Focus on strength training has never been more prominent. Our ever-growing knowledge on human biomechanics has taught us that superior strength is a key factor in injury prevention, lightning speed and on field domination.
This article will delve into the nitty gritty of forging the ultimate strength protocol for young athletes. This is centred around ability level, injury prevention and goals.
Before breaking into the ins and outs of training programs, we must choose our equipment.
Every strength coach should have a variety of weights at their disposal. This includes barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells. Other heavy objects which are useful are tyres, sand bags and medicine balls.
The benefits of having a variety of shapes and sizes relates to the different challenges we can present athletes. For example, lifting a handled weight such as a kettlebell is much easier than lifting a non-handled piece of kit of the same weight, e.g. medicine balls and sand bags.
Equipment for challenging stability is also crucial. I personally love the Jungle Gym XT, a suspension trainer that is highly resilient and easy to set up. Suspension trainers are fantastic for destabilizing the athlete. Wobble boards and BOSU balance trainers are another good piece of equipment but they are not necessarily great for developing strength. They just aid in improving proprioception.
Proprioception is when a reflex is stimulated by a sudden stretch of soft tissue, i.e. muscle, tendon or ligament.
Warming Up Protocol
To prepare the athlete, a well-structured warmup should be in place. The best warm ups improve performance as much as possible whilst taking as little time as possible. Warmups also reduce injury risk.
The Ramp Protocol
The RAMP protocol is a commonly used method for preparing the athlete for physical activity.
R stands for raising the heart rate and body temperature. I believe there is much value in this, however, the extent should vary from one activity to the next. In the weights room, my athletes are not encouraged to go too manic on the pre-session cardiovascular work.
A run, row or cycle will not mimic the biomechanical demands of resistance exercises such as squats, deadlifts or cleans. Therefore, they get much of their needed circulation through mobility exercises and activation.
A is for activation. This is the process of overloading the neural demands of a muscle. In many studies, lifting at 85% to 90% of a 1 repetition maximum for 2 reps, has been proven to increase strength later in the session. However, this may be problematic.
Do we really want our first few repetitions to be so heavy? Consider that young athletes are still new to weight training and their technique is not well reinforced into their learning, however good it is. One moment of incorrect positioning can permanently hinder athletes and destroy their future in sport.
However, a well-structured plyometric routine after a set of mobility exercises can be very useful. By plyometrics, I am of course referring to Uri Verkoshanskys “Shock Method” and not the useless protocols that we see too often these days. 50 box jumps in a row is not plyometrics, it’s jumping for endurance.
Remember that we are attempting to stimulate the stretch shortening response of a muscle and therefore we must keep the sets and repetitions in a range that is suitable for that very purpose. I find that by keeping the repetitions as lower than 26 per exercise is perfect.
This means that the following set and repetition schemes can be used:
2 sets of 12
3 sets of 8
4 sets of 6
5 sets of 5
Notice that I did not mention a 1 set protocol. This is because speed of execution is critical for successful plyometric practice. If an athlete performs more than 12 repetitions, the speed will drastically reduce.
M is for mobility. Mobility refers to an athlete’s capability to exert strength within his or her end ranges. If an athlete can do a deep squat, it is no good unless they can stand back up, out of that deep squat. Therefore, we are not referring to simply stretches.
The mobility section can be used to mimic the demands of an activity. If the athlete has a heavy squat session, squats may be practiced as a mobility exercise. Supplementary drills may also be performed such as ankle mobility, T-spine mobility and any drill that can help an athlete to improve his or her squat.
This is also the ideal part of the warm up to work on the range of short or tight muscles. If an athlete has poor latissimus dorsi flexibility, it may be a good idea to practice an overhead mobility drill.
P stands for potentiate. This is simply the mimicry of an activity. If an athlete is training to improve his clean, he or she may practice this exercise with a broomstick handle before the main part of the session begins.
