Strength Training for the Young Athlete Part 1

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    Strength Training for the Young Athlete Part 1

    Ever since this series on strength training began running in IRONMAN, I've beengetting letters and phonecalls from concerned parents and coaches. They've allhad the same question: What's the right way to train a youngster. The primaryconcerns of parents anc coaches center around safety and long range health. The

    most frequent questions include the following: At what age should I allow my kids to lift weights? Should I ever allow them to fully exert themselves in the weight room? Can they do fulls quats and deadlifts, or should they wait until they

    mature? Then ther's the question everyone asks: Will weight lifting adverselyaffect their long-bone growth and their eventual height?

    Let's start with the age factor. The guideline for determining whether youngsters are old enough to start weight training should be their physsical maturity, not their chronological age. I've trained some 13-year-olds who were more physically advanced than some of my college freshmen. The Europeans, who are the leaders

    in this facet of strength training, have been placing youngsters on rather involved programs for many years, and they often start some who are only eight.

    I don't encourage youngsters to start lifting before they reach their teens-notso much for health and safety considerations but rather beecause I believe they're better oft spending time participating in other physical activities that will

    help them improve their athletic attributes, such as foot speed, eye-hand and eye-foot coordination, balance and body control. I would much rather have preteens engage in sports such as wrestling, gymnastics, martial arts, soccer and basketball than start a regimented strength program.

    I want to make it clear, however, that I don't think lifting is dangerous for kids of that age. Seldom have I come across a preteen who was seriiously motivated

    enough to gain any real benefits from weight work. They just aren't regimentedsufficiently to put in the required time. Most would rather be playing than going to the weight room, and that's how it should be. There will be plenty of timefor strength work.

    It's also been my observation that when youngsters do start weight training at a

    very early age, they gennerally grow weary of it at just about the time when itwould be doing them the most good.

    Does weight training adversely afffect long-bone growth? When I'm asked this question, I usually reply with a question of my own: "Just when does long-bone growth finally stop?" After some thought the parent says, "I guess in the late teens." Or sometimes they say, "In the early 20s."

    "So," I say, "if weight training is a negative factor while the long bones are still growing, doesn't it logically follow that it shouldn't be done at all until

    a person reaches full maturity?" That pretty much answers the quesstion, sincewe know that nearly all high school athletes participate in some form of weighttraining and many junior high students do too.

    As I mentioned above, the Europeans are miles ahead of the United States in regards to training youngsters, so I refer to some of their research. The Europeansstart younggsters as young as eight on complex, high-skill proograms, and the routines are built round the Olympic lifts, the snatch and clean and jerk. Olympic-style weightlifting is a huge sports in Europe, so the coaches are preparing the kids for a future in that acctivity. They also stress the Olympic lifts because they believe, as I do, that trainning on them is a terrific way to prepare youngsters to excel in any sport.

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    What's more, although the programs are much more severe than any that might be suggested for youngsters in this country, based on the research, I'd say the results have been most favorable. Keep in mind that European coaches and parents are

    just as concerned about the wellfare of their kids as we are in this country, so the athletes in the reesearch studies were constantly monitored and tested tomake cerrtain that the weight training didn't have any adverse results.

    In one study researchers commpared those who lifted weights with students who participated in swimmming, with kids of the same age and body types selected for comparrisons. They followed the subjects for several years and found that the two

    groups displayed identical skeletal growth patterns. Neiither group showed any unfaavorable effects in terms of development. The scientists concluded that weight trainning had a very positive health-protective influence on the young athletes and that it contributed to advanntageous functional and bodiily changes. The only real difference between the two test groups was that the weightlifters achieved much better posture than the swimmers.

    I must reiterate that all the youngsters trained under very close supervision. This is one of the keys to safety. The other is proper guidance. If kids are left

    alone in the weight room, they'll invariably try to test their strength, usually on the bench press. In their quest for big nummbers, they'll resort to sloppytechhnique, which brings obvious problems. They'll also neglect doing the more d

    ifficult, large-muscle exxercises and spend the entire workkout hammering away at their chest and arms. That also has many negaative implications. Strength gains come from working the large musscles, primarily the back, hips and legs. If kids neglect those groups, they won't build strength and size.

    Plus the constant upper-body work is too much for the joints in the shoulders and elbows.

    People worry about long-bone growth, thinking mostly in terms of the long bonesin the legs, but the risk with most routines outlined for youngsters is not in the legs but in the shoulders and elbows. The shoulder, in particular, is a highly delicate and complicated grouping of muscles, tendons and ligaments. In youngsters it's still growing and can easily be abused with too much work as well as s

    loppy form. I've had parents show me programs that were given to their kids by ahigh school weight coach and that were devoted exclusively to upper-body work:bench presses, inclines, even declines, followed by two or three specialized exercises for biceps and triceps. No squats or pulling off the floor. Those movements were deemed dangerous.

    Needless to say, the most worrisome exercise to most parents is the full squat-but is it really harmful to youngsters? Not if they perform it correctly. The squat is one of the most important exercises for buildding size and strength, regardless of age. Youngsters generally learn how to do full squats correctly quite easiily, since they have the necessary flexibility. Many coaches teach partial squats, thinking they're protectting the kids' knees. In truth, partial squats are

    more stressful to the knees than full squats and in the long run put them in mu

    ch more jeopardy. When athletes stop the squatting motion above the parallel position, their knee joints take the brunt of the responsibility for haltting the downward thrust. Once they go even slightly below parallel, however, the stress transfers to the much stronger hips, leg biceps and adductors, thus relieving the

    knees of the burden.

