Ok, so this blog is not about the Boy scouts (not a fan of their uniform) nor is this blog just about boys, it’s about children. Now, one thing that the Scouts do have going for them is that they teach kids to always be prepared. So, if these kids get the importance of preparedness, why don’t we? So, I know its early on in the blog, but I can imagine that your thinking, “were the hell is he going with this?!’, well, I’m gonna tell you. I love working with kids, I find it fascinating to see how these young athletes have the potential to develop into the stars of tomorrow, but the thing that strikes me right between the eyes, is that these kids have such a broad range of not only athletic abilities, but muscular imbalances, coordination issues and just generally being in a bad athletic state in regards to their neuromuscular efficiency.
Now it’s a fact that as we get older we start to lose certain movement patterns due to a decrease neuromuscular efficiency and firing rate, but also due to certain muscular imbalances which we develop through a number of factors, some physical, some cultural, i.e. Asian people who traditionally defecate into holes in the ground have a much more developed squat movement pattern, as opposed to us in the west who have no need to squat to a full range of motion. However, what we are seeing is that this is happening at a rapid rate within children. Now, called me old fashioned but I don’t think that children should have the hip mobility of old men with arthritis.
|Babies… they know their stuff!!|
So what is causing all this? Well, its no great secret that life is a damn sight less active for all of us, especially the younglings, than it used to be, as such we are not developing physical strength and coordination from the ‘Primal Movement Patterns’, or PMP’s for ease of writing, which we experience in everyday life, i.e. squatting to defecate, climbing up trees, hauling around carcasses after a hunt etc. . Be warned you’re going to be hearing about these a lot from me.
As such the physical development of children, and to the same extent adults, is not occurring as fast as we would like. When we turn this theory to our imbalanced young athletes, what we are seeing is that they are growing up during their early developmental years playing a wide variety of sports, however not enough emphasis is being placed on developing these kids to the point were they are ready to play these sports safely, i.e we are not developing their training ages. This is not to say that kids need to pass some kind of physical testing in order to play little league, but proper programming should be installed to make sure that these kids have ‘General Physical Preparedness’ GPP, (yep, you’re gonna be hearing this one too), rather than just sport specific movement patterns which are going to cause imbalances, a key example being gymnasts and their arched back and rounded shoulders or tennis players and their underdeveloped posterior chains.
So what can you expect from your kids if they have a lack of strength, a sense of developed coordination, and an inability to express the fullness of their physical potential, e.g. being able to cut and change their running direction without their knees shooting into a valgus angle? INJURIES!!! Yep, that’s right, injuries, but before any parents out their pull their kids out of Rugby club, hold fire!
A little known fact is that the majority of sports related injuries are non-contact in nature. In adolescent youth, many of who have started hitting the weight room to improve themselves as athletes, the most common soft tissue injury areas are the trunk and the posterior chain. Research suggests that this is due to muscular imbalance, excessive loading, and improper technique when lifting. The question is present to you is this. Would these injuries occur as frequently if our children where educated from a younger age in what is, and what is not good movement?
WHOA THERE!!! I see you parents pulling kids out of their gym sessions by their ears screaming, “It’s for your own good!” I have a few fun facts for you. Now, while no strength program is a simple matter, with children the matter is more complicated, however the outlandish claims that people make about the so called ‘dangers’ of strength training are just plain bogus. The belief that strength training leads to injury in pre-adolescents due to the fact that their growth plates have not fully formed. However, once again, this is bogus.
The NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) ‘Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research’ noted that in the past injury data was compiled from emergency room data. However, this data is compiled from patient reports of injury from resistance training. These self reported injuries give no data regarding what lifting technique or weight was used, the level of the injured persons experience, whether or not they were supervised, had they had previous coaching etc. with so much crucial data left out how can we say that its strength training which has led to these injuries when a vast majority seem to be due to improper technique or coaching. Remember, anything is dangerous if not done properly.
