Resistance training for youth: an updated view

Resistance training and Olympic weightlifting for youth have long been a debated topic. However, the science is quite clear that both are not only safe but advantageous for youth throughout the world.

By Coach Travis Mash

Resistance Training for Youth An Updated View

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Introduction

Youth is an all-encompassing word for children up until the age of 18-years old. However, youth can be further broken down into preadolescence or the stage where boys and girls have yet to develop secondary sex characteristics(up to the age of 11-years-old for girls and 13-years-old for boys) and adolescence or the stage after puberty up until 18-years of age. 

Dr. Avery Faigenbaum is renowned for his research on the topic of the risks and benefits regarding youth. I have referenced his work and that of many other prominent researchers at the end of this article. Today, I am offering an alternative view regarding keeping youth safe and ensuring progress with velocity based training.

Check out my other videos on this topic:

Video 1
Video 2

Velocity Based Training to safely progress youth athletes

When it comes to our youth, we should focus on perfecting functional movement patterns such as hinging, squatting, pressing, and pulling. We should also focus on all vectors (vertical, horizontal, lateral, and rotational), and improving athletes bilaterally and unilaterally in a safe manner.

However, we are still responsible for the improvements in strength, speed, and power. The question is how do we ensure that our youth are progressively improving while keeping them safe at the same time?

Testing strength improvements with VBT

Whether an athlete is preadolescent or adolescent, it isn’t a really good idea to test strength movements like back squat, bench press, or deadlift with a 1-repetition maximum(1RM). A 1RM is just a test, and doesn’t serve a real purpose for improving athletic performance other than a mark of progress. There is also the risk of testing athletes with a maximum load, and that risk is exponentially higher for preadolescent athletes. A breakdown can occur quickly leading to the injuries that frighten team coaches and especially parents.

However, it’s important to know if a program is rendering the intended results in this case an increase in absolute strength. It’s quite the conundrum in the world of strength and conditioning. 

Some coaches will argue that 3RMs or 5RMs are a safer way of testing athletes. For most athletes, a maximum 3RM occurs around 92% and a 5RM at 87% with some athletes able to handle even higher loads at those repetition schemes. When you consider the total volume of the set, a 3RM or a 5RM is at a much higher total volume. Here’s an example: if an athlete can back squat 300 pounds, the total volume for the 3RM is 828lb (300 x 92%= 276lb x 3 reps= total volume at 828lb). The volume of a 5RM is even higher, so overall fatigue can be much higher with a load still high enough to cause significant injuries. The bottomline is a maximum effort test at any repetition scheme involves unnecessary risk. 

At Rise Indoor Sports, where I am the Head of Sports Science, our entire staff uses VBT, specifically the GymAware RS or FLEX unit to test the absolute strength of our athletes. We use the built in 1RM Prediction protocol. You can read more about the protocol here:

Predict an Athlete’s 1RM with Submaximal Loads

Olympic lifting movements (clean, snatch, jerk, and their derivatives) are submaximal in nature meaning they are performed with maximum power output (combination of speed and strength) and rely heavily on technique.

We use technical proficiency to monitor these movements halting the movement at the onset of any technical deficiency. However, using the bar path app found in both the GymAware FLEX and RS units can help to be more objective in this determination. 

Like I said, we use the 1RM Prediction to monitor absolute strength. The minimum velocity that we allow for the test is higher for preadolescents. For example, preadolescents are allowed to work up to a 1RM between 0.5 and 0.6m/s in the back squat and 0.4-0.5m/s with deadlift and bench press. For adolescents, we will slowly allow the athletes to test at around 0.4-0.5m/s with any squat variation (back squat and front squat mainly), and then 0.3-0.4m/s for deadlift and bench press.

All of these are well above any terminal velocity (where a miss normally happens). As long as the athlete performs at least four sets ascending in load with maximum intent on each repetition, GymAware can estimate the corresponding 1RM providing the coach and athlete the feedback necessary to determine if the current program is working. 

There is much more than absolute strength improvements to be tested with VBT. We still want to test speed and power (combination of speed and strength). Let’s take a closer look at each.

Testing and improving youth speed with VBT

Speed is the key to dominating in most team sports and of course track and field. Speed as it pertains to sprinting is hard to measure and duplicate in the weightroom because speed happens at such a high velocity, for example: Usain Bolt ran his world record 100m sprint at 10.44m/s. The fastest movements in the weight room like the drop jump take place at around 4m/s, which isn’t close to the maximum velocity of a 100m dash. However, 4m/s is closer to the velocity taking place in the first 10m. The drop jump also demonstrates the efficiency of the athlete’s stretch shortening cycle and elasticity by looking at the ground contact time. 