Welding the RAMP Protocol
You may have noticed that a single activity can tick many boxes. For example, if you plan on squatting during a session, box jumps can aid in raising the body temperature, acclimatization of the muscle and potentiation. This is because a box jump mimics squat mechanics and overloads the neural demands of the glutes and hamstrings. The demands of the activity also raise the body temperature.
Pull ups may aid in 4 ways. Pull ups can help to raise the body temperature, activate the muscle of the back, mobilize the shoulders and mimic the demands of any overhead work an athlete may be doing that day.
One contributing factor to poor technique that is not covered in the above protocol is muscular tightness. If a muscle is overused or sore from previous activity, movement may alter. Form rolling is the ideal tool to help with this. There are 2 methods I recommend.
- Roll the sore spot for 1 minute.
- Take 10 repetitions on the specific area.
Please note that a slower, more controlled roll is far more beneficial than a rapid, jerky movement.
The exercises we choose are arguably as important as the methods we put in place. We wish to find the exercises that offers the most benefit. There are various considerations to make.
Compounds and Isolation Exercises
Admittedly, I prefer compound exercises for athletic development. This is because compound exercises offer the biggest bang for your buck. An athlete can develop more muscle fibres in a single lift. Compound exercises make it easier to load the central nervous system. You will also find that many compound exercises mimic sporting movements if you wish to apply them in that manner.
Isolation exercises do have their value. If a coach can pin point a weak area on an athlete, isolation exercises can help to solve the imbalance. It is common for young soccer players to have weak external rotator muscles of the hips. This can be corrected with a crab walk or the clam exercise.
Strength and Stability Exercises
Strength is the ability to exert maximal force. In sport, lifting heavy load is not enough to succeed. We must also have stability to be a well-rounded athlete.
I often use the visualization tool of a triangle. The top corner of the triangle represents strength whilst the bottom represents stability. For injury prevention and performance, both must be well developed.
The equilateral triangle symbolizes a well-balanced athlete with a lower injury risk and more versatility in regards to performance. For athletes in common team sports such as football, baseball, basketball and soccer, this is the ideal visualization tool to aid athletes in their quest to build athletic strength.
There are many athletes who are well rounded. Football Players are examples I like to use. This is because of the high strength requirement but also their incredible agility.
The common power lifter is represented by our second triangle. Although the power lifter is strong, the stability base is often poor. This is because many power lifting workouts are designed around bilateral exercise, where stability will not be challenged. The use of unilateral exercises and destabilization will aid powerlifters with improved proprioception and neural control. This can prevent knee injuries and lower back pain.
Many soccer players can be represented with triangle number 3. Although the stability is often incredible, dribbling a ball between their feet whilst running at a high speed is tricky, the soccer player often struggles with strength. Having worked with many soccer players, I can say from experience that very few of them enjoy the weights room. This often results in weakness of the posterior chain. This can result in displacement of pelvic positioning and security around the knees. Rupture of the anterior cruciate ligament, hamstring strains and sprained ankles are very common in soccer.
The triangle visualization tool that I use is a key part of my kit as it helps me to get an athlete on board with the interventions that I am putting into place.
It is crucial that a coach remembers that specificity does not necessarily mean mimicry. In many cases, trying to mimic a sporting movement in the weights room may do more harm than good. If a soccer player is weak, then loading up on the deadlifts and squats may be a prime factor in their program. After all, the athlete manages to practice stability every day during his skill sessions and during his games.
On the other hand, it may be important to mimic the demands of competition when the event comes closer. If a powerlifter spends the best part of 12 weeks away from dead lifting, he would have avoided reinforcing his technique, loading up his central nervous system and developing his soft tissue to handle the poundage. Therefore, stabilization may be used as a prehabilitation method to supplement the power lifters workout.
When it comes to the above examples, it is important to note that lifting weights is a part of powerlifting. It is not a part of soccer.
The speed at which an exercise is performed must be judged on various factors:
- The purpose of the exercise. If an athlete aims to improve power, speed is essential. Power is the multiplication of speed and strength. Therefore, lifting at 60% of a 1 repetition maximum may help to increase power if the speed at which an exercise is practiced is high.
