Strength & Conditioning for Junior Athletes


Strength & Conditioning for Junior Athletes

A few weeks ago I spent a morning at the UKSCA Youth Conference. It was a fantastic opportunity to listen to some of the world’s leading researchers and coaches, including Dr. Rhodri Lloyd, Dr. Avery Faigenbaum and Matt Cook, talking about why and how we should go about training our young athletes.

Over the last 4 years I’ve spent a large proportion of my time delivering strength and conditioning to junior athletes aged from 8-18.  When I think of some of the young athletes I have had the pleasure of coaching and what they have achieved as they’ve continued to train and develop, I’m inspired to help more young athletes have exposure to high quality strength & conditioning.

Below are some of the key messages that came out from the speakers mentioned above. Along with some of my own experiences as a coach and junior athlete.

Why is it important?

It goes beyond performance…

Let me put this out there first of all – it’s about way more than just improving sports performance with the younger age group.

Sure that’s a benefit and we want our young athletes to perform as well as they can, but who knows what they are going to end up doing in 10 years’ time.

It is just as much about helping them to develop the habit of a physically active lifestyle. We can provide young people with the skill set to look after their bodies for the rest of their lives.

Injury prevention…

One of the take home messages for me listening to Avery Faigenbaum’s presentation was that kids need preparatory conditioning BEFORE they engage in sports.

Through strength and conditioning we can ensure they have the base level of fitness to cope with the demands of their sport and its associated training schedule. Improving their resistance to overuse injuries.

It’s an education process…

Whereas I learnt from the older guys in the gym, who’d learnt from the older guys in the gym, who learnt from the older guy in the gym who learnt it from his brother, who read it in a book he borrowed from his uncle from 1982.

We can now provide young athletes with exposure to high level coaching so they learn how to train properly and maximise the results they get from their training, whilst avoiding unnecessary injuries from poor technique and inappropriate prescription of exercises and/or load.

Prepare them to make the step up to the elite level

When I was playing Rugby Union I got called into the Gloucester Rugby Academy at the age of 16. It was at this point I was invited down to the gym to train with the strength & conditioning coach at the time Paddy Mortimer.

The next months were spent learning to train, learning exercises I needed to have in the locker to develop the physical qualities to perform at the highest level. I was constantly in a state of catch up as I tried to make up ground on the other guys who were training at a much higher level as they’d been doing it longer.

If I’d already learnt the movements and exercises under no load/low load from a much younger age, I could have walked into that training environment and continued on a seamless progression towards high performance.

According to the speakers at the Youth Conference if you start training at 16, like I did, you are 10 years too late.

How should it be delivered?

Training of junior athletes should be overseen by an appropriately qualified coach who can design and deliver a suitable programme.

The emphasis for the younger athlete is to develop technical competency through a range of fundamental movement skills (i.e. running, jumping, hopping, skipping, landing, squatting, pushing and pulling).

It’s not about heavy loads in the gym. That comes over time as their training age increases and their technical competence permits. On our Junior Rugby Camps we start out learning lifting techniques with a piece of PVC pipe.

Dr. Faigenbaum also emphasised that these sessions must be fun, provide them with an opportunity to make new friends and to learn something new. A key part of what they learn is how to move.

What are the benefits?

Enhanced performance

The obvious benefits from engaging in a properly planned and prescribed strength and conditioning programme are the improvements in strength, speed and fitness that can improve performance.

Reduced incidence of non-contact and overuse injuries

By increasing their capacity & tolerance to their sports training young athletes are less likely to suffer overuse injuries.

When proper movement patterns are engrained through good coaching they are less likely to suffer non-contact injuries that usually occur when body positions are compromised.

Increased movement competence leads to increased confidence

Developing muscular strength also drives the development of motor skills that are crucial to being physically active and leading a life full of fitness and health.

A child that is weaker is less likely to perform competently through fundamental movements and that lower level of competence impacts negatively on their confidence.

The knock on then is in an increase in sedentary behaviour and increases the likelihood of adverse health outcomes later in their life.

Considerations for parents, teachers and coaches.

Before we ask young athletes to increase their technical training schedule (e.g. the number of hours of rugby, tennis or whatever sport they are involved in) consider their ability to tolerate that increase in training.

What are you doing to ensure they have the physical capacity to tolerate a high level of training?

Are you providing them with an opportunity to increase their fitness to be able to cope?

