Begin strength training at a young age to outperform competitors and avoid injury. Whether you are a young athlete with dreams of competitive glory, a parent with a kid who has a passion for sports, or a coach trying to help your athletes get ahead, strength training is essential.
Research shows that youth are highly trainable and that the best way to help them improve power output is to help them gain strength. Young athletes in football, soccer, track, hockey, tennis, basketball, lacrosse, and especially contact sports will perform best if they possess sufficient strength to overcome and accelerate body mass. Training will also help them achieve structural balance and avoid injury.
A new study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research reminds us that strength training is appropriate for young athletes, that it will make them stronger, and provides reference values for lower body strength in the squat. The two-year study included elite young soccer players and weightlifters who ranged in age from 11 to 19. The soccer players were divided into a control group that only played soccer and a group that performed strength training in addition to regular soccer practice. The weightlifters were a separate group who were tested in order to compare strength gains and demonstrate maximal “trainability” of youth. Strength gains were analyzed based on two-year age groups: group A was under 19 years old, group B was under 17, group C was under 15, and group D was 11 to 13 years old.
The soccer players who strength trained followed a typical periodized training program that included multi-joint free weight exercises for the whole body. Group D, the youngest group, performed technique-oriented training that included all the same exercises as the older trainees. Results after two years showed dramatic gains in lower body strength in all groups that performed strength training. The control group did not gain any strength.
Results showed that strength values of the 1RM for the parallel front and back squat relative to body weight were as follows (front squat is listed first):
Group A: 1.5, 1.7
Group B: 1.4, 1.6
Group C: 1.2, 1.4
Group D: 0.7, 0.9
Unfortunately, the study authors don’t tell us how much strength the trainees gained over baseline from the training program, but they do report the difference in 1RM values between the control group and the strength training group. Final 1RMs for the strength training group ranged from 40 to 50 percent higher than the control group in the back squat, indicating the impressive benefit of training.
That young athletes are highly trainable is no surprise, but the “trainability of youth” continues to suffer from strange myths and misconceptions that discourage parents and sports coaches from having their young athletes strength train. Despite abundant research that far fewer injuries happen in the weight room than on the playing field, and that strength training for youth improves bone mineral density and growth rather than stunting it, many young athletes are missing out on reaching their potential because they don’t lift weights.
The research shows that starting to strength train at a young age will teach proper lifting technique, which will allow youth engage in heavy training sooner because they will accumulate “training years” at a younger age. Two years of training experience is considered necessary to develop lifting coordination and technique in free-weight, ground-based exercises, and it allows youth to develop neuromuscular strength.
Researchers suggest young athletes should start strength training at 7 to 8 years of age so that in the best-case scenario they may have up to more than 10 years of lifting experience by the time they are 19 years old. Naturally, training needs to be fun, but with strict attention to technique.
Keiner, M., Sander, A., et al. Trainability of Adolescents and Children in the Back and Front Squat. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012. Published Ahead of Print.