Strength is the ability to apply force against a resistance. Power incorporates an explosive element in that it is the ability to apply force against a resistance in the shortest possible time. Increases in muscular strength and power may enhance performance in young athletes. It has been shown, however, that greater improvements in performance in adolescents occur through gains in physiological efficiency via improvements of skill and quality of movement and the ability of the young athlete to move his or her own body weight effectively.
It may be far more beneficial for younger athletes (<16) to spend their time perfecting balance, agility, coordination skill, body kinaesthetic awareness and stability than time spent in the gym pumping weights. Heavy weights also place a considerable amount of stress on developing skeletal and muscular systems, potentially increasing the likelihood of injury in the young athlete.
Although it can be argued that younger athletes need to improve strength, the coach is in a position where he or she can end up damaging a young child with improper lifting techniques or even just through an inherent weakness in the athlete: rather be safe than sorry. Prior to any resistance exercise, it is absolutely mandatory that the coach understands the sound biomechanical principles of resistance training.
In the more developed athlete (>16), however, strength gains can give them an edge above others. In sport, many things produce resistance: water in swimming, canoeing and rowing, gravity in running and jumping, and by the opposition in wrestling and martial arts. A well-designed training program that concentrates on progression of strength training will result in strengthening of ligaments and tendons as well as allowing the athlete to cope better with training and competition. Increased strength can help the athlete minimize injury and become more effective with dealing with the stresses that happen on the sports field.
In the young athlete, strength training can be a positive component of a child’s active lifestyle. However, it needs to be specifically designed for the young athlete’s age and sport. Before participating in a strength-training program, both coach and athlete need to understand the importance of technique and safety. The young athlete needs to be ready both physiologically and psychologically. The following guidelines should be followed when starting a strength-training program with young athletes.
Develop joint flexibility
Most strength exercises employ a large range of movement particularly in the ankles, knees, hips, shoulders and elbows. Flexibility training should be started in pre-pubescence and maintained through into the high performance phase of development.
Develop tendon strength before muscle strength
Muscle strength always improves faster than the tendon’s ability to withstand tension and the ligament’s resistance to preserve the integrity of the bones forming a joint. Faulty use of the principle of specificity and the lack of planning a long term, progressive program may result in the constant stress of body parts (muscles and joints) involved solely in the chosen sport. A lack of anatomical adaptation prior to starting a rigorous strength program can result in injuries to the muscles and their attachments.
Develop core strength (stabilizers) before limbs (prime movers)
Although legs and arms perform most athletic skills, the forces are directed through a fulcrum (the trunk), which acts as a stabilizing platform around which the limbs work. A poorly developed trunk will limit the transfer of power to the limbs, hence acting as a giant shock absorber. The abdominal corset, lower back and spinal musculature need to have special emphasis placed on their development in young athletes.
Children mature physically and psychologically at different rates. Children also possess different metabolic and biomechanical qualities. Training plans should be personalized to meet the young athlete’s needs.