Are they getting enough sleep?

Are they eating the right foods to fuel performance as well as repair and grow?

I’ve heard a lot of parents over the last 4 years say, “He/she doesn’t have time to do a fitness session, he/she has school Rugby/Tennis/Swimming/Netball Monday, Thursday and Saturday and club rugby/tennis/swimming/netball Tuesday and Sunday”.

I encourage you to think about the sessions they are involved in, are they all providing a valuable coaching/learning experience?

I know it’s not an easy task as there are battles between club/school for a player’s time but if your son or daughter’s goal is to be the best at what they do.

If a session isn’t providing much can the time be reallocated to specialist conditioning work? Or a different sport that will broaden the development of their skills?

It may be the difference between them hitting early boredom and burning out and achieving their dreams.

If you work with young athletes there is a great opportunity to learn about Long Term Athlete Development with Ian Jeffreys 13th June 2015. Ian is with us to deliver his Future Champions workshop, which covers his tried and trusted training system that has successfully developed International level athletes. There are a limited number of Early Bird Tickets available >>FIND OUT MORE<<




Strength Training Fundamentals


Anyone looking to start strength training whether for your sport or an active lifestyle you should commit some time to learning the correct technique.

For me there are two major things (the programme itself excluded) that are going to go some way to dictating your progress from a strength training programme:

1)      The individual knowing the correct technique for the major exercises – squats, pushes, pulls, deadlifts

2)      The individual having the flexibility/range of movement to perform the major exercises – squats, pushes, pulls, deadlifts

Something I pride myself on as a coach is being a stickler for good form and quality movement through all exercises. The main reasons being:

1)      If you put the body in the right position for the exercise you will see much better progress out of it

2)      You are much less likely to get injured if you perform the exercise well


The biggest limiting factor to training for strength development I see amongst young athletes and a lot of older ones too is a lack of flexibility. Without flexibility it prevents them putting their body in the correct position to perform the strength exercises safely and effectively.

Aside from that some people just don’t know how to do the exercises properly, or having too much pride whilst training with someone of a much higher level than them and getting sucked in to lifting heavy loads before they are ready for it.

There are other factors such as injury history that may rule out certain exercises as well but that can’t be helped and you’ve just got to learn and adapt your exercise selection accordingly.


I always tell the people who train with me that you earn the right to progress to more advanced training by demonstrating competence in the fundamentals.

Especially when working with young athletes the emphasis should be on establishing technique, but this is something I apply with older populations too.

Bottom line is if the technique isn’t good enough through an exercise, I’m not going to be loading it. I’ll have an athlete work at it unloaded or use an alternative that can be loaded until the technique is at the required standard.

Once the technique is sound the load can be progressed gradually.


When it comes to improving performance and people’s functional fitness the fundamental movement I like people able to perform well is the squat.

Strength Training Exercises Squat

Sometimes there are the quick fixes to a poor squat just by adjusting the stance width to wide (heels at shoulder width) and toes turned out at 5 to 1 on the clock face opening the hips.

Strength Training Exercises

Or using 5-10 sec holds in the bottom of the prisoner squat or overhead squat (low load) if you’re looking to improve squat range of movement to be able to get your hips below the level of the knee so you can get the real performance benefits.

Sometimes though you’ve got to put the hard yards in and tackle those problem areas head on with some flexibility work. If that’s what it takes that’s what it takes. Earn the right.

If you can’t squat for any of the reasons mentioned above, get yourself in touch with a decent coach – I’d suggest checking out the UKSCA Accredited members list for your area on – who can help improve your technique and possibly help resolve any flexibility issues limiting your progress.

I use a squat facilitation system put together by Bob Wood of Physical Solutions, it is a great programme for improving most people’s squat, there are some that seem immune to it and destined to cause me sleepless nights as I try to unlock the movement puzzle, but generally it works well in getting athletes where they need to be in order to start strength training.

Learn more about fundamental training principles with Nick Grantham at his Physical Preparation for Performance Workshops & Speed Clinic 21st & 22nd February 2015. Nick will be covering 5 major areas: Programme Design, Core Training Concepts, Metabolic Mayham: A Modern Approach to Energy System Development, the Art & Science of Coaching and Speed, Agility and Change of Direction. For more information & to take advantage of the incredible Early Bird Discount Bundle >>CLICK HERE<<