With GymAware, we use the Reactive Strength Index (RSI) to measure the athlete’s neuromuscular efficiency. RSI takes the jump height and divides it by the ground contact time. This type of speed can be developed and measured with drop jumps, pogo jumps, and even unilateral pogo jumps.

I would also like to reiterate that plyometric training is safe for youth if proper technique is used and the movements are progressed reasonably well (Johnson BA, et al., 2011). 

Testing and improving youth power with VBT

Power is the combination of the aforementioned parameters of speed and strength or more precisely stated velocity and force. It itself is a broad parameter, and can be created with a greater amount of force, a greater amount of velocity, or with an equal amount of both.

Plyometrics and lightly weighted jumps are a great way to improve an athlete’s ability to produce power with a velocity bias which is more closely related to athletic performance. However, the olympic lifts and heavier weighted jumps are a great way to produce power more closely related to collisions that happen in American football, rugby, and even soccer. 

During preadolescence, it’s a good idea to focus on speed, strength, and power with an equal attention to each. However, during adolescence, athletes start to demonstrate characteristics with a bias toward speed or strength. For maximum power at a rate high enough to relate to athletic performance, it becomes important to measure athletes to determine a focus for training.

If an athlete is strong but slow, it would make sense to focus on explosive movements. If an athlete is fast but weak, this type of athlete would require improvements in strength to produce more power. 


We use the GymAware RS and FLEX unit to measure our athletes’ Dynamic Strength Index (DSI). The DSI compares an athlete’s ability to produce peak force in an absolute strength movement like a back squat or deadlift compared to their ability to produce peak force in an explosive movement like a countermovement jump or concentric jump. The ratio not only tells a coach what movements to focus on, but also allows the coach to measure improvements in the DSI. Will the back squat improve an athlete’s 40 yd dash? The DSI is a great way to end that argument. If you want to learn more about the Dynamic Strength Index, you can check out ‘Practical uses for Dynamic Strength Index’.

Force-Velocity Profiles (FVPs) also demonstrate the relationship between the two main components of power which are force and velocity. Unlike the Dynamic Strength Index, they also show:

  • Where maximum power is demonstrated in regards to rate, which explains if the athlete is creating power at a rate that is related to the athletic movements required in their sport. 
  • FVPs also reveal at which quality of strength an athlete needs attention.
  • Learn more about FVPs at : “Force Velocity Profile, the how, the why, and what to do with it”
Velocity based training zones
Velocity zones in velocity based training.

Progressing youth based on anecdotal evidence

Until now, I have focused on velocity based training as a way to safely train, measure, and progress young athletes. Before I wrap this article, it’s important to add a few points that I have learned from the experience of coaching thousands of young athletes over the past twenty-five years.

A more holistic approach is needed

Coaches love to debate the effectiveness of their programs. They will discuss linear periodization, undulating periodization, and the conjugate method. Then they will add a paragraph or two about nutrition and recovery. Once in a while they will mention mental performance or sport psychology, but rarely do they describe these important topics with the same detail as their programs.

Without proper recovery and nutrition, a program is of little value. With a simple subjective questionnaire, a coach can find out valuable information along with opening up conversations that can change the lives of their athletes with questions like:

  • Describe in detail the typical final hour of your day before going to bed (examples: I’m on my cell scrolling, social media, watching television, or reading a book).
  • How many meals per day do you typically eat?
  • How many hours per night do you sleep?
  • What time of day do you go to bed?
  • Describe your typical breakfast, lunch and dinner.
  • What recovery modalities are you currently using? (examples: sauna, ice bath, Chiropractic, PT, etc)

These questions are valuable to determine a starting point for improving the nutrition and recovery habits of your athletes. The information is only as good as your system for implementing these improved habits and accountability measures. We need to start focusing on these systems at least as hard as we focus on our programs and data collection.

A daily fatigue measurement along with a short subjective questionnaire is a great way to monitor fatigue and track ongoing accountability of an athlete’s adherence to nutrition and recovery systems. We use our GymAware RS and FLEX units to track daily readiness by measuring a hang clean pull or a jump with a focus on any major variation in velocity. 

