Strength Training for Youths: It's Really, Really, REALLY Important

At SAPT, the bulk of our population is 13-18 years old; we have a handful of 9-11 year-olds (though that population is growing quickly) and then college age through the adult spectrum. A lot of parents carry misgivings about weight/strength training for kids under 18, a biggie is "it will stunt their growth." Poo-poo on that! What do you think running around a playground is? Physics, that's what is is: loads and forces acting on the body (just like strength training) except playgrounds are much less planned, controlled, and monitored (I have the scars to prove it).

This month we're going to delve into training for youths, even babies and toddlers too, and WHY IT'S REALLY REALLY IMPORTANT for their growth and development.

Today we're will just be an overview of the benefits of strength training for kids whilst the the following posts will illuminate a bit more details of various aspects of training and their importance for childhood development.

Before we jump in, I want to define what I mean by "weight training." I don't mean slapping a barbell on a kid's back or demanding max effort on all exercises. At SAPT, we take the "cook 'em slow" approach where we start with body weight and maybe utilize some light weights (depending on the kid's age and experience level. ALL of our athletes over 15 start squatting with either 10 or 15lbs. I don't care how "experienced they are.) and then we S.L.O.W.L.Y progress them over months and months. We won't even approach a kid's "max" effort level until they're closer to 17-18, and even then, it's only if they've been training with us for multiple years. We use the least amount of stimulus to invoke an adaptation. That, my friends, is how an athlete improves and stays healthy. None of this don't-stop-till-you-drop nonsense.

What we actually do.
What we actually do.

The following points are in no particular order, rather, this is the way my brain spat them out. They're all equally beneficial and should be coveted by parents for their children.

1. Bone development: Bones grow stronger when stress is applied. Obviously if the stress greatly exceeds what the bone can handle, it will break, but when applied systematically and progressively, the bones will adapt to the stress and become stronger. There's a pretty sweet physicological process seen here:

bone adaptation
bone adaptation

 This is a most-desired process in young kids and teenagers as their bones have not fully ossified (hardened) yet in some places. Progressions from body weight exercises (utilizing isometric holds and negatives to increase the tension without overloading the kid with weight), to light weights, to more challenging weights when the athlete is ready, is a safe and effective way to help kids develop strong bones.

2. Improve kinesthetic awareness and muscular control: The body is pretty complex with lots of moving parts. As kids grow, they develop better control over the force production of muscles (notice how babies tend to wave they're arms and legs around? They're learning how to control the muscles.) and start to learn where their body is in space. Broadly, this is called motor learning and each person has a motor pattern map, if you will. Think of the map as a topographical kind that show hills and valleys and other such features.

A movement map is much the same, instead of hills and valleys, various movement patterns speckle the landscape. Now, I'm going to mix metaphors so stay with me on this one: the movement patterns are similar to computer programs. The brain knows what muscles need to fire for which movements and the forces needed, i.e. throwing a ball overhead, and thus the movement is achieved.

In order to have a successful athlete (or human being for that matter), the movement map must be rich and full of a variety of movement patterns. This way, as the body goes through life, the brain already knows how the body should respond. For example, let's say a kid learns how to throw a ball. The basic program of throwing an object overhead is there. From that program, the brain can easily learn how to throw a baseball or a football because that basic pattern is in place. Taken a step further, the brain could also learn how to perform a tennis serve, since it's the same overhead motion. So a kid who never learns that over head pattern of throwing a ball, will have a tougher time learning overhead motions as they grow.

Side note: "throw like a girl" is a phrase that annoys me. It's not our gender's fault that most** of us aren't taught from a young age like a lot of boys to throw over hand. In conjunction with that, Eric Cressey wrote a cool article about the bony development of shoulders that are exposed to overhead throwing during the ages of 8-13. READ ME, seriously. So there you go, the neurological and physical influence movements have on kids.

Ok, have you drifted off to Facebook yet? No? Good, this is more informative anyway. Weight training (and all the many, many movements that encompasses like rolls, crawls, and the more traditional movements) exposes young athletes to lots and lots of new movements and force production needs. They develop muscular control through the deceleration and acceleration phases of movements as well as how much force the muscles need to generate to create movements. All this enriches their movement maps and sets them up to be successful athletic learners.

3. Maintaining a good strength-to-weight ratio: Kids grow rather quickly. As such, then need to train in a way to increase their muscular strength to go with that growing body. Ever notice how teenagers can be fairly awkward (physically, that is) when they're in the middle of a growth spurt? That's because their muscles haven't caught up to the new length of limbs. Strength training will not only improve muscular control but also teach the brain how to direct the muscles accordingly as they grow. (See Point Number 2 above). It's similar to Milo of Croton carrying a calf up a mountain every day until it was a fully grown ox. What a deliciously ancient example of progressive overload and subsequent adaptation!

4. Strong athletes win: Maybe not the game every time, but athletes that are strong are less susceptible to overuse injuries (due to stronger tendons and ligaments), recover more quickly when injuries do occur, and they are able to adapt to game-time situations (thanks to their rich motor pattern map).

I could continue, but this post is already much longer than I intended it to be. This should convince you that a strength training program designed by responsible, knowledgeable, and maybe a little weird, coaches are exactly what young athletes need to promote growth and successful long term development.

**My dad taught me how to throw and catch a  baseball, football, and frisbee. His foresight prevented me from "throwing like a girl." Thanks, Dad!

