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Strength Training & Conditioning for Young Athletes

I am a firm believer in Strength Training & Conditioning for the Young Athlete, among other things it can help to reduce the occurrence of injury, improve posture and general body strength, which in turn will improve running economy, and aid technique in your chosen event.

My intention is to produce a series of articles in which I will try to cover the various aspects and types of Strength training pertinent to coaching young athletes and try to allay the myths and fears that surround “Weight Training” and its place in the athletes continuing development.

The statements below suggest that young athletes can benefit from a properly designed and supervised programme

“Position stands by the National Strength & Conditioning Association, the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics suggest that CHILDREN can benefit from participation in a properly prescribed and supervised resistance training program.”


Scott Riewald, PhD, CSCS, NSCA-CPT and Keith Cinea, MS, CSCS, NSCA-CPT
National Strength and Conditioning Association Education Department

Concern #1: Does strength training damage growth plates in bones?


Most parents and coaches are hesitant to begin strength training with young athletes for fear of damaging the bones and possibly stunting growth Almost everyone has heard a story of some child experiencing stunted growth after damaging a bone’s growth plate from lifting weights. This story could be considered an “urban legend” – a story that everyone has heard, but no one knows if it is in fact true.
Before going any further, let’s define the term growth plate.  In children, all bone growth occurs at a region of cartilage near the ends of the bone. This region is weaker than ‘mature bone’ and may be at a greater risk for injury. If the growth plate is damaged there is a chance that growth in the bone will be stunted.
The fact is that no growth plate fractures have been documented in athletes who engage in a resistance training program that includes “an appropriately prescribed training regimen and competent instruction.” The risk of injury to the growth plates can be further minimized by not allowing the athletes to lift weight over their heads or perform maximum effort lifts (i.e. performing one repetition lifting as much weight as they can). A general rule of thumb when working with younger athletes is to have them only exercise with weights that they can lift six times or more. Growth plate injuries should be taken seriously because they can happen. However, with proper care, the risk can be virtually eliminated.


Concern #2: Do overuse injuries occur with strength training?

The potential for repetitive use injuries to the soft tissue (muscle, tendons, ligaments) of the body is another concern for young athletes entering a strength training program. These types of injuries do occur. The majority (40-70 percent) of strength training related soft-tissue injuries are muscles strains with the lower back being the most frequently injured area. Again, these types of injuries can be minimized by following a few simple guidelines:

  • Teach the athletes proper technique for each exercise that is performed.
  • Supervise every strength training session.
  • Do not have the athletes train with maximal or near-maximal loads.
  • Avoid using resistive devices that are supposed to improve vertical jump height. These may contribute to injury of the lower back.


Some of the known benefits are listed below.

1.     Improved muscular strength and power

2.     Little or no change in muscle size in young children

3.     Improved local muscular endurance

4.     Positive influence on body composition

5.     Improved strength balance around joints

6.     Improved total body strength

7.     Prevention of injuries in sports

8.     Positive influence on sports performance

9.     Improved self-image and self-confidence.

10. Improved bone strength/ bone density.


Both the NSCA and the American Academy of Pediatrics state that youth strength training can be safe and effective if:

  1. A competent coach who is skilled in programme design & supervises every strength training session.
  2. Proper technique is taught and required.


Our first criteria would be to identify a needs analysis of the athlete and his / her event and using a biological maturation rather than a chronological age to decide on the type of strength /resistance programme required. In younger athletes this may consist of a simple body weight circuit session to a complex weights/plyometrics session in a mature competitor.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) defines youth as a child who has not yet reached, or is going through, physical maturity. Recognize that not all children progress through puberty at the same time or at the same rate. Three athletes of the same chronological age (i.e. all are 12 years old) can differ by ± two years in biological age (differences with respect to maturity). Even though you have three twelve year olds, maturity wise they can range in age from 10-14.

Strength training is synonymous with the term ‘resistance training’ and is defined as a specialized form of conditioning that is used to increase one’s ability to produce or resist force. Strength training uses the principle of progressive overload to force the body (muscles, bones, tendons, etc.) to adapt in order to be able to produce and/ or resist larger forces. Strength training is not power lifting nor is it bodybuilding or trying to lift the most weight you can. Strength training is a tool that can augment sport performance through improved strength and motor control.

In the following articles I hope to give an insight to some of the different methods and types of   strength training & conditioning.

Bearing this in mind we have to get away from the “One Size Fits All” attitude when designing a programme that is specific to a group of athletes. Our first priority at all times must be the health, safety and continuing development of the athlete. 


Graham Smith B.A.F. Senior Coach

Level 4 Performance Coach

Level 4 Strength & Conditioning Coach


 All other articles on coaching can be found by following this link.


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