Also, while on the subject of injuries I just want to put this out there, strength training is actually good for your bones and will not stunt the growth of children if used in an appropriate manner. Assuming that specific training and nutrition parameters are met, strength training will maximize bone mineral density in children and adolescents. In 2003 a research review on the effects of training on grown and bone mineral density found no evidence of detrimental effects on linear growth in youth. Resistance training increases the production of IGF-1 (Insulin like growth factor), a hormone that triggers protein synthesis and supports the effects of growth hormone, A second review from 2006 supported the conclusion that weight training is beneficial, and noted that resistance training did not influence growth in high nor weight in pre-adolescent youth, primarily due to the low T-levels in contrast to their adolescent and post-adolescent piers.
This brings us onto programming for young athletes. First thing to point out is this, all things which strengthen the body can be considered strength training, so when I talk about kids and strength training, please don’t picture me yelling at a 6 year old to squat 3x his/her bodyweight. So what factors should be considered when developing a strength program for the young athlete?
The best weight is body weight. In regards of absolute strength gains and hypertrophic factors, post puberty adolescents make greater gains than the prepubescent kids due to the T-levels previously mentioned. The prepubescent kids however, made great gains in stability and performance due to the improvements in the neuromuscular strength, specifically in motor unit and PMP coordination and CNS firing rate. Get them moving in their own skins using PMP’s which are going to improve their overall coordination and applicable strength i.e. squats, lunges, press ups, pull ups etc. Just by moving kids are going to get stronger whatever it is that they do. Primal man didn’t need a gym to get strong. The world he waled was his training centre!
Observe and adjust according to natural growth spurts. Youth athletes need distinct programming due to the fact that improvements in athletic performance are non linear. They are based on biological age and there is typically a rapid fluctuation between in physical performance based on this age. Children physically mature at different rates, we all know that kid that’s 14 and looks 10, and that 16 year old who looks like he could pass for 20+. With this in mind research shows that between 7-17 kids go through periods of accelerated physical improvements and decreased performance that follows identifiable age related trends, typically occurring before and after peak growth spurts.
The age groups of 10-11, and 12-13 were identified as periods of accelerated adaptation, the larger improvement between 12-13 is to make up for the decrease between 11-12, a period were we experience that ‘adolescent awkwardness’. As such the younger the kids are, generally the better their motor recruitment is in regards to their ability to perform certain PMP’s, and certainly are able to pick them up quickly and develop their coordination to the point of conscious actions become subconscious actions. The older we get, the harder and harder it becomes to improve our coordination to the point of subconscious action.
- Avoid specialization at an early age. Periodization is key to maintaining progress. Variety over specialization is preferred for children as it will reduce the likely-hood of repetitive stress injuries and the development of muscular imbalances within kids. There is evidence to support that the most successful athletes go through three stages of development. Typically they play a variety of sports during the ‘sampling years’ of 6-12. A period of lesser varieties of sports with a tendency towards specialization during the ‘specialization years’ of 13-16, followed by the commitment to one sport during the ‘investment years’ of 16 onwards. Specialization at a young age can lead to muscular imbalances due to repetitive motor recruitment, brining us back to our gymnasts and tennis players. Even during the later stages of the ‘investment years’ renown Strength and Conditioning coach Eric Cressy, who primarily works with Baseball players, tells his athletes to get the bat and ball out of their hands for 3 months out of the year and do something else. He reminds his athletes that the off-season is there for a reason.
So, in short, what we are facing now with children is a simple case of too much sport and not enough basic strength work to improve their GPP. While this is no simple matter to resolve, it’s a situation that can be dealt with via introducing kids to basic strength training and PMP’s to make them well rounded and equally developed. These not only develops them better as athletes, but also allows them to play the sports they love for longer and enjoy a better quality of life with fewer injuries as a result of having a stronger body. Please feel free to leave any comments, ask any questions, and call me up on anything that you think I may have got wrong and we can have a good debate about it
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