The Fallacies that Dominate Youth Athletic Training

Tradition and ignorance are poor excuses for sabotaging our kids’ athletic development.

My job allows me to interact with hundreds of high school and middle school athletes, coaches, and parents each year. This means that I am constantly exposed to all the common pitfalls of the training industry. Athletes want to do whatever is trending on YouTube, or whatever crazy workout their friend’s uncle put them through and tweeted out. Sports coaches want to train in whatever manner they did in their playing days. This typically includes “bring out the puke buckets” conditioning, and whatever neat exercises they see pro players or college athletes perform.

Many youth coaches are driven by two guiding fallacies:

  1. If it’s hard it’s good.
  2. The best youth sports program is the same one that elite college teams use.

Most college teams’ training programs are quite accessible, further exacerbating the effects of this fallacy.

Finally, parents tend to assume more is always better, and that if they are paying for it, then it is good. But the sad truth is that there is a huge variety in the quality of trainers, and the fact that somebody played “college ball” doesn’t say anything about their expertise. Let me tell you: if someone wants to train your kid without first understanding their history, what programs they are currently in, and what their current level of competency is, then don’t walk—run.

Today I want to try to dispel some questionable training assumptions and give more guidance to parents before they hand their kids over to a new coach.

Training Youth Is About Fundamentals

There are right and wrong methods to train for performance, and it’s worth your while to invest time finding the right people. If your school district doesn’t employ a qualified strength and conditioning professional, your coaches and parents need to start asking for one.

Your prospective trainer must understand the principles that guide effective training. The body is an adaptation machine, and training seeks to manipulate stress and recovery in such a manner that the body adapts toward the desired outcome. Ignorance of this basic principle often causes people to negate all progress with ineffective conditioning, and implement bogus methods.

Your youth athlete cannot train like the pros. Adolescents and teens are not elite lifters. Even the few that come in moving well, have a low training age. Their neuromuscular system is dying for resistance and will make the most progress with quality execution of simple, tried-and true-methods. Advancing too quickly reduces movement quality, thus creating inefficient and unsafe movement patterns that lower desired adaptation.

Efficiency is an athletic skill. We don’t want exercise that is optimally exhausting, we want to train efficient movements that make future reps less exhausting. Emphasizing more control and intelligent progression of the fundamentals is the most effective workout for the first few years of training. Late into the sophomore year, we can begin to add some complexity, but only a very incremental amount. For example, I’d take a 15-year-old who has mastered their RDL and hex bar deadlift and teach them kettlebell swings. Throwing power snatches or depth jumps at them at this stage would do far more harm than good.

Forget about muscle confusion, and forget about sport specificity. Most athletes who come into my high school cannot do one perfect push up. Consistency and simple, smart progressions are king. All athletes need general physical preparation, particularly today’s youth who are far weaker, less mobile, and less generally athletic than in the past. Our kids’ sedentary lives have created a great need for simple strength and mobility training. We must emphasize controlled, slow negatives, isometric pauses, and smooth, fast concentrics in the fundamental movements, and in all three planes of motion.

Our kids are also more specialized than ever. This leads to many postural imbalances and creates far less athletic people. They have a very limited skillset because their bodies have only been asked to do a very limited number of tasks.

This is why kids should play lots of different sports. Take a kid who has been a point guard, and he’ll likely be your best outfielder. Take a kid who has played soccer, and she will have far better multi-directional power on the tennis court. Take a girl who plays basketball, and she’ll be better at boxing out in soccer and jumping for headers. Until late into high school, training should be general, as the sport itself takes care of most of your specific needs. Even injury prevention work can be general, as all need rotator cuff work and neck, ankle, abductor, and hamstring strengthening.

What About Power?

There are coaches who would dress this piece down for emphasizing strength, when “sports are about power.” Power is essential for sport, but strength is the foundational potential for power. Control in your movements ensures no energy leaks and proper position. Mobility allows optimal leverage, and strength allows more force to be initiated into the ground.

Most coaches default to the power clean and snatch to train power, but this is counterproductive for the youth athlete. The clean and snatch are extremely technical lifts. They are phenomenal for power development if executed correctly, but that is usually not found in a high school group until many months of progressions. That is time that could have been better spent on far simpler, equally effective, power training.

