As athletes become more competitive, the way in which they train for their sport becomes increasingly important. Many times, the difference between a great and an exceptional athlete depends on their training regimen. Well meaning athletes, parents and coaches look to popular health magazines and body building books for information on strength training, but very few of these resources have good information on sport specific training. Most emphasize the body building philosophy of isolating muscle groups. While body builders have impeccable physiques, many of them also have chronic injuries, and few would function well on a basketball or tennis court. The body building philosophy of strength training not only produces a greater risk of injury both on and off the field, but has a negative impact on key athletic components including speed, power, balance, and agility. Remember that strength is not the number one goal of a sport specific training program. Functional strength, the kind of strength utilized on the playing field, is what is important.
Although a few highly developed and focused athletes may be ready sooner, the perfect time to start a structured strength program with your team is around age 10. Consider the following things when implementing a strength training program with your team.
- Athletes must have the coordination, maturity, strength and focus to properly perform each exercise.
- Teams consist of athletes with different levels of strength and coordination. Offer different levels of difficulty for each exercise and insist that each athlete maintains a level appropriate for their body.
- Don’t press your athletes to do too much, too fast or you could be doing them more harm then good. First, teach them how to do the exercises properly. Their form needs to be perfect before moving on to the next level. Early gains in strength are more due to neuromuscular recruitment (the ability to recruit muscle fibers in the right way, i.e coordination), than actual gains in muscular strength. Also keep in mind that muscles strengthen at a faster rate than do bones and connective tissue. Increasing weight or moving on to more challenging exercises too soon can result in bone, ligament or tendon injuries. Growing bodies are especially susceptible to these kinds of injuries.
- A strong core is the key to improved performance and injury prevention. The core technically includes everything but the arms and legs, but the most important aspects of the core are the deep abdominal muscles called the transverse abdominus and the muscles in your low back. Core stability protects the spine and the surrounding musculature. It also initiates the power we need to do things like sprint, kick a ball, swing a bat, and jump.
- Avoid exercises that lack function or compromise your body’s natural alignment.
Sit-Ups & Crunches: While sit-ups are clearly the more dangerous of the two, by putting extreme stress on the bones, ligaments, and tendons in the neck and back, crunches can be harmful too. The repeated bending of the spine can damage spinal discs over time and negatively impact posture. Not only can these two exercises be harmful, they are not very functional. Crunches and sit-ups primarily train the top layer of muscle called the rectus abdominis. Athletic power and stability comes from the deeper layer of muscle called the transverse abdominis as well as the internal and external obliques.
Back Hyperextensions: Hyperextending your spine can compress lumbar discs, impinge nerves and can even lead to disc herniation.
Extreme Torso Twists (especially with weight): Your spine is not made to twist deeply. This
movement can upset disks, muscles and tendons in your back.
Workouts should be age specific. Use the following guidelines to determine what is appropriate for your age group.
Ages 9-11: Basic and eventually intermediate bodyweight exercises with an emphasis on core stability and balance should be the focus at this age. Keep strength sessions short (no more than 10 minutes). Appropriate exercises for this age group include iso abs, push ups, bridges, super heroes and single leg balance exercises. Squats, reverse lunges and eventually squat jumps may be added toward the end of this phase when appropriate balance and core stability have been developed.
Ages 11-13: During this phase athletes may move onto intermediate and advanced bodyweight exercises that emphasize core power and stability as well as balance. They may also begin adding some basic exercises for the legs and upper body. Light weights may also be added during this phase, but with a strong emphasis on form and technique. 10 minutes, 3-5 times per week devoted to strength training is sufficient for this age group, but athletes in this phase with prior training may have the mental and physical stamina to do more, especially during the off-season. Still keep strength sessions reasonably short (no more than 20-30 minutes).
Ages 13-16: Athletes in this phase will continue to build core power, stability and balance with more advanced exercises. They will also begin adding more challenging exercises for the legs and upper body. Athletes with prior training will slowly add more resistance to their exercises as they become stronger and more coordinated. Proceed with caution as growth plate and joint damage can occur when resistance is added too quickly. Form and technique should be emphasized over weight. 10-20 minutes of strength training 3-5 times per week is sufficient while in season. During the off-season, athletes with prior training may do strength sessions as long as 30-40 minutes 2-3 times per week. Shorter 10-20 minutes sessions 3-5 days a week is also a safe option.
Experienced Athletes Ages 16-adult: Athletes who move onto this phase must have completed at least a year of properly periodized strength training. Athletes who are still growing are at risk for growth plate and joint injuries if they move into this phase too quickly. They may also be at a higher risk for injuries if pushed to train too hard, too often or without proper instruction. Guidance from a certified strength and conditioning specialist is recommended for this level. Higher impact plyometrics and Olympic lifts like cleans and snatches are added during this phase of development. As in previous stages, form should be emphasized over weight.
The following exercises can be implemented at your practice facility with little to no equipment. These exercises can also be done at home in the off-season.
Iso Abs (front and side positions): Iso abs are the number one exercise I use with my athletes to develop their core. We do these at EVERY practice; no exceptions. The back and hips should remain stable during this exercise. If they are too high or too low it’s a sign that core strength is not adequate and the basic level of this exercise should be recommended until further strength is developed. Advancing levels too quickly can lead to back injuries.
Bridge: The bridge is a great exercise for developing the muscles that support the spine as well as the muscles in the glutes, hips, and legs. When athletes are able to hold the bridge for one minute without a drop in the hips they may move onto the single leg bridge.
Hip Raise (ball): The hip raise from the ball is a similar exercise to the bridge with added difficulty coming from the instability of the ball.
Single Leg Balance, front side and rear leg positions: Because force is rarely exerted from two feet and in a stable position balance should be a key part of every athlete’s training program. These basic leg positions will prepare athletes for more advanced exercises like single leg squats and single leg dead lifts. Shoulders should be back, chest high, and hips back while working on these exercises.
Squat: The squat is more than just a leg exercise as it initiates the muscles in the deep abdominals and back. Proper technique is important in order to protect both the back and the knees from injury. The knees should stay in line with the ankles as the hips push back as if sitting in a chair. The chest should be high, shoulders back, and back flat, not rounded.
Alternating Reverse Lunge: Lunges are a great way to incorporate more balance and movement into your leg exercises. Be sure the front knee stays in line with the ankle to avoid pressure on the knee joint.
Squat Jump: When squat form has been mastered and adequate strength, balance, and coordination is developed squat jumps may be added. This plyometric exercise will develop full body power. As hips reach the bottom of the squat, immediately power up into the air. With some control, immediately drop the hips back into a squat and continue with the next repetition.
Push Up: Push ups can be a great exercise for developing the core and upper body if performed properly. As with an iso ab, the back and hips must remain stable throughout the movement. If the back and hips are too high or too low, or if the athlete is not able to complete the full range of motion required for a push up, it means they do not yet have adequate core and chest strength to perform a push up properly. A modified push up from the knees should be recommended until adequate strength is developed.
Many talented athletes are forced to end their careers early due to injuries that could have been prevented. A good sport specific program should focus first and foremost on injury prevention. Performance enhancement comes second. Don’t rush into a program before taking the time to learn the basics.
Baechle & Earle (2008) Essentials of Strength & Conditioning, third edition
Encyclopedia Britannica (2015) Abdominal Muscle
McGill, Stuart (2007). Low Back Disorders 2nd Edition: Evidence Based Prevention and Rehabilitation.