Tackling Technique: How to (Safely) Pummel Your Opponent

Today's special guest post comes one of our athletes, Dumont, who's played Rugby professionally and currently coaches for the Washington Rugby Club. Given his past history and present involvement in Rugby, and the fact that the dude is a monster, it stands to reason that he knows a thing or two about pummeling an opponent. He graciously offered his expertise on tackling to share with everyone here on SAPTstrength. Here he provides many practical tips on not only executing an EFFECTIVE tackle, but also how to do so in a safe and concerted manner. Hit it Dumont!

The NFL combine is just days away, and many aspiring athletes will be jumping, running, and lifting in an attempt to impress potential employers.  One skill that not showcased at the NFL Combine is tackling. Some could argue the tackle is a lost art in today’s NFL game.  Yes, we see plenty of big hits each week, and as a result of those big hits, the NFL is attempting to regulate the tackle zone in an effort to protect its players. However, with the increase in big hits, what we are actually seeing as is many defenders forgetting the fundamentals and failing to finish the tackle. The result is we see a lot of missed tackles on Sunday, and a lot of needless injuries. The art of the proper form tackle has been lost.

What is a proper form tackle? A form tackle requires the tackler to use their entire body.  Eyes, arms, shoulders, core, and legs are all engaged in an effort to bring a ball carrier to the ground in an efficient and safe (well as safe as a tackle can be) manner.   While it may not result in the big “jacked up” highlight hit we’ve become accustomed to seeing on television, a form tackle will bring a ball carrier to the ground, and stop them in their tracks every time.

Before we break down the parts to making a tackle let’s point out the first step, take away a ball carrier’s space.  The closer a tackler can get to the ball carrier the less opportunity they have to shake and get out of the way.  Close the space to within a yard, of the ball carrier and now the tackler is in the tackle zone.  Closing the space also allows the tackler to use their body like a coiled up spring that can explode into contact at the right moment.

Let’s break down the tackle into parts and make it easier to digest.  The first part is the eyes.   Before one can make a tackle, a player needs to spot their target, and know what they are aiming for.  The tackler must remember to keep your eyes open and spot their target.  This will also help to keep their head up.  Keeping their head up is key not just so they can see, but also for safety.  It keeps the back in a straight line and helps to protect the neck.

Two keys a tackler should remember when using their eyes:

  • Keep them open- sounds simple but you’d be surprised at how easily they close just before impact
  • Focus on the ball carrier’s core- they can move their legs, arms, and heads, but where their core goes, the entire body goes.   Focusing on the core will lead to the tackle point.

The second part of the tackle is the arms and shoulders.  Many people have different ideas of what to do with their arms when making a tackle.  Often times tacklers start with their arms out wide and it looks like they are trying to bear hug their opponents.  While this is effective in making a tackler look big and fierce, it’s actually inefficient when it comes to making the tackle and dangerous as it exposes the weaker muscles in the arm.  When a tackler’s arms are out wide it creates “weak arms,”   we teach ball carriers to run towards those open arms because it’s much easier for them to break through.  By keeping the arms in tight and the hands above your elbows the tackler engages the shoulders and the arms creating a strong base to enter the tackle zone.

Here are the keys for the arms when making a tackle.


  • Imagine creating a TV screen with your hands, and the ball carriers core is the show you want to watch.

The next part to the tackle equations is the legs. First we’ll focus on the feet.  The lead foot is most important.  Step towards the ball carrier using the lead foot.  This brings the tacklers body with them, and allows them to use their entire body and keeps the body compact and coiled like a spring.

Keys to good footwork

  • Step towards the ball carrier taking away their space
  • Do not cross your feet
  • Take short controlled steps not to overextend yourself.

Once the feet are in position, we need to focus on getting the rest of the legs into proper tackling position.  This is done by bending at the knees, and creating a powerful base. By bending at the knees a tackler engages their legs and they are coiled and ready to explode.  This will also keep the tackler low and allow them to attack the ball carriers core and legs.  We do not want to tackle ball carriers up around the chest and arms, it’s too easy for them to break through when we get that high.  Bending at the knees also gives the tackler the agility to move left, or right should the ball carrier change direction.   Remember to keep your head up and your eyes open during all this.

So far we’ve covered a lot of stuff, so let’s take a moment and give a quick rundown of everything to make sure every is on the same page.  

  • Eyes Open
  • Arms in tight, hands up
  • Lead foot forward
  • Bend at the knees
  • Heads up

This puts an athlete into the perfect tackling position.  To make contact the tackler wants to pick a side of the ball carrier’s body and attack that with their shoulder.  The head should be placed on the side of the ball carrier’s body, not across it.  This protects the tackler from being kneed or elbowed in the head, and reduces the possibility of injury.  Using your lead foot step in, make contact with the shoulder.

A good rule to remember is “cheek-to-cheek.”

The next part of the tackle is the arms.  We already have our arms in tight and our hands are up.  Once the tackler makes contact with the shoulder we want to punch with the arms. Bring the arms up keeping them close and wrapping them around the ball carriers body, pulling the ball carrier in tight.

The final part is engaging the legs and drive forward.  Once the tackler made contact with the shoulder and wrapped up the ball carrier with their arms, start pumping the legs. Drive forward and force the ball carrier to the ground.   Use the ball carriers body as a pillow to land on. This will bring the ball carrier to the ground.

Form tackles are effective.  The main key is putting the body into the correct position. Take away the ball carrier’s space, head up, eyes open, arms in, hands up, knees bent, then explode into the contact point, wrap the arms and drive the legs.

Thanks Dumont! Hopefully you all learned a li'l sumthin' sumthin' about tackling (safely and effectively... as opposed to just mindlessly throwing your body at your opponent). Proper technique will go a long way to both helping prevent injuries and winning games. And just for fun, here's a video of football vs. Rugby:

And if you want to smile: *Note* I love our soccer players! I just thought the video was funny.