Rather than a reflexive reverence for the power clean and snatch, early youth athletic training should get its power work from the sport itself, and from jumps and sprints. We need not implement complex methods; we just need the essentials. Rather than using sprints and jumps for mindless conditioning, teach kids to perform them correctly in a way that efficiently expresses power. Can they jump and land safely? Can they sprint with good mechanics? That’s essential power development.

As GMB founder Ryan Hurst explains, “the complexity of skills you can safely perform is inversely proportional to the intensity at which you can perform them.” This is to say, adding much complexity is probably not desirable for power exercises, certainly not for high school and middle school athletes. Insisting upon these exercises is a recipe for injury unless approached with obsessive form and intelligent progression and regression.

Power and Conditioning Don’t Mix

It is also crucial to not confuse power training and conditioning. Power exercises are extremely taxing, which is why those in a dogged pursuit to make kids more tired will often use them as conditioning. This is unsafe and misses the point of both power and conditioning.

Box jumps, as an example, are probably the most misunderstood training tool. What about jumping on a box magically makes you more powerful than simply jumping? Why do you need a higher box? The box is there to soften the landing and reduce the effect of gravity pounding you into the ground. Depth jumps notwithstanding, plyo boxes are intended to be a tool to make jumping safer. But a whole lot of coaches have perverted them into a very dangerous conditioning drill that emphasizes rapid-fire jumping and landing backward in a most unnatural manner.

There are three energy systems used to fuel activity. All three are always in use, but to which degree is determined by the length and intensity of activity. Power training is rooted in the phosphagen system. It should be done from an unfatigued state, in sets of five or less, and with complete recovery. Work-to-rest ratios should float between 1:12 to 1:20.

A max-effort broad jump is mostly within the phosphagen system. This system requires complete recovery to be trained, and to ignore work-to-rest ratios is to ensure no power development benefit. Jogging a couple miles or walking between sets is a predominantly aerobic activity, that requires less rest.

We want to create athletes that are more powerful so that each stride and athletic play becomes more effortless. As conditioning increases, recovery can become quicker, and more max-effort bouts are possible. With any exercise, it is essential that you know what energy system you are trying to train, and the intensity, duration, and rest necessary. People only have so much stored ATP and CP, and these are only replenished so fast. Ignoring the science may bring a temporary catharsis, but it won’t improve your athletes.

Bench the Bench Press

The final dogma is firmly rooted into the consciousness of popular culture. Somehow, people still believe the bench press is the most important lift. If you train boys, they want to bench, and they are sure this is the only real test of strength. When boys ask you what you lift, they really mean “how much do you bench press?”

I have sports coaches stuck on this too. They’re fine with a plan that back squats one day, Bulgarian squats one day, and high-rep goblet squats one day, but they think it’s crazy not to bench heavy all three training days.

While the bench press has a purpose and is a great indicator of upper body strength, your program could do a better job of creating athletes by never benching again. Acceleration angles, agility, and multidirectional total body power are far greater determinants of athletic performance.

This is even the case for an offensive lineman, the most brute-strength, limited-movement athletic position out there. A strong chest helps, but isometric pull strength is equally, if not more important in maintaining engagement while blocking. Furthermore, the angle of attack and leverage lineman get is the determining factor. The best hip mobility wins. A lineman with superior leg strength who is under the pads of the defensive tackle with the 600lb bench will win just about every time. The offensive tackle that moves laterally with ease and has integrated his body into one piece through his core is the most effective.

Furthermore, athletes train movements, not muscles, and there are better movements to train the push pattern. Lying on a bench can’t compare with the athletic benefit of Turkish get ups, weighted push ups, 1-arm push-ups, and handstand progressions. These require integration of the entire body as one piece. If you can get athletes executing these exercises, they’ll have functional chest strength comparable to any top bench presser, and be far more effective in competition. Add some sled pushes, med ball squat throws, and hill sprints, and you have the ultimate cocktail for a push-dominant athlete.

Youth Training Must Break With Tradition

We must be willing to question our assumptions and learn new things, and not feel personally attacked by information that conflicts with prior thinking. This will allow us to inch closer to the truth, as we continually shed less beneficial practices in favor of those that are more effective.

I hope you bring this spirit to your training and are willing to always grow through a love and quest for education. I hope you are willing to question past fallacies and adapt your training practices to realize better results.