The same can be said for mental health, mental performance, and overall sport psychology. My stance on these topics have changed the most during my studies at Lenoir-Rhyne University, while I was pursuing my Masters in Exercise Science. I learned that this area is never perfected, but should always remain a focus for a coach concerned about his athletes in more ways than just performance.

For example, the number one concern that I now have as a coach is that my athletes leave me with a love for training that will last a lifetime. Yes, I want my athletes to love training and overall fitness, so they will enjoy a healthy life and pass that love onto their children. 

I also want to help my athletes approach competition with a healthy mindset. I prefer to focus more on the process of whatever parameter the focus is of the current mesocycle versus a particular performance. Yes, there will always be some type of performance goal, but now we focus more on the daily process of reaching that goal versus some arbitrary daily performance metric.

This allows each session to be guided by a particular process improvement that is in the athlete’s control like a certain movement pattern or technique. The daily wins build up and in turn improve the athlete’s confidence. 

The main point to these suggestions is to look at your athletes as humans while understanding the complexity of humans. Without the proper recovery, nutrition, and mindset, a program is fairly useless. However, if we take the time to develop a program with a more holistic approach, we can work wonders for our athletes that will stay with them for the rest of their individual lives.

Summary

  • The Sport of Weightlifting and Resistance Training in General are both safe for youth if the program is age appropriate, progressed safely, and monitored by a professional.
  • Not only is Weight Training not dangerous for growth plates, lifting weights with appropriate technique creates stronger and thicker bones.
  • Youth can increase strength significantly more with weight training versus normal growth and maturation.
  • Plyometrics and explosive movements found in Olympic weightlifting induce improvements in Power.
  • These improvements in strength and power are easily maintained with little continued effort but can continue to be enhanced with continued training.
  • Improved Motor Performance Skills (Athleticism)
  • Improved Resistance to Sports Related Injuries
  • Improved Cardiovascular Risk Profile
  • Help with Weight Management
  • Enhanced Psychosocial Well-Being (relationships, mental health, etc)
  • Improved Cognitive Performance (I will explain this a bit more later)
  • Improved chances of maintaining a lifetime of health and fitness

Conclusion

Yes, athletic performance has advanced in the last decade, but one thing is for sure and that’s we still have work to do. We need qualified coaches working with our youth. Those coaches need to focus on the quality of movement versus the load on the bar at least until after puberty.

Even more importantly, the effect we have on our athletes needs to be a positive one. Our athletes should leave us in love with training and with a better understanding of themselves. They should leave us with a positive outlook on the experience as a whole.

We should get together in regards to taking systematic approaches towards our athletes’ mental wellbeing, culture of our programs, nutrition approaches of our athletes, and their recovery systems. The days of arguing like children about our program spreadsheets should be over. The mental, physical, and spiritual health of our athletes should be the primary concern. This article isn’t pointing a finger at an individual or some team. This article is in regards to our profession as a whole. We need to do better.

References:

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  2. Wilczyński B, Zorena K, Ślęzak D. Dynamic Knee Valgus in Single-Leg Movement Tasks. Potentially Modifiable Factors and Exercise Training Options. A Literature Review. International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health. 2020; 17(21):8208. https://doi.org/10.3390/ijerph17218208
  3. Hewett TE, Myer GD, Ford KR, et al. Biomechanical Measures of Neuromuscular Control and Valgus Loading of the Knee Predict Anterior Cruciate Ligament Injury Risk in Female Athletes: A Prospective Study. The American Journal of Sports Medicine. 2005;33(4):492-501. doi:10.1177/0363546504269591
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  7. Dahab KS, McCambridge TM. Strength training in children and adolescents: raising the bar for young athletes? Sports Health. 2009 May;1(3):223-6. doi: 10.1177/1941738109334215. PMID: 23015875; PMCID: PMC3445252.
  8. Myers AM, Beam NW, Fakhoury JD. Resistance training for children and adolescents. Transl Pediatr. 2017 Jul;6(3):137-143. doi: 10.21037/tp.2017.04.01. PMID: 28795003; PMCID: PMC5532191.
  9. Johnson BA, Salzberg CL, Stevenson DA. A systematic review: plyometric training programs for young children. J Strength Cond Res. 2011 Sep;25(9):2623-33. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e318204caa0. PMID: 21849911.
Coach Travis Mash

Travis Mash

Being a World Champion in powerlifting, Travis competed at a world-class level in Olympic weightlifting and has coached professional Olympic weightlifters alongside Don McCauley and Glenn Pendlay at Team MDUSA. Now Travis coaches the most successful weightlifting team in the USA.