Youth strength training represents one of the greatest windows of opportunity in an athlete’s development. Properly planned and instructed, strength training has the potential to improve young athlete performance in the short and long term, as well as offer an enjoyable way of engaging with physical fitness for life. In this article, we’ll review some research around youth strength training, discuss some common myths and misconceptions, and build a plan for enjoyment of physical activity and long-term athlete development beginning in childhood.
Key Points: Commonly cited problems with youth strength training are typically due to an inappropriately advanced training plan, poor instruction, or lack of supervision by the coach. Young athletes can learn developmentally appropriate physical training fundamentals and build gradually on those skills as their training capacity increases. Coaches of young athletes should focus first on enjoyment of and engagement in physical activity, then on developing general athletic movement fundamentals and building a foundation for future performance improvement.
Table of Contents:
- Long-Term Athlete Development
- Myths and Misconceptions
- Athletic Motor Skill Competencies
- Basic Exercises
- Loading and Progressing
- Sample Sessions
- Additional Resources
Goals of Long-Term Athlete Development
There are two major goals of youth sports and strength training.
The first goal is enjoyment of sports and healthy physical activity. If sports are not fun and personally rewarding for young people, we should not expect them to keep coming back. Most kids quit sports by age 11 with “lack of fun” as the primary reason.
If kids don’t keep coming back, we can’t expect them to become great athletes as teenagers or adults. That is why fun is the first major goal of youth sports, with any performance goals down the priority list. The goal of youth sports is not being good at youth sports, it’s having fun and being good enough to keep coming back for the next season, year, or level. We can maximize performance in childhood with short-term development strategies, but who cares if those high-performing youths quit and don’t make it to the next level? This is bad for the child, and it’s bad for sport performance too.
Coaching author John O’Sullivan coined a nice phrase to describe this: “There is no LTAD without STAE: Short-Term Athlete Engagement.”
This is especially true in rowing. It takes longer to achieve a high level of performance in rowing than many other sports. We don’t see young “phenoms” in rowing who are competing at the highest level, the way that we do in sports like baseball and soccer that have teenagers excelling in the professional leagues. Rowing requires a physical build and level of physiological fitness that takes years to develop, in addition to technical proficiency and experience in the performance environment to succeed at the highest level of the sport. This doesn’t happen if we focus on performance too soon, and burn out or fail to develop other athletic qualities that contribute to long-term development, health, and performance in the sport.
Strength training is already usually less fun than sport training, so we have to take extra steps to making strength training fun, engaging, and personally rewarding for the young athlete. We do not do boring, performance-focused, conventional strength training programs with young athletes. Make it fun, improve general athleticism, teach the basic movements, and lay the foundation for training and gaining.
Read More: Rowing Long-Term Athlete Development
Youth Strength Training Myths and Misconceptions
“Any age is a good age. But there does seem to be something special about the time from about age 7 to 12. The nervous system is very plastic. The kids are very eager. It seems to be an ideal time to hard-wire strength gains and movement patterns. And if you structure a program right…it can be so much fun that it never occurs to the kids that they’re getting quote-unquote ‘strength training’ at all.”
There are a few major myths and misconceptions around youth strength training. Most of these originate from a misunderstanding of the goals and methods of developmentally appropriate youth strength training. Young athletes are not small adult athletes. Youths need different strength training systems for different target outcomes than older athletes in puberty and adulthood.
There is no evidence that age-appropriate strength training has negative health outcomes for young athletes. Injuries and health problems that do occur are usually the fault of lack of instruction, inadequate supervision, or use of too-advanced training methods with young athletes [NSCA, 2009].
The NSCA recommends a coach-to-athlete ratio of no more than 1-to-10 with middle school athletes and younger. This is important to make sure that qualified coaches can instruct the lifts, provide ongoing coaching, and supervise safe use of equipment.
There is no evidence that age-appropriate strength training damages growth plates and stunts growth or adult height. Growth plate damage occurs from excessive compression, usually a traumatic impact. This should never occur during strength training for the young athlete. Coaches should monitor plyometric jump height and use of weighted equipment to make sure that young athletes are training at a safe level. Growth plate damage could occur from jumping and landing from very high heights, lifting weights that are too heavy for the athlete, or from misusing equipment. Young athletes should not do intense plyometrics (ie. landing from high heights) or lift maximal weights (ie. close to 1-rep maximum), and should always be instructed, coached, and supervised while strength training to prevent injury from misuse of equipment.
