STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING ARE CRUCIAL TO DEVELOPMENT BUT MUST BE AGE-APPROPRIATE. SO WHAT AGE SHOULD ATHLETES START?
This piece was excerpted from Athletic Weekly, February 2, 2017.
Strength and conditioning young athletes is a controversial coaching issue around which fact is often confused with fallacy. Questions abound about its safety and whether it is appropriate in terms of an athlete’s physical and biological development.
In an attempt to set the record straight, Professor Avery Faigenbaum, an exercise scientist at The College of New Jersey, reviewed the evidence on behalf of the American College of Sports Medicine last year . “The belief that strength training is unsafe for children is not consistent with the needs of boys and girls and the documented risks associated with this type of training,” he wrote. “However, strength training is a specialized method of conditioning that requires qualified supervision, appropriate overload, gradual progression, and adequate recovery between exercise sessions.”
So when and how should you be introducing conditioning? A survey of coaches conducted on behalf of UK Athletics a few years ago, reported that circuit training was the most popular strengthbuilding approach used with young athletes, usually from the age of 15 onwards, but with some coaches implementing it with athletes as young as 13.
Weight training was the second most popular method, being used by two-thirds of the coaches, but not before the age of 16. About half of those polled used plyometrics and gym machines occasionally with athletes of 15 and over, and a few made regular use of medicine balls. We asked an expert when to introduce what:
Even before an athlete reaches puberty, some conditioning work can be incorporated into the overall training plan. “At this stage, low level bodyweight circuits, medicine ball and resistance band work are ideal,” says endurance coach David Lowes.
“The emphasis should be on sets of high repetitions at a low resistance. Technique and lifting can be started early, but with a bar or pole only.”
Exercises done pre-puberty should be done carefully with an avoidance of a full range of movement. “In the case of a sit-up, for example, the exercise should be done smoothly and with bent knees to the point where the elbows slide to the knees and the head remains fixed looking at the ceiling to avoid lower back and neck problems,” Lowes explains.
“Half squats are much better for youngsters to relieve the stresses on the knees and more so if any weight is added.” Above all, it is technique that should be the focus at this stage. “A simple 1-2kg medicine ball routine with 4-6 all-round exercises may be of more benefit at a young age,” Lowes says. “It allows exercises to be monitored and modified easily by the coach.”
A peak growth spurt that coincides with the onset of the sexual development associated with adolescence generally occurs at around age 11-14 in girls and 12-16 in boys.
Girls tend to have a strength window at around the age of 13 whereas for boys it comes closer to the age of 15.
At this stage, conditioning work focusing on shoulder, elbow, core, spine and ankle stabilization should complement bodyweight exercises and moves using weighted medicine balls and stability balls. It’s also a good time to introduce the basics of weightlifting techniques.
When girls are around 14-16 and boys 16-18 the all-important strength window for males remains open and females are nearing the end of a second strength window. This is the time to introduce Olympic lifting and plyometrics for both, always keeping in mind the differing biological ages of training and the development stages of your athlete.
SEE HOW THEY GROW
- 3-6 years (pre-school): rapid physical growth and brain development.
- 6-12 years (school age): slow physical growth and steady brain development.
- 12-17 years (adolescence and puberty): rapid physical growth. Initially, rapid and then steady brain development.
- 17+ (early adulthood): slow physical growth and steady brain development.