Youth, You Must Earn the Right to Lift Heavy

Youth athletes have plenty of time to load up the bar; don’t set them up for future failure by loading an improper movement pattern.

“But I can lift way more than this, coach!” I have heard this phrase more times than I can count while coaching 8-14-year-olds in small and large group settings. Every single youth athlete, at some point, gets it in their head that the coach is trying to hold them back and doesn’t realize that they possess superhuman strength.

My main purpose as a youth strength and conditioning coach is to make kids stronger, faster, more mobile, and better conditioned, so clearly I want to put them in the best position possible for them to reach those goals.

Holding them back is not in my best interest, but it is in their best interest and sometimes 8-14-year-old kids and don’t necessarily understand that. It’s then my job as the strength coach to explain why they are doing lighter weights initially in a way they can understand and accept. I always tell them that they need to earn the right to lift a heavier weight.

Youth Must Earn the Right to Lift Heavy

By earning the right to lift a heavier weight, they need to show me they can do the movement correctly with a lighter weight for a certain number of reps first. Most youth athletes can probably pick 80lbs off the ground without much effort, but few can initially deadlift it off the ground while maintaining a neutral spine.

There’s the saying “slow is smooth and smooth is fast” implying that in order to move something fast and smoothly you must first be able to do it slowly. The same applies to heavy loads in strength training. If you can’t perform the movement with a light weight, then you haven’t earned the right to attempt it with a heavy weight.

Once a proper movement pattern is developed it is safe to load that pattern, assuming the youth athlete has the maturity to focus on what they are doing during the lift. If the movement pattern isn’t developed then more practice at lighter loads need to be the main focus.

This can be frustrating for the kids and will sometimes will bring pressure from parents who may think the coach doesn’t understand their child’s abilities, but it is essential that the coach doesn’t sacrifice form to lift a heavier weight. Youth athletes have plenty of time to load up the bar; don’t set them up for future failure by loading an improper movement pattern.

Develop Proper Movement Patterns

So how does a coach develop these proper movement patterns in youth athletes? Practice. The athlete needs to practice the basic moves over and over again. This can be best be accomplished by teaching stability in certain positions of a movement and then proceeding to make it dynamic.

Now a quick disclaimer: I did not invent any of the concepts I’ll be talking about in the next few paragraphs. I like to give credit where credit is due and as most strength coaches will admit, everything we utilize in our programming was borrowed from another strength coach. I once had a mentor tell me that strength coaches are basically meathead thieves.

There haven’t been a whole lot of new concepts since the 1960’s; just new ways to implement those concepts. The programming I’ll be laying out was created after reading some of Joe Kenn’s Block 0 concepts, Michael Yessis’ 1×20 program, countless conversations with other coaches I respect, and from seeing over 1,000 youth athletes move and train.

Youth athletes generally have very poor kinesthetic awareness. They don’t know where their body is in space. You can tell them they need to flatten their back on a deadlift and they will tell you it already is, when in reality, it’s more upside down U-shaped than the Liberty Bell.

Youth must learn what their bodies should feel like in various positions of a lift. Therefore,the first step should be having your youth athletes perform isometric holds at various positions of key lifts before making it dynamic.

Knowing this, you will then need to choose your key lifts. At our facility we always use a squat variation, hip-hinge, deadlift variation, single-leg variation, upper body horizontal push/pull, upper body vertical push/pull, and a trunk exercise. Which ones you use and how often will be determined by how many times a week you see an athlete and what your facility has access to.

Our youth squat anywhere between 1-3 times per week utilizing either a bodyweight squat or goblet squat depending on ability. Three times per week may seem like a lot of squatting, but these athletes need practice and not one of them is lifting enough weight that they can’t recover by the next session.

Since this is a stability portion of training, the athlete will hold the bottom position of a squat for anywhere between 5-30 seconds depending on how many reps they will be doing. We’re fortunate to have 5-15lb training bars at our facility but if your facility doesn’t have those items, you can use plates, dumbbells, and kettlebells. Youth and adult alike, any hip-hinging movement seems to be the hardest exercise for most people, to grasp.

Moving on to the deadlift, we again have 5-15lb training bars and 10 lbs bumpers which makes learning the movement much easier. If these tools aren’t available, you can again use dumbbells or kettlebells. Since the bottom position of the deadlift is with the weight resting on the floor, the athlete has to grab the bar and set up but doesn’t lift it until they hear a coach’s up call.

This ensures the coach can at least make sure the athletes start in the correct position before lifting it since many youths will pick up the bar with a rounded back and start the movement from the top. Including pauses right off the floor and right before setting it down can also reinforce the correct movement pattern.

With the single leg movement, we will start with a split squat where the athlete needs to pause at the bottom position with their knee right above the ground. For weaker athletes who can’t maintain this position or larger youth athletes, you can use a bar or TRX band for support. Again, the athlete will hold this position for 5-30 seconds each leg depending on the number of reps.

For our upper body push movements, we use a barbell overhead press, barbell bench press, and barbell elevated push up. Both the bench press and barbell elevated push-ups require pauses at the bottom positions but the overhead press we perform dynamically and instead focus on lowering it slowly since few athletes have trouble just holding the bar in this position.

I should mention that all of our exercises are finished with the concentric portion of the lift, there is just a greater emphasis on creating stability in the bottom portion of the lift. For the upper body pull movements, we primarily utilized the inverted row and the chin-hang. The athletes who can’t hold a chin-hang can just place a foot on the ground to help assist them.