“The rare case reports of epiphyseal [growth] plate fractures related to strength training are attributed to misusing equipment, lifting inappropriate amounts of weight, using improper technique, or training without qualified adult supervision.”
Adults often state that there is no point to strength training until puberty, that strength training can make young athletes “bulky,” “musclebound,” or slow, or that strength training isn’t necessary until kids are “serious” about their sport. These are again misunderstandings of the purpose and methods of strength training for young athletes.
Increasing muscle size is largely dependent on testosterone, but strength is not. Testosterone and other anabolic growth hormones are low until puberty, so muscle size is not a goal for strength training the youth athlete. However, youth athletes can still definitely get stronger from strength training via neural connections. At a young age, the athlete’s brain and central nervous system are highly adaptable, so improved neuromuscular coordination and mastery of basic movement patterns can increase muscular strength rapidly. The athlete is then primed for growth when they reach puberty because they will have already mastered the basic lifts, improved their neuromuscular coordination, increased their strength, and laid down a great foundation for future gains. Teach and train general athletic qualities, basic strength training movements with bodyweight and low-to-moderate loads, and make physical activity a fun and engaging part of life, and reap the rewards later in adolescence and adulthood.
Fun, athletic coordination, and early mastery of basic movements are the major goals of youth strength training, but strength training can also develop greater muscular strength and mass in youths as an indirect benefit. “Pediatric dynapenia” is a term for “an identifiable and treatable condition in youth characterized by low levels of muscular strength and power and consequent physical and psychosocial limitations not caused by neurologic or muscular disease.” Modern youths are less active on average, and as a result experience lower strength, less muscle mass, and more anxiety around physical activity and fitness as teens and adults. Inactivity leads to poor movement coordination. Poor movement coordination leads to low strength and muscle mass. Low strength and muscle mass leads to more inactivity as participatory and competitive opportunities are reduced in adolescence. Inactive teenagers can become inactive adults. We need to intervene somewhere to improve physical fitness, sport performance, and lifelong health, and the earlier the better.
Athletic Motor Skill Competencies
Athletic Motor Skill Competencies, or AMSCs for short, are a useful way to categorize and conceptualize all of the different athletic skills that most sport performance relies on. As you read the list below, think about your own training or coaching. How different would things be if all youths developed the AMSCs before reaching high school sports, or even college sports?
- Lower body unilateral: movements using one leg at a time, such as single-leg hopping and jumping, skipping, jumping rope, etc.
- Lower body bilateral: movements using two legs at a time, such as double-leg jumping, squatting, and hip hinges.
- Upper body pushing: bilaterally and/or unilaterally pushing an object with the hands in the horizontal and vertical direction, such as pushups and pressing overhead.
- Upper body pulling: bilaterally and/or unilaterally pulling an object with the hands in the horizontal and vertical direction, such as bodyweight rows, monkey bars, pull-ups, etc.
- Antirotation and core bracing: stabilizing the torso, with and without movement at the extremities (ie. arms and legs).
- Jumping, landing, and rebounding mechanics: moving the body through space in a dynamic way. Begin with landing mechanics first, to teach how to land safely and effectively, and then progress to jumping and rebounding. Most youth jump training should be lower intensity (ie. height/distance of jump) and higher volume, focusing on exercises like skipping, bounding, and jumping rope before progressing to box jumps, depth jumps, tuck jumps, etc.
- Throwing, catching, and grasping: bilaterally and unilaterally manipulating another object in space with the hands, often requiring power development or stability in the legs, stability and transfer of power in the torso, and athletic sequencing and propulsive force in the arms and hands.
- Acceleration, deceleration, and re-acceleration: usually in the running context, this includes the ability to speed up, slow down, and speed up after slowing down, but this can also be broadened out to skills like skating, cycling, and jumping rope that involve manipulating different speeds of activity.
Read more about AMSCs in this free PDF: “Developing Athletic Motor Skill Competencies in Youth” by Radnor et al. (2020).
I have found jump ropes to be one of the simplest ways to train the AMSCs for any level of athlete. Jump ropes are inexpensive, portable, and many athletes can use them in the same training space at the same time. Different variations of jump roping train general eye-hand-foot coordination, as well as AMSCs of lower body unilateral and bilateral, antirotation and core bracing, and jumping, landing, and rebounding. Jump roping can be “gamified” into a personal challenge or competitive challenge by progressing through time, speed, and challenging variations. We can also use jump roping as a warm-up for any age and level of athlete, as a low impact and low intensity cardiovascular and full-body movement.