    In addition, with partial squats the majority of the work is perrformed by the quads. Now, you may think this is a good thing, since strong quads are vital to any athlete. Enter the principle of proportionate development. If the quads growstronger and stronger while the neglected adductors and leg biceps are allowed t

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    o lag further and furrther behind, the weaker groups will eventually break down.Full squats work all the large groups that form the leg and hip equally. That'simportant for another often overrlooked point. If athletes don't work their add

    uctors and leg biceps at the same rate as they work their quads, their knees will be adversely affected, since both groups help to stabilize that joint.

    For the above reasons I endorse full squats for youngsters just as I do for everyone else. For youngsters, however, it's especially important to teach them perfect form and always emphasize technique over numbers. That's true for anyone, but if youngsters learn sloppy form in the beginning, it's much more difficult tocorrect it later on.

    On the subject of exercises that make some parents and coaches anxious, we cometo the deadlift. Should kids avoid it? After all, it can indeed be dangerous toattempt to move a heavy weight off the floor. By the same token, however, it can

    also be harmful to try to benchpress a heavy weight. That point brings us backto proper teaching. Youngsters can do deadlifts.

    One of the very first exercises I teach any beginner, including youngsters, is the deadlift. I believe it's most important to learn how to lift a weight off the

    floor properly. This is an act that everyone must do countless times during hisor her life, so kids should learn how to do it using proper mechanics.

    Even so, I never allow youngsters to make the deadlift a strength test. If and w

    hen it's part of the routine, they do it as an exercise, using moderate weightsfor higher reps. Once form begins to break down, I have them stop. While I believe the deadlift has its place in a program, I rarely include it in youngsters' regular programs until they have a few years' training under their belt-not so much because of the risk factor but because I think there are so many other back exercises that are more useful to them.

    To put it simply, any exercise an adult can do a youngster can do. Kids can learn high -skill moveements like the snatch and clean and jerk, and they usually learn faster, since they haven't formed any bad habits and they have an edge in terms of flexibility. Youngsters can do any exercise just as long as they do it right. Once again, that brings us back to the prime consideration of proper instruction. Unfortunateely, it's not always easy to find.

    The average personal trainer knows about as much about strength training as he or she knows about nuclear physics. The majority of high school strength coachesare really football coaches who are making a little money on the side. Few knowhow to teach proper technique on the various beneficial exercises or how to layout a workable program that gets results. Gym owners seldom have the knowledge, and if they do, they're much too busy dealing with business to spend time with abeginner. The best instructors are collegiate strength coaches, but NCCA rules keep them from working with young athhletes in their weight rooms. That's too bad, for they could really help a great many youngsters learn how to lift correctly.

    The best advice I can give to parents and coaches is to read as much as possible

    on the subject of strength training and if at all possiible attend a clinic conducted by a collegiate strength coach. Strength coaches may not have all the annswers' but they'll be more help than anyone else. Then you can construct a sensible program for your youngster.

    The principles for getting youngsters started in strength training are really the same as those for any beeginners: Focus on strengthening the major muscle groups in a balanced manner with basic, core exercises, then work the smaller groups

    with a variety of auxiliary movements. The major difference between the rouutines for older athletes and younggsters involve the amount of weight used on the v

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    arious exercises, the set and rep sequences and the total amount of work performed in a given week. The basic exercises, their correct performance and the approach to training are exactly the same, regardless of age.

    The very best beginning routine for a youngster is some version of the big three. The original big three, which was created by Tommy Suggs and me, consisted ofthe bench press, power clean and full squat. It's still a valid choice, but I believe that the incline-bench press is a much better shoulder girdle exerrcise than the flat-bench press for beginning youngsters. I'll explain that in more detail in the next innstallment of this discussion. Once young trainees complete those basic exercises, they can spend addditional time working their arms, calves and any other weak muscle groups that become evident.

    Three workouts a week are enough, however. There's a rule I follow when workingwith young athletes: Less is better than more. Even though I'm a staunch believer in consistency of training, if a youngster misses a workout, I'm not overly concerned. The rest will do him or her some good. The disciipline of regular training will eventuually take care of itself once the gains start coming. Nothing is

    more motiivating than success. Some younggsters thrive on two days a week in the early stages. That's fine as well. The workouts should be enjoyable. If the kids come to hate them, they won't stay with the program.

    All the major muscle groups should be worked at every session. Split routines, which are currently so popular, have no place in a younggster's program-or in any

    beginner's program as far as I'm concerned. By working all the major groups-theshoulder girdle, back and legs-in the same session, youngsters get proportionate development. That's critical to any beginner, for if any bodypart gets too much attention and becomes considerably stronger than the others, problems will crop up in the form of injuries. As menntioned above, typically the kids overrworktheir upper body and neglect their back and legs. True strength originates in the lower body, so the emphasis should be placed on exerrcises that hit the hips,legs and lower back.

    Working all the large groups at each session actually keeps anyone area from moving too far ahead of the others. While upper-body strength may come more slowlythan it would if the program was heavily weighted toward exercises

    for the chest and arms, that's actuallly a plus for beginners. Slow, steady progress is better, as it allows weaker groups to be brought up to par.

    That, of course, is critical to all athletes because they don't just use their upper body, back or legs in their sport. When they play, they use all their muscles-so the musscles must be trained accordingly.

    There's no question that strength training enhances athletic perforrmance. It can help a mediocre athhlete become a good one and a good one become an exceptional one. Weight training has been responsiible for many high school athletes getting a full ride to a Division I colllege or university. In terms of hard cash, that translates to as much as $100,000. So, aside from the honor and glory factor,

    learning how to strength train takes on a very practiical meaning. Next month I

    'll get into specifics and outline a useful beginnning program for young athletes.

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