supervise the program.

References & Recommended Reading
Drabik, Jozef. Children & Sports Training.(1996) Stadion Publishing Company, Inc. Island Pond, Vermont

Hartmann, Jurgen. and Tunneman, Harold. (1989) Fitness and Strength Training. Berlin: Sportverlag

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


Athletic Development Coach & Consultant. Founder of GAIN Network. Proud dad. Love to read everything.
RT @GreatestQuotes: Your aspirations are your possibilities. - Samuel Johnson - 4 years ago
Vern Gambetta

Latest posts by Vern Gambetta (see all)