Programing Strength Training For Children

This month's article is lengthy as it give details on programming strength training for children. The recomended process keeps in mind the long term development methods for athletes as outlined by Bayli (1999). Despite these detailed recommendations they are no substitute for a properly qualified strength and conditioning coach.

Strength Program Design and Progression for Children

One of the areas that has been unclear in addressing strength trainig for children is actual program design and progression. Previously other bodies releasing position statements on this matter have made very general guidelines regarding this. The Australian Strength and Conditioning Association has attempted to put together clear guidelines so that coaches can develop safe and effective strength programs for children.

Studies have shown that children can benefit from training where Tsolakis and colleagues (2004) examined the effects of two months of resistance training on 11-year-old boys. The children performed three strength-training sessions per week on non-consecutive days. The 6 exercises were performed on variable resistance machines at 3 sets of 10 with 1-minute rest periods. The children in this study reported no injuries apart from some delayed onset muscle soreness after the first three training session. By the end of the study the children had increased their isometric strength by 17,5% and their resting testosterone level by 124% from the baseline figures. This was statistically significant when compared to a non-training control group.

The ASCA recommends 4 levels of training. These levels are indicated by both age and ability. A series of simple tests has been devised to ensure that the appropriate level of motor control has been developed. It is important when designing programs for children that one keeps in mind the principles of long term athlete development outlined by Bayli (1999).

The levels are:

  • Level 1 - 6-9 Years of age
  • Level 2 - 9-12 Years of age
  • Level 3 - 12-15 Years of age
  • Level 4 - 5-18 Years of age

These levels are not only age dependant but ability dependant. For a child to progress from one level to the next they are required to complete a number of tests. Only when they have satisfied both age and ability tests may they progress to the next level of development. Therefore if a child is 11 years of age but has not training history and can not perform the test required to move on to level 2 then he or she must start at level 1. Often the child will be able to progress faster through the level due to their increased maturity and development.

To enter level 1 there are no ability tests, the child must simply qualify by age. However to move from level 1 to level 2 the following tests must be satisfactorily completed:

  • Hold a “plank” position for 60 seconds
  • Perform 10 well controlled back extensions
  • Perform 10 well controlled full range double legged squats
  • Perform 10 well controlled pushups on the toes, chest to touch the ground and arms to achieve full extension
  • Perform 5 well controlled lunges with the back knee (feather) touching the ground and good balance
  • Wall squat 90 degrees for 60 seconds
  • Touch the toes in the sit and reach test with control

These tests primarily assess motor control which is essential to progressing onto more advanced exercises.

To enter level 3 the child must be a minimum of 12 years of age and be able to complete the following tests:

  • Satisfy the requirements for level 2
  • Hold the “plank “ position for 90 seconds
  • Perform 10 well controlled repetitions of bench press at 40% of body weight
  • Perform 10 well controlled dumb bell rows at 15% of bodyweight in each hand
  • Perform 10 well controlled chin ups with legs out straight and a supinated (underhand) grip
  • Perform 10 well controlled lunges, back knee (feather) touching the ground with 10% of body weight in each hand and good balance
  • Reach 5cm beyond their toes in the sit and reach test

To enter level 4 the child must satisfy the age requirements and:

  • Satisfy the requirements for level 2 and 3
  • Hold a “plank” position for 120 seconds
  • Perform 5 well controlled single leg squats to full range,/li>
  • Perform 10 well controlled parallel bar dips (for boys) or 10 well controlled bench dips (for girls)
  • Perform 10 well controlled chinups (for boys) or a 90 second arm hang with the elbows at 90 degrees (for girls).
  • Perform 10 well controlled repetitions of bench press at 70% body weight (for boys) or 50% of bodyweight (for girls)

In some cases at the discretion of the coach these tests of muscular function and control may need to be modified for children who exceptionally tall or heavy such as basket ball players or rugby players.

The ASCA makes the point that while there are many reasons for strength training the primary goal in stages 1-3 should be on limb control and stability. With increases in strength and size being a bi-product of the movement control programs. By ensuring the intial three stages are properly completed the child can go onto level 4 with more advanced training goals such as improved maximal strength, power, hypertrophy (size) and so on.

