Benefits of Youth Strength & Conditioning
While your prepubertal athlete is never going to grow muscles like Arnold, that does not mean all is lost by putting them into a physical development program. There are many ways in which physical development (strength and conditioning) sessions can help youth athletes develop strength, stability and speed, and lay a foundation for further improvement in the future.
The effects of strength and conditioning (S&C) programs on youth athletes is now well researched. Engaging in a well-structured, age appropriate S&C program can elicit significant improvements in strength and power measures in youths. Most of these benefits come from advancements in the capabilities of the nervous system and its connection with the muscular system. There are 3 main neuromuscular mechanisms that explain how these improvements occur:
- Muscle Recruitment – This neural phenomenon explains the process of determining which muscles should be involved in specific movements. As movements are practiced and refined muscle recruitment strategies improve.
- Rate Coding – After the nervous system has determined which muscles should be involved, it then needs to determine how frequently signals should be sent to those muscles in order to overcome the physical challenge.
- Synchronicity – After the neuromuscular system has identified the appropriate muscles to activate and the appropriate intensity at which they should be activated, it then needs to develop coordination amongst these muscle groups in order to create a smooth movement pattern. This principle becomes even more important during complex, high velocity movements.
A prepubertal athlete can improve strength up to 30% in an 8-12 week S&C program, but gains in muscle size are much less significant (usually negligible). Despite the fact that the muscles are not set up to grow significantly in the early years, significant improvements in performance measures can occur.
If you have ever watched a youth athlete do a lunge or squat for the first time, you have observed the poor motor programming that they possess before their body sorts through the appropriate neuromuscular strategies to make the movement more efficient. The movements look very unstable and are commonly haphazard. Sometimes these patterns clean up during the first session and sometimes they take multiple sessions to resemble a well-organized movement. This movement skill development is a clear representation of the neuromuscular mechanisms outlined above. As these complex movement patterns become more coordinated, athletes develop a better ability to move with more precision, power and speed.
Improvements in nervous system proficiency express themselves in many ways: strength, power, balance, stability and stamina to name a few. Much like dribbling a basketball or stick handling a puck are skills that need to be refined, gross motor patterns like skating, running and squatting also require practice for improvement. By engaging in an S&C program that focuses on high transfer movement patterns, youth athletes can improve their athletic performance and confidence on the playing field, and lay a foundation for further development down the road.
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Haff, G. G., & Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of strength and conditioning (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
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Radnor, J. M., Lloyd, R. S., & Oliver, J. L. (2017). Individual response to different forms of resistance training in school-aged boys. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 31(3), 787-797.