- The experience of the lifter. If the young athlete is new to the weights room, a controlled tempo is recommended. Technical mastery must be in effect before more speed can be applied. This will reduce injury risk and alignment issues.
- The resistance. The heavier weight, the slower the athlete will unintentionally lift.
As boring as this one may seem, it is crucial to mention. Many exercises can be deemed unsafe. Annoyingly, it may take time to learn more about the exercises we are using in our routines. For example, the crunch has been the foundation of various abdominal programs. However, the crunch has been associated with denaturing of the cartilage of the lumbar spine. The classic upright row has been known to cause shoulder impingement.
Exercises are also subject to the level of the participant. For example, if an athlete can’t squat efficiently, squat jumps are not to be used. If an athlete is new to squat jumps, depth jumps must be avoided as the athlete will not have adequate strength.
Injuries and flaws in the athlete’s physiology must also be noted. Overhead work is not recommended for athletes with poor shoulder mobility. If the athlete has short latissimus dorsi muscles, overhead exercises can cause an over emphasized curve of the lumbar spine. This can be very damaging. Just imagine what could happen if an athlete performs an overhead press with poor posture. Stability could be lost and the bar may fall or jerk in a manner that causes a rupture. The poor positioning of the spine may result in a dislodged cartilage. This is where adequate screening becomes important.
Repetitions are determined by an exercise. Half body exercises such as rowing actions, bench presses and squats should not exceed 25 repetitions. After this range, the athlete’s technique may falter. This is past the point of benefiting from an exercise but injury may come about.
Lager compound lifts such as cleans, snatches and deadlifts are higher risk exercises. This is where the power of 10 applies as these exercises are far more exhausting. There should be no more than 10 repetitions practiced per exercise.
Sets are determined by the goal of an exercise program. Higher set ranges are beneficial for athletes wishing to improve strength. Lower set ranges are used for athletes wishing to improve endurance or muscle mass.
If we took our repetition protocol on board, we may perform 2 sets of 12 for endurance but perform 5 sets of 5 for strength.
An Example Workout
With the above factors taken into consideration, we may establish a program. Here is an example of a workout for young athletes looking to improve their hinging pattern.
- Form Roll on the hip flexors for 1 minute
- Form Roll on the IT band for 1 minute
- Perform 3 sets of 30 seconds of mountain climbers with a 1 minute rest in between
- Perform 2 sets of 12 kettlebell swings
- Perform a Deadlift for 1 sets of 5 repetitions, 1 sets of 3 repetitions and 1 set of 2 repetitions. Increase the weight for each set.
- Perform 5 sets of 2 repetitions of the hang clean.
- Perform 3 sets of 8 single leg Romanian Deadlifts
- Finish with 3 sets of 12 repetitions of leg raises.
As you may have noticed, the main session only contains 4 exercises. For young athletes and the average population, this is enough. As the athlete advances, an additional exercise may be placed into the mix. I very rarely go over 6 exercises during the main part of the routine.
The finial part of the workout is designed to promote recovery. I usually go through the same process with each of my athletes which I call my 4 R’s. Run, Roll, Reach and Reflect.
Running is a valuable tool for improving circulation and dispensing biochemical waste such as carbon dioxide.
Rolling on a form roller can help to ease sore spots. After a workout, the athlete is encouraged to do this until the sore area starts to relieve itself.
This is simply my personal approach to static stretching after a workout. I say reach as it encourages the athletes to hold a tall, thin posture.
Young athletes must reflect on their training to enhance the learning process. A coach should not only lead but educate.
Strength coaches should not punish young athletes. Strength coaches are present for the wellbeing and development of young athletes and therefore, should not be encouraged by parents or sports coaches to push an athlete until he or she throws up, or goes past the point of technical failure.
You’ve done your research and you know what is best for the athlete. Trust your knowledge.