Resistance Training for Juniors

I have always advocated resistance training for juniors - long before it became fashionable and an accepted means of conditioning. The dilemma in the past for parents and coaches alike, has always been the problem of how much, how often, and for whom. Unlike running - which juniors can do unsupervised for most of the time - most forms of strength training requires supervision, if the resistance exercises are to be suitable and progressive for each individual junior athlete. I hope the following article will give some help on how to pursue this aspect of training, and give junior athletes an appreciation of what they should be doing if they wish to pursue their athletics seriously.

All juniors who participate in athletics have a requirement for good physical preparation - resistance training has a great potential to address this need and is great for improving any juniorís physical ability to tolerate sport stresses, to improve performance, and to avoid athletic injury.

Children initially need to develop cardiovascular fitness, flexibility, and motor skills as well as strength. The responsibility for any coach who determines a resistance programme for his junior athlete is great. They must decide if the physical and psychological work of the programme is suited to that individual, and that a one to one situation exists. The program must be designed for each child's needs, and the proper exercise techniques and safety considerations employed.

One area of development for all children is upper-body strength. Itís been shown that upper body strength in both boys and girls is declining. Upper-body strength limits many sport-specific tasks even at the recreational level. Because of this lack of strength, specific exercises need to be emphasised in a resistance-training program. The design of any programme must also take into consideration the developmental differences. Children do differ from each other physically and emotionally. Itís important to realise that children are not just "little adults" and that children of a similar age are not always equal either physically or emotionally.

Understanding some of the basic principles of growth and development will allow a more realistic programme to be created. This understanding will also help when developing goals and exercise progressions, itís important that an exercise program matchís the physical and emotional level of the child. Each junior has a chronological age and a physiological age - the physiological age is the most important aspect and usually determines the capabilities and performance for that child.

Individualised Resistance Training Programs

When designing a resistance training program it must be a part of a total conditioning package. The junior should begin with a basic program that exercises all the major muscle groups of the body and muscles around each joint of the body. Warm-up, cool-down, and flexibility exercises should be a part of each session. Additional sport-specific exercises and exercises based on individual need can be added to the program after the junior has learned basic techniques. Individualising a program requires: considering the strengths, weaknesses, and goals of each junior.

No major distinction between boys' and girls' resistance training programs needs to be made. Successful performance of a particular sport skill depends on the strength and power of particular muscle groups and not the gender of the participant. To promote proper growth and development, the importance of the child's ability to tolerate the exercise stress cannot be overemphasised, the importance of individualised exercises, and proper supervision, cannot be overstated. For any program to succeed there is a fundamental need to communicate with the junior regardless of their age. All adults should encourage discussion and feedback and should listen to the juniors concerns and fears. Most important, is the need to use common sense and to provide exercise variations, active recovery periods, and rest from training. No single best program exists. Juniors should start with a program that they find acceptable but that becomes more aggressive as they grow older. Changes in the tolerance to resistance training programs can reflect the increased maturity of a junior.

It is important not to overestimate the juniors ability to tolerate an exercise or program. It is far better to start out conservatively than to overload the juniors exercise tolerance and reduce the enjoyment of participation. With the proper principles of resistance training, a program can be designed that reflects the child's developmental stage. Using the right guidelines for progression, a resistance exercise program can be started at each stage of development that does not compromise enthusiasm and does not overestimate exercise tolerance.

Bodyweight Exercises

Most junior athletes are already doing resistance training of one form or another, whether it is at the club on a circuit session or doing some press ups before going to bed. This is resistance training with ones own body weight and is an excellent way to condition the major muscle groups. Simple exercises like sit ups, press ups, squat jumps or treadmill running, (not the machine !) half squats or back to back with a partner, are all simple and effective exercises.

Their advantages are:
∑ They can be done at any time, anywhere.
∑ The common exercises are likely to be natural and therefore safe.
∑ They are limitless in their extent.
∑ They achieve success.

Bodyweight exercises are the starting line for all junior athletes, and regular weekly sessions are an essential aspect of good body conditioning that prepares the youngsters for the rigors of future training requirements.

Resistance Training Methods:

Stretch Banding

A further step up in the resistance ladder is the use of resistance stretch banding. This easy to use method of resistance training is inexpensive at about £3 for a suitable length of banding. The bands come in various colours denoting the strength of the band. The exercise variations are again limitless and cover all the muscle groups. The action of the band is very smooth and none straining - if the right band strength is used. A twenty-minute session with a gradual progression in repetitions can have a super strengthening effect over time. This method of strengthening is used extensively by Physiotherapists in the rehabilitation of injured patients, and as such is an excellent safe method of strength building for juniors. I have used this method extensively with junior athletes and found it the most effective way to introduce resistance training that is both progressive and safe.

Apparatus & Equipment

A further progression in strength building is the use of apparatus and selected equipment. One of the most underrated methods is the use of the medicine ball. Its image is possibly one of Ďold fashionedí but I can assure you that with knowledge of the right exercises a medicine ball workout can be very demanding. One of the problems when using equipment is whether or not it is safe. There are a multitude of bodyweight exercises that can be made more demanding by the inclusion of a piece of equipment, the inclusion of a box to rest your feet on when doing press-ups can cut down the number of reps and quickly add to the intensity by the elevation.

This is a simple and safe method, but using an improvised chinning bar that you donít know the strength of can be dangerous if it snaps. Certainly within the gym at school the use of ropes, boxes and the likes of parallel bars can be a great addition, but the improvisation of equipment at home is not recommended. Possibly the best piece of equipment that has come on to the market in recent times is the multi - gym. This piece of equipment if used under supervision can accommodate all the requirements of those juniors who have previously been involved with body weight exercises. The stations are free from danger and with the right weight and number of reps is a great way of resistance training. It goes without saying that no junior should exercise on a multi-gym without qualified supervision.

Drill Work

Another underrated means of conditioning, is drill work at the track. Going through a series of sprint drills practising technique can be very demanding and again requires careful supervision. The good thing about drill work is that the juniors are building strength and stamina in a form that is event specific and as such is very beneficial.

Hill Running

One of the best conditioning exercises and resistance training techniques is the use of hill running. No matter what running discipline a junior may follow hill work of one form or another is an excellent way to build leg strength. This is not only an event specific exercise for junior fell runners but is great for all juniors, even those who run track. Again the gradient, distance, time running and the time recovering are all a matter of good coaching practice with the training load matching the juniors ability.

In Conclusion

There is no doubt that a junior who embarks on a well planned strength and conditioning programme will reap the benefits as they mature through the age groups. It does take time and dedication to do ancillary exercises, but it is time well spent and will save many unknown hours of training down time by staying comparatively injury free in relation to those athletes who choose to ignore this aspect of training.