Strength and Power Development Considerations for Young Athletes
By James Smith
For EliteFTS

In examining many of the training methodologies which have been founded and employed both in the eastern and western hemispheres, one may observe that much of the data which is collected from testing is obtained as a result of monitoring the training and competition performance of elite level athletes. In regards to collecting data for the purposes of drawing empirical conclusions, this is necessary, as only an elite level athlete is capable of producing a somewhat consistent expression of motor abilities. In contrast, novice and intermediate level athletes will tend to exhibit constantly advancing and/or fluctuating motor skill expression as a result of rapid increases in muscular coordination, work capacity, and high threshold motor unit recruitment. Thus, young athletes (up to 12-14 years of age on average) must not utilize the same training parameters as their elite counterparts.

From a planning perspective, there are certain fundamental skills, such as the coach’s ability to assess and quantify levels of physical preparedness and in turn employ methods which serve to induce further development, which must be assimilated prior to the initiation of program construction. Once these skills are obtained, one may then begin to construct an organized training program which is specific to the athlete/athletes in question and their respective sport.

The defining factor then becomes how to periodize the training parameters into daily, weekly, monthly, and even yearly cycles so as to accommodate the competition phases of sport and the long term development of athleticism. This is the science/art of programming. “The basis of programming is the program-objective approach; in accordance with which the contents, volume and organization of training loads are determined by the objectives of the athlete’s preparation.” (1)

When programming the training variables of young strength and power development athletes, who are sufficiently prepared to lift weights, many coaches/athletes have experienced appreciable results by utilizing 3-4 week loading blocks followed by 1-2 week deload phases. Deloading (a reduction in either volume or intensity) is critical in order to experience supercompensation “an increase in biomechanical substance content above the initial level after a restoration period following one or several workouts.” (2) Due to their inferior capacity to significantly recruit high threshold MU’s most young/novice athletes are capable of tolerating extended loading phases and CNS stressors. Most would be wise, however, to err on the side of caution and shorten the loading phases, thereby, staying ahead of the curve and avoiding CNS fatigue/overtraining.

Much of sport practice and competition introduces a significant stress to the neuromuscular system. Accordingly, ALL training variables (e.g., in American football, the number of blocking drills and full speed sprints and plays ran in practice) must be accounted for when considering the volume of any specific training stimulus to be employed in the weight room. Soviet strength scientists and coaches found that complex training, “the simultaneous (within one workout) work on several aspects of an athlete’s preparation” (1), proves to be more optimal for young athletes who have lower levels of physical preparedness. In view of that, the development of general physical abilities is of paramount importance when considering the training parameters to be employed in the program of a young athlete.

In order to elevate the expression of sport skill an elite athlete must often employ a highly specific and elaborate programming of training means and methods. In contrast, most young athletes must spend the majority of training time developing General Physical Preparedness (GPP). Accordingly, the expression of sport skill for many young athletes is most optimally developed by raising GPP and participating in many different sports. This is a fundamental component of the Russian method of the Process of Attaining Sports Mastery (PASM) “The educational-physiological process of the athlete’s continued improvement in physical, technical, tactical and psychological mastery specific to the given sport.” (1) In consideration of the multi-year development of an athlete’s abilities and competitive career, Soviet strength scientists and coaches determined that young athletes are most optimally served by participating in many different sports until their early to mid teenage years. This multi-sport engagement allows for the development of a wide range of motor abilities. Additionally, during this developmental period, coaches may begin to identify various peculiarities specific to each athlete which will most probably predispose each athlete to excel in a particular sport. This is a highly effective method for developing a lineage of winning athletes. A review of the Olympic medalists in the strength/power development disciplines, over the past 40 years, is more than enough testament to efficacy of PASM.

Having identified the development of GPP to be of paramount importance, athletes and coaches must exercise judgment when referencing the advanced training methodologies which are presented by the most noted/published coaches or ‘gurus’ in the field of strength training. Incidentally, many of the current training trends, which are proliferated in the western hemisphere, tend to be nothing more than a regurgitation of findings which were founded by the strength scientists of the former USSR and Eastern Bloc countries in the 1960’s.