Beyond jump ropes, AMSC training can be worked into most boathouse environments without much need for additional equipment or a dedicated strength training space. Another advantage over conventional strength training is the lower intensity and greater diversity of AMSC training. This kind of strength training can be done in shorter, more frequent doses due to the low systemic stress and higher engagement factors. Doing 20-30 minutes of AMSC training 3-4 times per week with young athletes offers a fun and relatively non-fatiguing way to train general athletic qualities and build for future development. This is especially useful during land training times when rowers might otherwise be on ergometers or doing repetitive conventional strength training. Slightly longer sessions of 30-45 minutes twice per week on non-consecutive days is also fine for general development.
Using Basic Strength Training Exercises
Young athletes should focus on AMSC development until at least age 10. Athletes around age 10 who have developed basic AMSCs and are interested in strength training may begin a more conventional strength training approach. Continue with AMSC training, and begin to integrate more bodyweight or lightly loaded free-weight exercises.
We tend to focus AMSC training on bodyweight, multi-directional movements performed for general athletic coordination before specific loading or physical or physiological outcomes. We can add another layer of loaded strength training exercises to our AMSC categorization system, or we can use a new categorization system for conventional strength training exercises.
I like to use a categorization system for conventional strength training of squat, hinge, push, pull, and “other.” This is the basis of my exercise video index. “Other” includes specific exercises for the shoulder, hip, and core muscles that are not directly targeted in squat, hinge, push, and pull. We could also include AMSC movements in this category, too.
- Most basic: Bodyweight squat
- Next level: Goblet squat
- Advanced: Barbell front squat
- Unilateral: Standing lunge, reverse lunge or walking lunge, and rear-foot-elevated split squat
- Most basic: Bodyweight hinge
- Next level: Dumbbell/Kettlebell hinge
- Advanced: Barbell hinge or deadlift variation
- Unilateral: Single-leg hinge and hip airplane variations
- Most basic: Elevated pushup
- Next level: Pushup
- Advanced: Loaded horizontal pushing (eg. dumbbell bench or barbell bench) and vertical pressing (eg. dumbbell or barbell press or push press)
- Unilateral: Alternating horizontal pushing and single-arm overhead pressing
- Most basic: Bodyweight row
- Next level: Assisted chin-up
- Advanced: Chin-up, more challenging bodyweight row variations, weighted row exercises
- Unilateral: Single-arm pulldown or rowing (eg. dumbbell, kettlebell, or landmine row)
- AMSCs: Any AMSC exercises that don’t fit the above categories
- Shoulder: Y-W-T raises, band pullaparts, facepulls
- Hip: Any rotational or lateral hip movements
- Core: Use a variety of exercises
- More: Loaded carries like farmers walks and sandbag carries
Youth Strength Training Loading and Progressing
In general, young athletes should use bodyweight or lightly loaded bilateral and unilateral strength training exercises for 5-15 reps per set. As capacity improves, increase from light to moderate loads. Young athletes might do fewer than five reps per set, but they should still use a weight equivalent to what they would use for about ten reps, not straining under high loads. Young athletes also don’t need endurance strain with hard sets of 15+ reps. Attention to technique tends to fade as the set progresses, resulting in worse movement quality, increased risk of injury, and loss of training effect. Young athletes need to build capacity first for high-strain training later.
I also minimize use of machines (especially those not designed for small bodies) with young athletes, preferring bodyweight or free-weight exercises that better improve general athletic coordination.
Strength training sessions should generally be completed in 30-45 minutes, including warm-up time. Young athletes usually do not have the attention or energy for longer strength training sessions.
The 30-30-for-30 system is the one method of circuit training I like and often use with young athletes. It’s 30 seconds on, 30 seconds off, for 30 minutes. You can do as many different exercises within that time frame as you want. I like for the exercise rotation to work out cleanly, so I tend to use 6 rounds of 5 exercises, 5 rounds of 6 exercises, or 3 rounds of 10 exercises. I’ve used this system for years as a way to start strength training for rowing, during the gym/boathouse closure phase of the pandemic, and for rowers traveling away from their normal gym equipment or routine who still want to get in a simple strength training session. I learned this first from a 2018 article by strength coach Dan John and spoke about it in my “minimalist/at-home strength training” webinar for USRowing in April of 2020.
