How Early Is Too Early? Junior Athletic Development

This article is targeted towards parents, family and/or friends of junior athletes. If you are a junior athlete reading this then you’re way ahead of the pack already.

I was having a chat the other day with one of our members in the gym. He was basically asking - “how early can my daughter start strength training?”

It’s common for parents to worry about kids starting strength training too early. We’ve been told that it stunts your growth or it’s dangerous, and honestly… that’s bullshit.

If you want them to reach their athletic potential, then regular strength training through childhood and adolescence is essential.

If trained properly, a junior athlete will learn how to coordinate their body more effectively; to jump, land, accelerate, decelerate, throw and change direction; maintain and/or improve their mobility; reduce injury risk; and develop a strength base for all future athletic qualities (speed, power, agility, balance etc.).

Notice how I put ‘getting stronger’ last in that list.

When beginning strength training (and this is true for everyone) we should focus on quality of movement and bar speed before adding load. It’s not to say that strength isn’t absolutely vital to sports performance, but don’t get carried away always trying to add more load.

Junior athletes are rarely taught how to move effectively. They’re usually just told to run more or run for longer. This is the last thing they should be doing.

If they’re serious about their sport, then they’re probably training and/or competing 3-6 times a week. That’s more than enough endurance work to develop a ‘good enough’ engine.

Think about filling up the buckets for all the athletic qualities; strength, speed, endurance, agility etc. if the endurance bucket is already 80% full, why would you spend time trying to get an extra 5-10%? That’s not the best use of time.

Once they get to a certain level with anything, the amount of work they need to put in takes a lot more effort than it’s worth. If they’re already competent endurance athletes, then they’re going to have to put in huge amounts of work for small returns.

What they’re better off doing is trying to fill the other buckets (i.e. strength, power, speed, movement quality) from a low number - say 20% - to around the same level as your endurance – 80%.

These numbers are arbitrary, but you get the picture. There’s more ‘bang for your buck’ when focusing on these other areas outside of training or competition. And this is what creates a well-rounded athlete.

At this young age, junior athletes have a window where their nervous system is like putty.

It has the ability to be moulded into something incredible – or alternatively – it can be wasted.

When most people hear ‘strength training’ they instantly think ‘heavy barbells and jacked meatheads.’ And while the barbell is a great tool, our job as strength coaches of junior athletes is to teach them how to move their body more efficiently. This makes them more economical during competition (more output for less energy spent).

We also aim to make them safer – as their muscle and connective tissue is more resilient to injury and they know how to co-ordinate their body more effectively.

Here’s some guidelines when it comes to training junior athletes;

Learn the basic human movement patterns;

Squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, carry. It’s important that junior athletes learn these movements first and foremost. If you don’t have access to a strength coach and you’re not sure how to coach a younger athlete, then we’d be happy to help. Swing us a message and we can give you some advice. But there’s plenty of tutorials online, as well as posts that we’ve put out before on our website. Learning these movement patterns will teach an athlete to get their muscles firing correctly and in unison with other surrounding tissues.

Learn how to jump, land, sprint, slow down and change direction;

Again, this one you might need a coach for. But a few key things to focus on are; land softly and stick the landing (athletic base – hips back, knees slightly bent, knees in-line or outside toes). When sprinting – forward lean, push off your toes/forefoot, rotate from the shoulder not the elbow (hands go cheek to cheek), and keep your hands on train tracks (not crossing over the midline of your body). When slowing down, take shorter steps, pump your arms and lower your centre of gravity – the same could be said for change of direction, as well as – push off the outside foot and turn your body to face the direction you want to go.

Control your bodyweight before adding load;

Glute bridges, squats, single leg RDL’s, lunges, push-ups, pull-ups, horizontal rows and planks should make up basically all of the athletes programming at the start. Master bodyweight movements with no external load. Once you have done this, then load up these movements i.e. add a weight to your back for push-ups, hold some dumbbells in each hand when you lunge, put a band over your shoulders when squatting etc…

Focus on the posterior chain;

Most kids (particularly boys) focus almost entirely on the muscles you can see in the mirror. They generally want big arms, a 6 pack and a big chest. We were no different when we first started. Our program basically consisted of incline dumbbell press and arms – day in, day out. If we had our time again, we would focus much more on the muscles you don’t see. The glutes, hamstrings and back. Remember, the front is for show, the back is for go! Focus your time developing these muscles, particularly the glutes and hip area, as strong hips are key in athletic performance. The glutes, hamstrings and calves are also the muscles we use most during running so they need work.

