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Weight Training for Young Football Players

Todd in Newport, Virginia asks:

"I am the coach of a youth soccer team. Could you tell me when the best time to start using weight training is for young players?"

Marc Bernier at the Alabama Sports Medicine and Orthopaedic Center (ASMOC), replies:

"The question of when it is safe to implement a weight training program in youth football players is a very common inquiry that I receive from coaches and parents. Although there are no definitive guidelines, many strength and conditioning professionals agree that it is safe for youth athletes to perform supervised, low weight resistance programs in the early adolescent years (11-12 years of age). However, I personally believe the more appropriate question that should be answered is: Will a weight training program make my son/daughter a better athlete and will it help prevent injuries?

"There are several reasons why I do not recommend weight training programs to the youth athletes in the clubs I work with:

  1. Concern regarding proper adult supervision and safety.
  2. Cost and limited access to fitness centers with a full complement of weight training equipment.
  3. Athletes involved in a highly dynamic sport such as football become quickly bored by and lack motivation to perform activities limited by weight machines.
  4. Weight training programs will indeed make youth football athletes stronger, but is the increase in strength functional? Meaning will it have a carryover to performance on the field? Additionally, weight training will increase muscle mass and result in increases in body weight; will the youth athlete be able to dynamically control the concomitant increase in momentum that will be generated due to this increase in mass, when performing football specific movements? In my opinion, the answer to both of the above questions is no.

"The goals that many parents and coaches hope to achieve with strength training for their youth players is to enhance performance and prevent injuries. I have found that many youth athletes exhibit significant deficits in functional strength (being able to control their own body), balance, and core strength. Consequently, the training programs I recommend to help achieve these goals focus on the following:

  1. Functional strengthening of the lower extremities.
  2. Balance training.
  3. Core and pelvic strengthening.
  4. Agility/footwork/coordination training.

"Functional strengthening and balance enhancement are accomplished via body weight exercises performed while in a single leg stance position. These exercises are augmented by incorporating medicine balls, resistance bands, and unstable surfaces which will not only increase the strengthening component of the lower extremities, but will also integrate core strengthening and balance. An added benefit of these activities is the emphasis on controlling body momentum (if performed correctly), which is an essential component for carryover to football specific movements. The program begins with isolated, static exercises and progresses to dynamic exercises that emphasize stabilization of the lower extremity and body during athletic movement.

Photo: functional strengthening exercise   Photo: functional strengthening exercise   Photo: functional strengthening exercise   Photo: functional strengthening exercise

"Core strengthening is vital (especially for female athletes) in preventing knee injuries such as ACL tears, as it helps maintain proper alignment of the knees during functional activities such as cutting and landing from jumps. Several muscle groups are targeted during this aspect of the program. Abdominal strengthening is performed via core stabilization training using gym ball, medicine balls and resistive tubing. Crunches and sit-ups may be performed as an initial method to establish a baseline abdominal strength, but are not stressed during the program due to the non-functional nature of these exercises. Hip strengthening (abductors and extensors specifically) is addressed via the use of resistive tubing while performing exercises such as lateral lunge walking, abduction movements and single leg stance hip hinges with a medicine ball.

Photo: core strengthening exercise   Photo: core strengthening exercise   Photo: core strengthening exercise   Photo: core strengthening exercise

"Agility and coordination training is integral in that it retrains the youth athlete how to properly utilize the newly acquired strength attained from the training program. External forces in the form of momentum will have increased compared to pre-training levels due to the increased muscle mass, and it is important for the athlete to learn how to control this during football specific movements. Agility ladders and running movement patterns (power skipping, bounding, grapevines) are performed while on the field.

"The above program will be a more effective mechanism for enhancing performance and preventing injury in youth players."

More about Marc Bernier >

Article published: 12th October 2003