Strength and Conditioning for Student-Athletes

There’s a difference between interest and commitment.  When you’re interested in doing something, you do it only when it’s convenient.  When you’re committed to something, you accept no excuses, only results.

-Kenneth Blanchard, Ph.D.

Strength and Conditioning for Student-Athletes

Increasing the strength and conditioning of athletes is an important aspect of facilitating improvement in sporting performance. While it is a commonly accepted part of the routine for college and professional athletes, there are numerous questions surrounding the topic when it comes to youth athletes. These include when exactly it should be introduced, if or how it will affect growth, how often it should be done and what exactly any strength and conditioning routine should entail. Over the past few years, strength and conditioning programs for youth have become more and more accepted, with an increase in the number of health club members between the ages of 6 and 17 seen in the USA. This makes it even more important to have a good understanding of how to approach the process. A recently updated position paper by experts in the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) provided some guidelines for parents, coaches while emphasising those suggestions only apply  in the case of properly designed (using best practice) and supervised resistance training programs:
  1. These programs are relatively safe.
  2. These programs can increase the muscular strength and power.
  3. These programs can improve the cardiovascular risk profile.
  4. These programs can improve motor skill performance and may contribute to enhanced sports performance.
  5. These programs can increase a young athlete’s resistance to the influence of sports-related industries.
  6. These programs can help improve psychosocial well- being.
  7. These programs can help promote and develop safe and effective exercise habits.
A properly designed and supervised program is essential to success, but the other key point made by the experts is that there must be a focus on perfecting and exercising proper technique once a youth athlete begins a training regime. That applies to both resistance training as a child and weight training in adolescence. In the case of teenage boys, especially when it comes weightlifting, the tendency is to try lifting as much weight as possible. This creates a real risk when the correct technique is not used. Alongside these major points, there are a few other schools of thought on how to guide the process to ensure against injury and help youth athletes progress.

Age-appropriate exercises

The Long-Term Athlete Development (LTAD) model of physical development has been used as a guide to determine when and how to introduce strength and conditioning. This model, which is heavily based on biological development, introduces weight training during the teenage years, following a focus on resistance and body weight exercises during the years prior. In this model, or any other, biological differences in individuals must be considered as when creating a strength training program. Training with the goal of increasing muscle mass and building strength is most effective after puberty, when testosterone production in the body is increased. At that point, the benefits which can be gained are greatest as the hormonal surge increases the response to training stimulus.

Comprehensive and progressive Programs

Any introduction to strength and conditioning staging for youth athletes should cover all major muscle groups within the body: chest, back (upper and lower), biceps, triceps, shoulders, abdominals, hips, quadriceps, hamstrings and calves. While each sport may emphasise the use of certain muscle groups or motions, it is important to have balance across the body in order to decrease the risk of injury. For best results, it is also important that the athletes are encouraged to systematically attempt to perform more work on a given exercise. For example, when they are able to complete 10 reps comfortably with the correct technique, they should be encouraged to do 11 reps. In addition to an increase in repetitions, a progressive program can include increasing the weight used or the number of sets.

Offseason, Preseason, During the season

For teenage athletes seriously considering their sporting careers, the recommended workout regimens during the season’s three phases will differ to prevent overloading and overworking muscles. Coaches and other experts should ensure that great care is being taken to develop training regimens that complement each other, minimizing the risks of injury faced by young athletes. The offseason is where the greatest strength gains will be made as there are fewer demands on the body’s muscles. Therefore, the overall training volume should be highest during this stage, with more days devoted to working out and more sets completed in those sessions. During the pre-season, as conditioning and fitness become a major focus for the athletes, strength training should continue, but the volume will generally decrease. The emphasis on strength training will decrease even more during the season, with shorter, more intense workouts being the recommendation.