Powerline: Developing size and strength in young athletes
One of the most prominent dilemmas faced by youth and high school coaches is finding safe, proven and productive ways to accelerate the strength levels and physical development of their athletes. The term “hard gainer” is used prolifically by strength and conditioning practitioners to describe athletes who seem to have a monumental struggle gaining good muscle weight and overall strength.
While strategies exist to assist in this area, certain caveats must be understood. Let’s put those on the table first:
- Pre-adolescents and many adolescents grow and develop at varying rates and to different initial levels. There are a host of physiological reasons for this, including body type, hormonal efficiency, maturity and other natural “defense mechanisms” that are in place to allow the body’s morphological, histological and nervous systems to progress on schedule.
- Individual differences will always be a factor, so we can never assume that athletes in the same age group, with seemingly similar body types and athleticism, will respond to training in the same manner. There is an aggregation of genetically determined predispositions than can serve as embellishments, or handicaps, in the rate and level of training adaptations and overall development.
Whether the delay in growth and development has its roots in genetics, or it’s simply a matter of normal deficits attached to innate physical immaturity, there are some helpful tips that provide benefits at some point. Here is a closer look.
I would be remiss in not making this the No. 1 priority. For everyone — especially young trainees — near-perfect execution of every movement is paramount. Kids are much more concerned about impressing their peers with how much they can lift than how well it’s lifted. And kids tend to have a short-term memory in this regard. From personal experience, I can’t emphasize enough the importance of persistent coaching on the correct technical aspects of every movement.
Sets and repetitions
Total set volume for younger athletes is not nearly as important as the technique concern. If you feel that more sets assist you in technique acquisition, then by all means proceed. I prefer to spend more time in specific instruction, using a ground-up approach, and insist that it’s all-inclusive with regard to posture and limb positioning. We detail the start, mid-range and finish components of the movement. When those variables have been mastered, the next step is taken judiciously to construct rep and set schemes.
I have found that many in this category need more reps, both for the technique aspect, as well as muscle-adaptation purposes. The rationale is relatively simple: More reps equate with more time under tension (TUT), and more TUT can increase the workload without needing to increase the weight. This is a very significant component with novice trainees. Remember that the main focus with younger athletes is honing the movement techniques, not letting their egos take over in trying to demonstrate how much they can lift with sloppy, dangerous mechanics.
Regarding total sets, they can be on par with what the older athletes are performing, or lessened to a slight degree. We focus on “work sets,” or those sets that truly count and are documented. Warm-up sets are not tallied in the set count. Generally speaking, one to three work sets are performed for most exercises; the more significant and higher priority movements receiving the elevated set assignment.
The total work sets can range between 12 and 20, depending on whether it’s a split routine (upper or lower body only) or a full-body routine. The full-body routine would require the higher work set total, but keep in mind that total rep volume between the two protocols (i.e., lower reps/higher sets, and higher reps/lower sets) should be a fairly even match.
Along with the teaching and safety aspects of the TUT protocol with this age group, there are some very real tenets of molecular biology at work here. A key regulator of protein synthesis, known as the “mammalian target of rapamycin,” or mTOR, is activated in direct response to the intensity of a strength training activity. Subsequent muscle hypertrophy (i.e., size) and strength/power increase with mTOR activation.
There are several protocols that can enhance this activation, but for the purposes of the specific age group we are discussing, the following schematic might prove to be the safest and most efficient, especially when learning the correct exercise techniques is still high on the priority list.
Here are the basic tenets of this approach for younger athletes.
- Set duration (TUT). The basic recommendation for the total duration of the set is somewhere between 30 and 60 seconds. From a TUT rep standpoint, each rep of a single-joint movement should take a minimum of four seconds to complete, with five to six seconds per rep being the goal on multi-joint movements. A strict, verbal cadence can be kept by the coach or spotter. In essence, we are looking at eight to 10 perfectly performed reps per set/movement. Higher reps can be implemented with the four-second protocol. Included in that cadence should be a one-second pause at the mid-range, fully contracted position to ensure a smooth transition from raising to lowering the load. This also provides an additional stimulus at that point.
- Target rep protocol. This approach calls for a fixed number of maximum reps to be performed with small, manageable increments added when that target is exceeded. For good measure, the target should be exceeded by at least one to two reps for two to three consecutive weeks before adding to the load. This is to be assured, especially with this age group, that true progress has occurred.
- Range protocol. This system has both an upper and lower target. If the athlete is at the lower end of the range, the weight remains constant. Once the high end of the range is achieved for at least two consecutive weeks, a manageable increment can be made for the next workout. The increase should allow for successful execution of at least the lower end of the range but not below it, which would indicate too high of an increment.
- Constant tension on the target musculature. Once the set begins and muscular tension is in effect, there should be no break in that tension until the set is completed. Due to equipment design or the specific movement in question, it may be difficult for strict adherence to constant tension, but it should be maintained as much as possible.
- Performance of “effort sets.” The execution of these high-tension sets should be all-out, or near all-out, efforts. This is a very metabolically demanding method of strength training, and it requires several weeks of indoctrination with your novice trainees, but when executed in the aforementioned manner, it’s a very safe, efficient and result-producing training protocol.
In addition to an appropriate lead-in time before increasing the effort put into each rep and set, another caveat is attached to lifts that put the lifter in a precarious situation. Examples would be barbell squats, barbell/dumbbell bench press and other movements in your program where finishing the set safely would be a concern.
For coaches who want to eventually teach Olympic-style lifts — or place more emphasis on the lower rep bench, squat and dead lift sets — this protocol can still be put into effect. Actually, if you go back to the initial premise and the deficiencies trying to be corrected, the newly acquired strength and force capabilities will translate very well when learning the intricate techniques of competitive lifting. Also, the beauty of the high-tension protocol described is that it does not need to be performed on every training session. As few as one to two days per week will effectively accumulate results. There will be more than enough training time to address other areas.
With practice, excellent coaching, precise documentation and a generous allotment of common sense, a workable weight can be married to a rep assignment that elicits a great muscular effort within safe boundaries. Both free weights and just about all machines can be used in the process.
Here are a few more suggestions for implementing a high-tension protocol.
- Choose primarily multi-joint exercises in order to recruit the larger, more size-receptive musculature (e.g., dead lifts, leg presses, lunges, various dumbbell/barbell presses and pulls and lat pulldowns).
- It’s important to exercise patience in finding either the correct rep range or target goal. Whichever you choose, the starting point needs to be correct for accurate recording and progression.
- Recovery periods between sets can vary from two to three minutes in the initial stages and gradually be cut to around 90 seconds as adaptations occur.
Ken Mannie is the head strength and conditioning coach Michigan State University. His column, Powerline, appears regularly in Coach & Athletic Director magazine.