Model training Programs

The training programs below are not the only training programs that can be used by the relevant age group but be aware of the general principles of the program such as primarily body weight exercises, stability exercises and so on.

Level 1

At level 1 a circuit style set up is recommended for ease of administration and to keep the children moving through out the duration of the session. An example of such a circuit is shown below:

    Basic warm up (5 minute jog or cycle etc plus 2-3 minutes of dynamic stretching)

  • Step ups (both left and right legs) (quadriceps, hamstring and gluteal muscles) - 20 to 30 cm step or chair
  • Push ups (pectorals, deltoid and triceps brachii muscles) - off knees initially progressing onto toes as strength increases
  • Star jumps (quadriceps, adductors, gluteal muscles)
  • Abdominal crunches (abdominals and hip flexors) - as strength increases progress towards bent legged sit ups
  • Chair dips (triceps brachii muscle) - initially have legs close to the chair and use the legs and arms to raise the body. As strength increases progressively move legs further away from the chair
  • 90 degree wall sit (quadriceps and gluteal muscles)
  • Reverse back extensions (lower back, gluteal and hamstring muscles) -lying face down with torso over table or bench and lift legs to level of hips hold top position for 1-2 s and repeat
  • Hover (abdominal, hip flexor and lower back muscles) - initially off knees progressing to toes
  • Cool down and stretch - (5 min jog or cycle etc and 5 minutes of stretching)

Progression:

Week 1: Perform 20 s of each exercise for as many controlled repetitions as possible followed by 40 s rest and then move onto the next exercise. Perform 1 circuit - total workout time approximately 25 minutes (including warm up and cool down). Once this circuit is comfortably achieved by the athlete progress onto stage 2.

Stage 2: Perform 30 s of each exercise for as many controlled repetitions as possible followed by 40 s rest and then move onto the next exercise. Perform 1 circuit - total workout time approximately 27 minutes (including warm up and cool down). Once this circuit is comfortably achieved by the athlete progress onto stage 3.

Stage 3: Perform the same as stage 2 but repeat the circuit 2 times - total workout time approximately 38 minutes. Once this circuit is comfortably achieved by the athlete progress onto stage 4.

Stage 4: Perform 2 circuits but increase exercise time to 40 s per exercise with 50 s recovery - total workout time approximately 40 minutes. Once this circuit is comfortably achieved by the athlete progress onto stage 5.

Stage 5: Perform 2 circuits but increase exercise time to 50 s per exercise with 50 s recovery - total workout time approximately 43 minutes. Once this circuit is comfortably achieved by the athlete progress onto stage 6.

Stage 6: Perform 2 circuits but increase exercise time to 60 s per exercise with 60 s recovery - total workout time approximately 47 minutes. At this stage the athlete can keep the same circuit but try and increase the intensity of some of the exercises. For example, some options include:

  • Increasing the step height for the step ups
  • Push ups off toes rather than knees
  • Progress from crunches to bent legged sit ups
  • Chair dips performed with legs progressively further from the chair
  • Hover off toes rather than off knees

It is important that a minimum of a level 1 strength and conditioning coach to ensure correct technique and progression supervise these sessions. New exercises can be added as the child adapts and improves their control and strength.

Level 2

At level 2 the programs begin to incorporate some free weights and machine weight exercises as well as body weight activities. Again it is essential that the programs adopted be strictly supervised by an adult with at least a Level 1 ASCA Strength and Conditioning accreditation and the machines used be an appropriate size for the children. A beginning program for level 2 would comprise a basic 3 day per week whole body program performed on alternate days (i.e., Monday, Wednesday and Friday) of the following exercises:

    Basic warm up (5 minute jog or cycle plus 2-3 minutes of dynamic stretching)

  • Lunges (initially using body weight but progressing to include light dumbbells when appropriate)
  • Machine Leg Press
  • Barbell Bench Press
  • Wide Grip Lat Pulldown to the Front
  • Dumbbell Row
  • Back Extensions
  • Triceps Pushdown
  • Dumbbell Arm Curl
  • Hanging Knee Raises
  • Cool down and stretch – 10 minutes

    The repetition range is between 10 to 15-RM with a maximal loading of 60% of the 1-RM. Initially the program should commence with 1 set of each exercise with 1-2 minutes rest between exercises, progressively building up to 3 repeated sets with 1-2 minutes rest between sets, as the child advances and can readily tolerate the increased training volume.

