Training Strength and Power in Young Athletes
There’s no way I can cover all the things I have to say about training young athletes in one article, so let’s take it a little at a time and talk about the simple concepts of strength and power. Strength is pretty straightforward, power is sometimes not as well understood. Let’s cover strength first.
First of all, not all strength training is equal, it has to be smart and relevant to what you want to improve. Unless you’re a powerlifter or Olympic weightlifter, the point should not be to see who can lift the highest number of pounds or kilos off the floor. If your training program is producing great lifting numbers in the gym but not improving your sport measurables or your game performance, you need a better approach.
It’s important to note that success in athletics and progress with training is in some part limited by your genetic makeup. If you’re a naturally slow sprinter, no amount of training is going to make you dramatically faster. If you naturally top out with a 58mph fastball, you can’t train your way up to 90mph with sheer will, dedication, and smart training. You can’t learn to be taller, etc. Basically, you can’t change your DNA.
Everyone is endowed with individual strengths and weaknesses, and they should be embraced and understood. If you can’t jump very high, but you love to play basketball, understand that. Do everything you can to improve your vertical leap, but at the same time realize that it’s not likely to be the thing you hang your hat on. It’s all part of understanding yourself and changing the things that will make the most difference, rather than trying to achieve something arbitrary or realistically unattainable.
When I’m deciding how to approach training an athlete, I take a two step approach:
1. Identify the attributes that define them as a player, and make them even stronger. (No training should ever make you worse at what you’re naturally good at.)
2. Identify the weakness that is the greatest liability, and try to destroy it.
To put it simply, your strength and conditioning program needs to strengthen the body as a whole, be geared toward the type of body you want to build, take special consideration for the most needy movement issues, then teach that progressively stronger body to do those strength movements as quickly as possible.
This is the difference between strength and power as it relates to athletic performance.
Strength = how much force you can exert on something.
Power = how fast you can exert that force on something.
Snatching a heavy barbell from the floor to overhead in less than a second is Power.
An offensive lineman driving his legs to hold his position is Strength.
A 48” box jump is Power.
Bench pressing a heavy barbell over a few seconds time is Strength.
Throwing an 85mph fastball is Power. .
Squatting 400# below parallel is Strength.
Dunking a basketball is Power.
You get the idea.
In reality, there’s not a lot of slow, maximal bilateral effort happening on the field or court. If it is, it isn’t for very long, and explosive movements are often on one foot. Your training should reflect that, building strength AND power through the movements you need, with specificity to the way you use them.
It should be noted that there is no power without strength. You have to somehow stress the body enough that it adapts and gets stronger in response, and that’s what strength training is.
It just can’t be the primary focus and measure of success of the program. The success of your strength and conditioning program should always be measured by answering the simple question: “Is it making me better for my sport?”
If you can’t confidently answer that with a “yes!”, it’s time to look into why.
In the Balance Youth Sports Conditioning program, this is the approach we take to building strength and power while incorporating appropriate speed, plyometric, and agility drills. Each training session consists of:
Comprehensive warmup: No athletes will ever lift, jump, throw, or sprint until they are physically prepared for that specific movement. I teach them a variety of ways to loosen up the joints and muscles and free up the ranges of motion most important to efficient, quick, powerful movement and a decreased risk of injury.
Speed and Agility: In sports, speed is the most coveted trait. We do everything we can to perfect running form, both to minimize wasted energy and maximize explosive acceleration, rapid change of direction, and quick deceleration. We typically do this early in the workout, as it’s more neurologically taxing than some of the simpler strength exercises, and more complex and ballistic and should be done with focus, high energy, and fresh muscles. We alternate the emphasis between power and kinesthetic awareness and conditioning, though they can overlap. Quality always takes precedence over quantity.
*Power: As stated previously, power is fast strength. This is always relative to the strength level of the athlete, but powerful movements can be scaled safely and are often purposely done with bodyweight only. My approach to power focuses heavily on quick, powerful extension of the hips and shoulders; think jumping, sprinting, pushing, pulling, and throwing with a specific twist to your sport, age, strength, and goals. I often have a 5’6” figure skater working alongside a 6’5” shot putter, both training for the same outcome in a very different looking way.
Strength: Each athlete that comes into my program needs to meet some basic bodyweight strength benchmarks before they ever lift any weights. If they come in strong enough to meet the standard, we can immediately begin progressing with various types of resistance. If they cannot, we work out a simple progression of bodyweight exercises to get them there. In any case, the intensity of the strength workout will be determined by where they are chronologically in their season/offseason, their age, training age and injury history, and the nature of the sport or sports that they play. This may sound disorganized, but the underlying strength concepts for most athletes are very similar if not the same. They come in varying degrees and often require completely different exercises to achieve a similar strength result, but it’s possible and we do it all the time. The strength portion is often the most time consuming part of the workout, as more rest is needed between exercises or sets.
Flexibility/Mobility: Every workout ends with targeted foam rolling, big open stretches that are hard to cheat, and specific stretches for any individual problems that we’ve identified. The importance of developing a full range of motion cannot possibly be overemphasized, and this is the time we set aside to slow down and focus on what most needs to improve.
Scott Dyck, Certified Fitness Trainer, United States Army Veteran
Head Trainer, Balance Chestnut Hill
Author, Group Fitness, International Sport Science Association accredited certification
FMS Level 1