In regards to the current trends in performance enhancement for young athletes, the utilization of various plyometric drills have a propensity to be highly popularized. The word ‘plyometric’ seems to provide some sort of lure to unknowing athletes and coaches. In actuality, plyometrics, specifically high intensity plyos/shock training (depth jumps, altitude landings, etc.) are the LAST form of training any young athlete (pre-adolescent) should be performing. “[Children and youth should] avoid depth jumps and deep knee bends with heavy weights which can cause spinal column and knee joint injury.” (3) High intensity plyos put a great deal of stress on bone, connective tissues, and their attachments. One of the most optimal methods for strengthening bone and connective tissues is by way of various forms of resistance training which serve to hypertrophy and strengthen muscle fiber, connective tissues, and their attachments, as well as increase bone mineral density. Consequently, once the structure of the organism (the human body) is adequately prepared, one may then introduce increased stresses upon it. Accordingly, the utilization of various plyometric drills may be of great use for an athlete whose level of physical preparedness renders them prepared for their implantation. What is important to note, however, is that for some strength and power development athletes, the sport and sport practice itself contains enough of a reactive component so as to allow the majority of strength training volume to be allotted to developing other manifestations along the curve which serve to facilitate the expression of strength and power in sport.

What must be remembered is that most young strength and power development athletes would be most optimally served by simply building muscle mass in the proximally located muscle groups and developing relative and core strength. There is a multitude of advanced training methods presented on the internet, thereby, creating a convenient avenue for young and uniformed athletes to get ahead of themselves. Accordingly, many athletes would greatly benefit from maintaining a cognitive awareness of their own abilities, so that they may implement the appropriate training parameters relative to their current level of physical preparedness.

The optimal information (e.g., select information authored by a handful of western authors and much of what has been published overseas) is available to anyone; what is of paramount importance, however, is the ability to practically and systematically apply the information. Consequently, for the coach or athlete, creativity and personal experience become valuable traits. Optimally, any coach will unify their personal experience with their creative/academic/theoretical knowledge into a collective which will serve to facilitate the optimal construction and programming of a specific training program. In regards to strength coaching, the coach’s development (or past development) of strength and power will serve to authenticate his/her prescription of various training protocols

Training Program Considerations for young strength/power development athletes:

- Encourage and expose young athletes (up to 12-14 years of age) to participate in as many sports as possible.
- Introduce calisthenics, medicine ball, dynamic flexibility and mobility drills long before the implementation of externally loaded resistance training.
- Consider the following “The so-called ‘three-year rule’ is popular among experienced coaches. According to this rule, an athlete should use strength-specific exercises and exercises with a barbell, such as barbell squats, only after 3 years of preliminary general preparation.” (2)
- “The optimal period to begin [strength] training is 11 to 13 years for girls and 13 to 15 years for boys.” “…the use of heavy weights in training should be avoided until adolescence; even then, one should continually monitor progress and recovery, and take precautions to protect bones, ligaments, and tendons.” (3)
- Consider a 12 repetition approach; which implies that young/novice athletes should be able to perform 12 repetitions with a given load (bodyweight, or external resistance) before additional resistance is introduced.
- Emphasize the development of core strength (abdominals and low back) above all else
- Stress the importance of quality of technique and execution over quantity of load or repetitions.
- “Increase strength in sport-related movements to a level that permits sport technique acquisition without technical mistakes.” (2)
- Systematize a means in which to create a challenging, exciting, and rewarding training experience, as a young athlete is not likely to pursue or commit to a particular training program or sport which he/she does not find to be enjoyable.

The opportunity to work with a young and determined athlete is an experience to be honored. There are legions of potential athletic prodigies unknowingly waiting for the opportunity to be guided by a knowledgeable and experienced mentor. Accordingly, as strength coaches it must be our responsibility to relentlessly pursue the continued development of our own abilities, so that we may pass these insights forward.


(1) Verkhoshansky, Y.V.: Programming and Organization of Training. Sportivny Press: 1988
(2) Zatsiorsky, V.M.: Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics: 1995
(3) Hartmann, J. and Tunnemann, H.: Fitness and Strength Training for All Sports. Sports Book Publisher: 2001