Don’t compromise range of motion for more load;

As newborns grow into toddlers and young children their mobility is impressive. Most toddlers you see can squat ass to grass and sit there comfortably while they play with stuff on the ground. Then over the years, particularly through school and then work later in life, we go and fuck all that up. We’re constantly sitting, and we stop moving our body. We lose the mobility we were born with. The good thing is we can go back and work on it as adults and it will improve. But for junior athletes, they should already have a great starting point. Their range of motion isn’t compromised too much so it’s our job to maintain and improve that as they get stronger and become better athletes. In our gym we’ve noticed the junior athletes can squat pretty deep and have the mobility to press overhead and we want to maintain that. We do so by adding load slowly and never comprising range of motion for more weight. If you can’t keep the same range while adding load, then don’t add load yet.

Progress first with movement quality, then bar speed, and then load;

Similar to the point above, it’s important that junior athletes have movement proficiency on all the major lifts before adding load. Technique first, then slowly begin adding weights. To improve movement quality, its handy to slow it all down. If you’re trying to move to fast through each lift, then you’re not giving your brain time to learn the new movement. Slow the tempo down to 3 seconds lowering, 3 second hold, 3 second lift (or something along those lines). This will allow the neural pathways to be learned more efficiently. From there we can focus on increasing the speed of the movement and adding load.

When you do add load… don’t add too much;

Junior athletes progress relatively fast. They’re young, eager and full of hormones (depending on their age), so they’re always keen to add more weight. You need to hold them back a little bit! If it was up to some of the younger people in our gym, they’d be adding 10kg every week, to every lift and eventually form would be compromised. It’s important to slow them down. Again, focus on movement quality and bar speed and when you do add load, only add a tiny bit. Add a 1.25kg plate each side and spend a week or two on that. The best part about starting strength training so early is that there’s no rush. They have all the time in the world! So, their training should reflect this. Whenever it looks like movement quality may have been comprised for load, back it off and move the bar for quality!

Have fun;

Kids aren’t going to stick with anything that don’t enjoy. Make it enjoyable so they want to keep coming back to the gym.

In saying that, here’s an example of what a weekly training template could look like for junior athletes…

Ideally, we’d be training at least 3 times a week.

Obviously with school and other sporting commitments this might not be possible but if they do have 3 days, that would be ideal. Remember – 1 is better than none, 2 is better than 1 and 3 is better than 2. A junior athlete probably doesn’t need more than 3 strength training sessions a week.

Here’s a generic program of how you could break up the week for a competent junior athlete – say 12-15 years old – and plays a team sport that involves a bunch of different fitness qualities like basketball or footy.

Warm up: (can stay the same every day)

a. Crab walks 3x10 each side

b. Single leg bridge with band 3x10 each side

c. Band pull-aparts 3x10

d. High plank with shoulder tap 3x10 each side

Monday; Full body strength with jump/land focus

1. Box jump 5x3 – stick the landing when stepping off

2a. Goblet squat 4x6-8

2b. Inverted row 4x8-12

3a. Push-up 4x6-8

3b. Single leg RDL 4x6-8

3c. Paloff Press 4x6-8 each side

Wednesday; Full body strength with sprint/deceleration focus

1. Sprints 5x10m sprints and 10m deceleration

2a. Reverse lunge 4x6-8 each side

2b. Eccentric pull-ups 5-10sec 4x3

3a. DB overhead press 4x8-12

3b. Hip thrust 4x10-12

3c. RKC plank 4x30sec

Friday; Full body strength with throw/catch focus

1. Reactive rotational med ball throws 5x3 each side

2a. TB deadlift 4x6

2b. Side plank 4x30sec each side

3a. Incline DB row 4x8

3b. Incline DB press 4x8

3c. RFE split squat 4x8 each side

Use light dumbbells or bands for resistance and have complete rest periods. This means you shouldn’t be breathing heavy before you start the next set. Incorporate some mobility drills as a filler in between lifts. This way you really make the most of your rest time. Focus on the hips, ankles, upper back and shoulder region when doing mobility work.

If you, your child, or a junior athlete you know needs help with their athletic development, please don’t hesitate to reach out. We’d be more than happy to help. #one22