Resistance training for young athletes
Tony Paladin provides some guidelines for when starting a strength-training programme with young athletes
Strength is the ability to apply force against a resistance. Power incorporates an explosive element in that it is the ability to apply force against a resistance in the shortest possible time. Increases in muscular strength and power may enhance performance in young athletes. It has been shown, however, that greater improvements in performance in adolescents occur through gains in physiological efficiency via improvements of skill and quality of movement and the ability of the young athlete to move his or her own body weight effectively.
It may be far more beneficial for younger athletes (<16) to spend their time perfecting balance, agility, coordination skill, body kinaesthetic awareness and stability than time spent in the gym pumping weights. Heavy weights also place a considerable amount of stress on developing skeletal and muscular systems, potentially increasing the likelihood of injury in the young athlete.
Although it can be argued that younger athletes need to improve strength, the coach is in a position where he or she can end up damaging a young child with improper lifting techniques or even just through an inherent weakness in the athlete: rather be safe than sorry. Prior to any resistance exercise, it is absolutely mandatory that the coach understands the sound biomechanical principles of resistance training.
In the more developed athlete (>16), however, strength gains can give them an edge above others. In sport, many things produce resistance: water in swimming, canoeing and rowing, gravity in running and jumping, and by the opposition in wrestling and martial arts. A well-designed training program that concentrates on progression of strength training will result in strengthening of ligaments and tendons as well as allowing the athlete to cope better with training and competition. Increased strength can help the athlete minimise injury and become more effective with dealing with the stresses that happen on the sports field.
In the young athlete, strength training can be a positive component of a child's active lifestyle. However, it needs to be specifically designed for the young athlete's age and sport. Before participating in a strength-training program, both coach and athlete need to understand the importance of technique and safety. The young athlete needs to be ready both physiologically and psychologically. The following guidelines should be followed when starting a strength-training program with young athletes.
Develop joint flexibility
Most strength exercises employ a large range of movement particularly in the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and elbows. Flexibility training should be started in pre-pubescence and maintained through into the high-performance phase of development.
Develop tendon strength before muscle strength
Muscle strength always improves faster than the tendon's ability to withstand tension and the ligament's resistance to preserve the integrity of the bones forming a joint. Faulty use of the principle of specificity and the lack of planning a long term, progressive program may result in the constant stress of body parts (muscles and joints) involved solely in the chosen sport. A lack of anatomical adaptation prior to starting a rigorous strength program can result in injuries to the muscles and their attachments.
Develop core strength (stabilisers) before limbs (prime movers)
Although legs and arms perform most athletic skills, the forces are directed through a fulcrum (the trunk), which acts as a stabilising platform around which the limbs work. A poorly developed trunk will limit the transfer of power to the limbs, hence acting as a giant shock absorber. The abdominal corset, lower back and spinal musculature need to have special emphasis placed on their development in young athletes.
Age specific strength training programs
Weighted exercises are not recommended. It is more beneficial in the long term to utilise the athlete's own body weight as a resistance, teaching him or her to move it effectively. It is possible that some younger athletes do simple weighted exercises at a young age, but it should be treated more as technical development training.
The primary focus is not a gain in strength by the development of muscle mass. It is important that a qualified fitness specialist supervise both coach and athlete in the initial stages of commencing a strength program to ensure proper technique. Exercises involving their own body weight and gravity are preferred. The focus should be placed on quality of movement with particular attention paid to abdominal and core stability.
Weighted exercises are acceptable but complex movement exercises such as the squat, clean & jerk and the snatch need to be supervised (both athlete and coach) by a fitness specialist and the weights need to be minimal initially. Developing proper lifting technique is more important than gross gains in strength (often just the bar is sufficient). Following a general adaptation phase the athlete should complete a general strength-conditioning phase of about 8 weeks consisting of 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions of each exercise. Sets of less than 5 reps should not be performed as the loads involved could promote injury. It is thought that high velocity strength endurance weight training (25+ reps) should not be performed in the young athlete. This type of exercise could result in fatigue and poor lifting technique; both of which promote injury.
A useful supplement to a training session is the body circuit (Figure 1). By using the body's mass as the resistance, one can have a quick and effective strength training session. The coach should lead the session and the athletes should work in pairs at each station around the gymnastics room.
The intervals can be by time (for example, 30 seconds work, switch to the partner, 30 seconds rest while the partner works, etc.) or by repetitions counted out loud (for example, 15 repetitions, switch to the partner, 15 repetitions for the partner). This method of training is particularly good for young athletes to develop muscle coordination.
Strength endurance training (for the older athlete)
Endurance fitness can also be developed in the weight lifting room. Muscular endurance is developed using a lower intensity (40 to 50% of 1 repetition max) and a high number of repetitions. The recovery period is short to obtain an optimal circulatory and muscular training effect. The speed of movement is high (20 to 30 repetitions a minute). A high number of total repetitions of each exercise (600 to 1100 repetitions) are necessary to obtain an optimal effect.
Maximal Strength Training (for the older athlete) General strength is needed in the development of optimal technique and for the creation of the necessary conditions for improving physical performance levels. Maximal strength is the determining component for peak force production during most movements. Gains in maximal strength require a high intensity program (80 to 95% of 1 rep max), a low number of repetitions, and a high number of sets with a recovery period between each set.
The total number of repetitions during one training session varies between 220 and 240. Prior to starting a maximal strength program, it is advised that athletes take part in a general strength-training program to first condition their bodies to cope with the upcoming maximal loads. During the first training period after a resting or transition period, athletes should follow a general strength program. Three weekly training sessions can prepare the muscles for more specific training components later. Following this, the program should alternate between maximal strength and endurance strength.
The Pyramid System (Applicable to the younger athlete as well as the older athlete)
Each strength training session should be started with a thorough warm-up and stretching session. Strength training should take place in groups of two to three. This provides time for rest and stretching while the partner is working. One should start from the bottom of the pyramid and work up to the top. The rest period takes place while the partner does the same. The athletes continue with the same exercise until all the given series have been finished. Always control the technique of the movement to avoid injuries.
Cool down after training with a thorough stretching and flexibility programme.
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About the Author
Tony Paladin is a qualified personal fitness trainer, spinning instructor and rowing coach. He has represented South Africa in Rowing 7 times at various World Championships and World Cups, been 12 times national rowing champion and under 23 World Championship silver medallist. He has a BSc. WITS (Human Kinetics, Physiology and Psychology) and is currently studying BSc. Biokinetics Honours.
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