You can read my “How to Start Strength Training for Rowing” article to learn a lot more about the 30-30-for-30 system, including a bank of sample training sessions. We can use many AMSC movements in the 30-30-for-30 system to make this a great approach to early strength training for the young athlete. See below for more youth-focused sample sessions.
The 30-30-for-30 system fixes a lot of the problems with conventional strength training circuit designs:
- Workload limited to the 30-second “on” duration. We can’t generate THAT much fatigue in 30 seconds using good technique and tempo. Aim for 8-15 reps per 30 seconds on most exercises. The longer range-of-motion exercises like a squat will usually get fewer, while the smaller exercises like a band pullapart will usually get more.
- 1-to-1 work-to-rest ratio increases intra-session recovery compared to circuits with a greater amount of work than rest. It takes a very strong and experienced trainee working at relatively low muscular outputs to keep technique crisp under the fatigue of a circuit session with long work durations. Athletes can achieve better technique on each rep with the limited work duration and the 1-1 work-rest ratio.
- Entire session limited to 30 minutes, of which only 15 minutes is “on” time, keeps the workload manageable, recoverable, and repeatable. This training will build you up over weeks and months, not break you down with brutal efforts that can’t be sustained in the longer term.
The amount of weight that a young athlete uses on an exercise is not a priority outcome or goal of strength training. Select weights so that the athlete is able to move with good technique at an appropriate level of challenge. Young athletes beginning conventional strength training should not use a rigid progression model, percentage-based strength training, or comparisons to benchmarks or other athletes. Continue emphasizing fun, engagement, and personal improvement for the young athlete, and make sure this is an enjoyable part of their overall life and training.
Sample Youth Strength Training Sessions
Exact session templates are hard to provide, given the range of potential abilities and experiences among youth athletes and the difference in available equipment and training space. Coaches and strength coaches of young rowers should think creatively from the framework of fun, AMSCs, and basic strength training movements.
Fun: Remember, the goal is to keep them coming back! Every rep, set, and exercise doesn’t need to be a joyride, but the strength training session should overall be more fun than not. If young athletes consistently pan a certain exercise or part of the training, reduce it if it’s necessary (“Let’s just do 2 sets of this just to get it done, then we’ll move on to [fun thing]”) or give it a break and use something else for a while.
AMSCs: “Play” with strength training! You can make a whole session out of AMSCs with young and beginning athletes, or use AMSCs as warmups or single AMSC exercises as a bridge to more conventional strength training with older and more experienced athletes.
Animal Walks are a fun way to be creative, at least a little bit silly, and learn how to move in different ways. See the Radnor et al. (2020) “Developing Athletic Motor Skill Competencies in Youth” for a great list (page 4-5), and use Youtube for more examples.
Basic Strength Training Movements: Mastery of the fundamental squat, hinge, push, and pull movements is the foundation of future strength training. Any time young athletes are practicing and learning to move better through these movement patterns is good for the goals of youth strength training.
Beyond this, AMSC games are a great way to go. For example, I’ve gotten a lot of use out of medicine ball four-square. Here’s one example I found on Youtube. With younger athletes than in that video, we used a light (3-5lb) and soft medicine ball so that it wouldn’t bounce or roll very far, and a two-second “timer” (coach or athletes counting out-loud) for athletes to receive the ball and get the ball out of their square. We would make up rules as we went, such as only throwing in a certain style (eg. squat throw, underhand throw, rotational throw, etc.) to vary the movements and required skills.
Obstacle courses and relay races are great as well. Youth-focused open gym spaces are also becoming more available in the USA. These offer a supervised way to safely and creatively engage with many different physical movements. Check out the videos on this page for examples.
“The grid” is another system for incorporating more dynamic movement training. Set up a box, approximately 5-10 yards on the short sides and 15-20 yards on the long sides. Do a higher intensity, more strength-dominant movement on the short sides, and a more dynamic movement on the long sides. For example, a two-leg broad jump on the short sides and a skip or lateral shuffle on the long sides. Animal walks are great here too. Varying the training environment is a simple way to keep training engaging for the young athlete.