    Level 3

    At level 3 the programs begin using progressively more free weight exercises but avoid complex lifts such as cleans, snatches, deadlifts and squats etc unless competent coaching is available from a coach with at least a Level 2 ASCA strength and conditioning accreditation. Again it is essential that the programs adopted be strictly supervised by an adult with at least a Level 1 ASCA Strength and Conditioning accreditation and the equipment used be an appropriate size for the children. A beginning program for level 3 would comprise a basic 3 day per week whole body program performed on alternate days (i.e., Monday, Wednesday and Friday) of the following exercises:

      Basic warm up (5 minute jog or cycle etc plus 2-3 minutes of dynamic stretching)

    • Front barbell squats
    • Step ups holding dumbbells
    • Barbell bench press
    • Chin ups – initially using a close grip and restricted range of motion but progressing to a full range of motion as strength develops
    • Back extensions – with a 2 s pause at top
    • Hanging leg raises or Inclined sit ups
    • DB seated overhead press
    • Parallel bar dips or Bench dips if not sufficiently strong to perform 8 repetitions
    • Hover – Circuit: 60 s 2 arms to front and 30 s 1 arm each side (side hover)
    • Barbell Arm Curls
    • Cool down and stretch – 10 minutes

    The repetition range is between 8 to 15-RM with a maximal loading of 70% of the 1-RM. Initially the program should commence with 2 sets of each exercise with 1-2 minutes rest between sets, progressively building up to 4 repeated sets as the youth advances and can readily tolerate the increased training volume. Towards the end of level 3 the youth may start employing pyramid loading where the loading can be increased on subsequent sets with a lighter drop set employed for the final set.

    For youth wishing to pursue a sporting career in a strength or power based sport such as any of the rugby or football codes, track and field, swimming etc it is recommended that during this level the inclusion of some of the more complex and/or explosive exercises such as clean and press, squats, and deadlifts into the program be commenced and that competent instruction from a strength and conditioning coach with at least Level 2 accreditation be employed to instruct the athlete.

    Level 4

    At level 4 the programs are progressively moving towards an advanced adult program involving split routines where appropriate and complex multi-joint movements provided sound technique has been developed under competent coaching by a coach with at least Level 2 ASCA strength and conditioning accreditation. The repetition range is between 6 to 15 RM with a maximal loading of 80% of the 1 RM.

    A beginning program for level 4 would comprise a basic 3 day per week whole body program performed on alternate days (i.e.. Monday, Wednesday and Friday) of the following exercises:

      Warm up – 10 mins on bike

    • Major leg exercise (Squat, Leg press or Hack squat)
    • Major chest exercise (Bench press, Incline bench press or DB press)
    • Overhead shoulder press (Clean and press, Standing military press or Seated press behind neck)
    • Upper back exercise (Chins, Lat pull or DB pullover)
    • Triceps (Dips, Lying triceps extension or Triceps pushdown etc)
    • Lower back exercise (Deadlift or Back extension)
    • Hanging leg raise (holding light 1-3 kg medicine ball between legs when strong enough)
    • Major bicep exercise (Standing DB curls, EZ curls or Preacher curls)
    • Inclined sit ups or Hover circuit
    • Calf raises
    • Cool down and Stretch – 10 mins

    Should change specific exercises throughout the week:

