Marc R. Bernier, MPT CSCS
The question of when it is safe to implement a weight training program in youth soccer players is a very common inquiry that I receive from coaches and parents. Although there is 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:
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:
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 soccer 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.
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.
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 soccer specific movements. Agility ladders and running movements 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.
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