The first trunk exercise implemented is usually a front plank. There will often be a prescribed time for the first couple sets, but the last one we will often allow those athletes to hold as long as possible since this makes the session more enjoyable by adding in a little competition. We will occasionally use the same concept for our chin-hangs as well.

The stability portion is normally done for two weeks and is then followed by an eccentric focus block. Once the athletes have shown they can maintain stability in the bottom position, they need to prove they can control their bodies throughout the transitions of the movements.

For all the exercises listed above, they will now perform them all dynamically but are required to control the lowering portion for 3-5 seconds depending on the number of prescribed reps. Additional loading can be added if the athletes have shown they can still perform the movement correctly. This eccentric focus generally lasts for another two weeks. Finally, during the next two weeks, the movements are performed dynamically. The athletes still need to demonstrate control, but there is no prescribed tempo.

This normally forms our athlete’s base in regard to strength movements. We do generally add in additional exercises such as step-ups, lateral split squats, deadbug progressions, and various types of crawls depending on the length of the program.

Progressing Your Youth Athletes

Once your athletes understand the foundational movements; it’s a great time to expose them to a multitude of movements that they might perform in future programs to make them more physically literate. This is where Yessis’ 1×20 program comes in.

His program calls for athletes to perform 1 set of 20 reps of 27 different exercises. This may seem like a lot of volume to recover from, but you need to remember that these aren’t 700lb squatters. These youth aren’t going to create such a huge homeostatic disruption that they can’t recover from it.

Yessis’ program calls for the following movement categories:

  • Heel (calf) raise
  • Leg (knee) extension
  • Leg (knee) flexion
  • Squat (one half-full) or leg press
  • Good morning
  • Hip flexion
  • Hip adduction
  • Hip abduction
  • Hip extension
  • Back raises
  • Back raises with a twist
  • 45 degree sit up
  • Reverse trunk twist
  • Reverse sit up
  • Bench press
  • Bent over row two variants
  • Overhead press two variants
  • Full and partial range front arm raise
  • Full and partial range lateral arm raise
  • Lat pulldown
  • Bicep curl
  • Tricep pushdown
  • Supination-pronation
  • Wrist curls
  • Reverse curls
  • Finger and grip exercises
  • Breathing exercises1

Yessis believes this combination to be very effective, and I know other coaches who swear by it, but just like any other program, a good coach takes what he or she thinks is good and implements them into his or her own program. That being said, I’ve tweaked the categories into the following:

  • Dorsiflexion
  • Plantar flexion
  • Ankle inversion
  • Ankle eversion
  • Lunge variation
  • Squat variation
  • Hip-hinge variation
  • Hip flexion
  • Hip abduction
  • Hip adduction
  • Hip extension
  • Plank variation
  • Weighted carries
  • Horizontal push variation
  • Horizontal pull variation
  • Vertical push variation
  • Vertical pull variation
  • Shoulder flexion
  • Shoulder abduction
  • Shoulder horizontal abduction
  • Elbow flexion
  • Elbow extension
  • Wrist flexion
  • Wrist extension
  • Breathing exercises

Depending on time per session and number of sessions per week, you can do all of these categories in a single session or you can spread it out throughout the week.

A single session may look something like this:

  • Band anterior tibialis
  • Calf raise
  • Banded ankle wipers (each way)
  • Walking lunge
  • Goblet squat
  • Kettlebell swing
  • Standing mini band march
  • Straight leg mini band lateral march
  • Cable adduction
  • Glute bridge
  • Stir the pot
  • Farmers walk
  • Bench press
  • Dumbbell row
  • Dumbbell overhead press
  • Lat pulldown
  • Plate front raise
  • Dumbbell lateral raise
  • Band pull-apart
  • Barbell curl
  • Band tricep pushdown
  • Barbell wrist curl
  • Barbell wrist extension
  • Diaphragmatic breathing

During the first week or two, I normally do 2 sets of 10 reps instead of 1×20 since it gives an opportunity to do some more coaching between sets for these athletes as most of the exercises will be new. With most of my athletes training either 2 days or 3 days per week at this point, I’ll normally use two different workouts and rotate between them for anywhere from 2-6 weeks depending on the total length of the program.

To illustrate on a three-day rotation it would look like this:

  • Monday: Workout A
  • Wednesday: Workout B
  • Friday: Workout A
  • Monday: Workout B
  • Wednesday: Workout A
  • Friday: Workout B

This allows for more variation to keep the kids from getting bored but doesn’t overload them with too many new movements to learn at one time. Although I think the Yessis 1×20 is effective and kids enjoy doing the larger number of exercises (which is why I implement it), I do think that multi-set programs are more efficient, especially as the athlete gets stronger.

So, following our 1×20 program we will transition back to a multi-set program proceeding to the next progressions of exercises we utilized during the initial Block 0. It is at this point that the athletes have shown they can move correctly on a multitude of movements, get locked in and focus on the lift, and have earned the right to lift “heavy.”

We’ll still keep the reps in the 8-12 rep range and will not sacrifice good technique for a super heavy load, but now they can move some weight that they can earn “bragging rights” for.

Put It to Practice

I’ve seen this type of programming to be effective with the youth that I work with but if there’s one thing I’ve learned in the strength and conditioning field it is that there’s more than one way to skin a cat.

Your facility, equipment, number of athletes, coaching history, weight room culture, and clientele will determine what will work best for you. If you’re looking for a program, and this type of program fits with your culture and coaching style, then implement it, collect data throughout, evaluate, and decide whether it would be an effective tool in your future programs.

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1. Yessis, Michael. The Revolutionary 1 X 20 RM Strength Training Program. California, USA: Sports Training, 2014.

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