  • Mon and Fri perform Barbell Bench Press, Wed Inclined Bench Press
  • Mon Clean and Press, Wed Standing military press, Friday Press behind neck
  • Mon Chins, Wed DB Pullover, Fri Lat pulldown
  • Mon Squat, Wed Leg Press, Fri Hack Squat
  • Mon and Fri Deadlift, Wed Back Extension etc
  • The repetition range is between 6 to 15-RM with a maximal loading of 80% of the 1-RM. The program should consist of 3-4 sets of each exercise with 2-3 minutes rest between major exercises such as clean and press, squats, deadlifts and 1-2 minutes rest between sets for more basic exercises such as back extensions, sit ups. The youth is encouraged to employ pyramid loading techniques where the loading can be increased on subsequent sets with a lighter drop set employed for the final set. For youth wishing to increase training intensity, muscle strength and size and move towards a split routine towards the end of Level 4 the following training recommendations are provided:

    2 Way Split Routine: After 12 months on the above whole body program the individual may choose to up the intensity and volume and move to a 2 way split routine. This involves splitting the body in 2 and performing each workout 2 times per week, thus 4 workouts per week.

    The ASCA preferred way to achieve this is to split the body into: Day 1: Upper Body (Chest, Shoulders, Triceps, Upper Back and Biceps): Monday and Friday. Day 2: Lower Body (Legs, Lower Back and Stomach): Wednesday and Saturday

    However, there are other methods to achieve this, for example push : pull split routines. By splitting the body in two more exercises can be performed per session and a more intense workout per body part achieved with longer to recover prior to the next session.

    Example of 2 Way Split Routine

    Monday and Friday - Upper Body (Chest, Shoulders, Triceps, Upper Back and Biceps)

      Warm up – 10 mins on bike

    • Bench press
    • Inclined bench press or DB Flies
    • Standing push press
    • DB Lateral raises or Rear deltoid exercise
    • Chin Ups
    • DB Pullovers or Bench pull
    • Dips
    • Lying Triceps Extension
    • DB Twist and Turn Biceps Curls

    Cool down – 10 mins stretching

    • 3-4 sets of 6-15 reps with about 1-3 minutes rest between sets.

    Wednesday and Saturday - Lower Body (Legs, Lower Back and Stomach):

      Warm up – 10 mins on bike

    • Squats
    • Deadlifts or Cleans
    • Leg press
    • DB lunges
    • Leg Curls
    • Back Extensions with additional loading
    • Calf Raises
    • Russian twists with medicine ball or Inclined sit ups with rotation
    • Hanging leg raises with light medicine ball between legs

    Cool down – 10 mins stretching

    • 3-4 sets of 6-15 reps with about 1-3 minutes rest between sets.

    At this stage the athlete should be adopting periodisation techniques for the major lifts (i.e. bench press, squats, cleans etc) with their resistance training to coincide with their sporting program. For example, if the athlete was simply interested in getting basically big and strong during a 12 week off-season program the following schedule may be of use:

    • 4 weeks of high volume and low intensity training performing 4 sets of 15- RM loads per exercise – followed by:
    • 4 week of moderate volume and intensity training performing 4 sets of 10- RM loads per exercise – followed by:
    • 4 weeks of low volume and high intensity training performing 4 sets of 6-RM loads per exercise.

    At the end of the 12-week period the program could return to the 15 RM loads hopefully with the athlete considerably bigger and stronger than when they commenced the 12 week program.

    Summary

    The primary objective over this 8 year plan is to ensure that children develop safe technique and good muscular control before progressing to the next phase of the plan. In the intial stages the primary objective is movement control. The second stage and third stages build on this and graudually introduce free weights. In the final stage athletes can begin to pursue specific goals such as strength and power development specific to their sport or for fitness and asthetic development. At all stages it is essential that training is programmed and supervised by a properly qualified strength and conditioning coach. In the latter stages this coach should be at least a level 2 strength and conditioning coach.

    Bayli, I. (1999). Australian Coaching Council: 5th Professional and National coaches seminar. Sydney, Australia, 1-3 December, 1999. Workshop series 1-4. Available at: http://www.ausport.gov.au/fulltext/1999/acc/pancs.asp

    Tsolakis, C., Vagenas, G., and Dessypris, A. (2004). Strength adaptations and hormonal responses to resistance training and detraining in preadolescent males.
    Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 15(4):524-256

    Website:

    http://fulltext.ausport.gov.au/fulltext/1999/acc/pancs/balyi_w1.htm

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