Simplicity Is Always the Key When Strength Training Young Athletes

Four reasons why keeping it simple is the smartest approach you can have when training young athletes.

What is the overall purpose and/or goal of training for athletic performance at the middle school and high school levels?

Any response given to this question will likely file under one of these five categories:

  • Build confidence
  • Improve performance
  • Gain muscle/size
  • Gain strength
  • Improve speed

When you look at the categories, they can all be accomplished with the same strategy—getting kids stronger. Stronger athletes will gain muscle and strength, and because of their strength improvements, they will be able to run faster and possess greater levels of confidence.

This is why I'm a big believer in simplicity when it comes to training these age groups. Fancy exercises and drills created solely to draw more likes on social media have no place here, nor do the crazy rep schemes occasionally found in professional athletes' training programs. Here are four reasons why keeping it simple is the smartest approach you can have when training these age groups.

Simplicity Reaps Big Results at This Age

Simple, well-coached strength programs are the ultimate tool for young athletes to include in their year-round schedule. At such a young age, these kids are going to make so many improvements and see such fast results due to three main factors:

  • Skill acquisition (practicing and learning strength as a skill)
  • An increase in neuromuscular connections and their efficiency (the brain telling the muscles what to do)
  • Muscular hypertrophy (an increase in muscle mass)

As we age and all three of these adaptations have already occured in our bodies to some extent, it becomes harder to see results. Thus, we must dive into more progressive strength training. But for middle school and high school kids, simply executing the basics efficiently and consistently will lead to serious improvements. Why overcomplicate things when simplicity can produce fantastic results?

Simple is Safer

When teaching a young athlete to properly strength train, I focus on basic exercises like the Squat, Floor Press, Kettlebell Deadlift and Lunge. These movements are easier to understand for the athlete and easier to teach for the coach while eliciting the same responses we would get from any other program or movement.

Simple Builds a Strong Foundation of Movement

Teaching a young kid how to properly do things like Deadlift, Lunge and Plank are essential life skills. Showing them how to properly perform these movements will not only help them move better in sport both in the short and long-term, but also help improve their quality of movement during daily life. This can help them stay healthy and active for years to come.

Stronger Equals Faster

Keeping things simple inside the weight room is the quickest way you can help young athletes get stronger. And as they get stronger in these basic movement patterns, they should also get faster. Think about athletes as cars; cars with more horsepower are ultimately faster. As athletes get stronger, they are essentially adding more horsepower to their car, providing them with the ability to generate greater amounts of ground force and thus greater speed. Along with speed improvements come agility enhancements due to the improvement of the ability of the brain to communicate with the muscles (previously referred to as neuromuscular connections/efficiency)

If you're truly looking to help the young athletes you train, keeping things simple can lead to major results. With that in mind, what do the specifics of a simple strength training program for young athletes look like?

Middle School Athletes

  • 3-5 sets of 8-12 reps of a main exercise paired with core or upper-back development
  • 2-3 sets of two assistance work exercises practicing upper-body/lower-body movement patterns that were not addressed in the main exercise
  • Exercise Choices: Dumbbell Floor Press, Goblet Squat, Kettlebell Deadlift, Bodyweight Row, Lunge variations, Kettlebell Carry variations, Sled variations

High School Athletes

  • 3-5 sets of 4-12 reps of a main exercise; barbell movements typically in the 4-8 rep range, dumbbells in the 6-12 rep range. Fillers include core, mobility or upper-back exercises
  • 3 sets of two to three assistance work exercises addressing movement patterns not addressed in the main exercise, as well as plane of motion-specific movement
  • Exercise Choices: Barbell Floor Press/Bench Press, Goblet/Barbell Squat, Kettlebell/Trap Bar Deadlift, Bodyweight Row/Weighted Row, Lunge variations, Kettlebell Carry variations, Sled variations

Both of these programs focus on one "big movement" per superset and pair it with a core, mobility or upper-back exercise. For the kids, it's more beneficial from a strength gain and skill acquisition standpoint. For the coaches, it's beneficial because it's easier to coach and coach in-depth. The athletes won't be crushed; they will leave the gym feeling like they worked hard and feeling confident.

Now that you have a solid understanding of why simple will always win and what that looks like in strength programs for young athletes, lets recap the main points. When programming simple strength training for young athletes, we will:

  • Keep our athletes safer
  • Develop good movement habits
  • Increase neuromuscular connections/efficiency
  • Elicit muscular hypertrophy
  • Enable quicker, faster, and more efficient speed and agility related movement
  • Athletes will learn to work hard, move better, and be confident