Basic strength training: 30-30-for-30
Here are a few example 30-30-for-30 sessions that I have used with young athletes transitioning from AMSC training to more conventional strength training. Circuit #1 is an AMSC-focused 3×10 circuit. The athlete(s) will go through the ten exercises three times in 30 minutes. Circuit #2 focuses on basic exercises in a 3×10 design. Circuit #3 is a 5×6 circuit: five rounds of six exercises in 30 minutes. Circuit #4 is a 6×5 circuit: six rounds of five exercises in 30 minutes.
|Circuit #1||Circuit #2||Circuit #3||Circuit #4|
|Animal Walk||1. Squat (BW/Goblet)||1. Squat (BW/Goblet)||1. Walking Lunge|
|Bodyweight Squat||2. 1-Arm Row (L)||2. Pushup||2. Double DB OHP|
|Animal Walk||3. 1-Arm Row (R)||3. Bodyweight Row||3. Romanian DL (Bar/PVC)|
|Pushup||4. Pushup||4. Romanian DL (Bar/PVC)||4. Stir-the-Pot Core|
|Medball Throw||5. Hip Thrust||5. Side Plank (L)||5. Band Pullapart|
|Skip for Height||6. Romanian DL (Bar/PVC)||6. Side Plank (R)|
|Bodyweight Row||7. Front Plank Hold|
|Front Plank Hold||8. Bodyweight Row|
|Walking Lunge||9. 1-Arm OHP (L)|
|Jump Rope||10. 1-Arm OHP (R)|
Basic strength training: Sets, Reps, Load, Rest
We can use a sets-and-reps based strength training program when athletes have sufficient training experience and are developmentally ready (physically, mentally, and motivationally), and if we have the equipment access and ability to instruct and supervise. Continue to focus on basic bodyweight and free-weight exercises, not machines and isolation exercises. This strength training begins to resemble conventional strength training for teenagers and adults.
Do full-body strength training two or three times per week for 30-45 minutes. Use low loads at first and moderate volume, such as 6-8 exercises per session for 3-5 sets of 5-12 reps per set. Increase load as athlete ability improves, still staying below maximal strain levels (ie. 1-3RM). Increase rest from 30-60 seconds to 1-2 minutes as athlete ability improves and the amount of load they can use increases. Include AMSC activities to distribute the training load and continue developing these skills. See two example sessions below.
- Full-Body Warmup
- A1. 1-Arm Standing Overhead Press: 3 x 5
- A2. Bodyweight or Goblet Squat: 3 x 5, 1’ rest
- B1. Pushup or Elevated Pushup: 3 x 8
- B2. Bodyweight Row: 3 x 8
- B3. Romanian Deadlift (Bar/PVC pipe): 3 x 8, 1’ rest
- C1. Lateral Squat Shuffle: 4 x 10 yards each direction
- C2. Medicine Ball Underhand Throw: 4 x 3 throws
- C3. Front Plank: 4 x 10 seconds
- Full-Body Warmup
- A1. Medicine Ball Squat-to-Throw: 3 x 4 throws
- A2. Hex Bar Deadlift: 3 x 5, 2’ rest
- B1. Double DB Overhead Press: 4 x 6
- B2. 1-Arm Row: 4 x 6
- B3. Walking Lunge: 4 x 8 steps each side, 2’ rest
- C. Animal Walk: 4 sets with different variations
I am a contributing author of the USRowing American Development Model (ADM), focusing mostly on the strength training content. The ADM seeks to provide resources and advice around the question of what kind of training is appropriate and effective at which stage of development for which individual rower with what experience, motivation, and goals.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association has convened taskforces over the years including sport coaches, strength coaches, and medical professionals to create position statements summarizing the best available research and best practices on specific topics. These position statements are free to the public. Several are directly related or relevant to youth training and LTAD, though not in rowing specifically.
NSCA Coach is a quarterly digital magazine published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Unlike its other academic publications of the Strength and Conditioning Journal and the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, NSCA Coach is written in a conversational tone with an emphasis on coach experience and practical application. The articles are still researched, include citations, and reviewed by an editorial board before publishing. LTAD and youth strength training is a frequent topic in the journal. NSCA Coach is only available to NSCA members, so work with a certified coach in your network to gain access.
The IYCA is a private company dedicated to youth sport and strength and conditioning training practices for parents and coaches. Their free blog features a mix of big picture coaching discussion of youth training and LTAD fundamentals, as well as specific methods and coaching practices aimed at youth training.
Last updated November 2022.