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Adaptations In Youth Athletes

Adaptations In Youth Athletes

Feb 26, 2023

Perform HQ

As we put the final touches on the content for our upcoming seminar Youth Long Term Athletic Development on the 3rd June. One of the topics i think will have the biggest influence on strength and sport coaches is the understanding of adaptations in youth athletes.

There are a number of things we need to consider and use in our decision making process when working with youth athletes to dictate exercise selection, progression/regression, volume and intensity: 

Here are 5 things that we take into consideration when constructing a youth athletes training program:

1. Kids are not small adults

2. Physiological vs chronological age

3. Training age & training history

4. Current sporting load and schedule

5. Dose and intensity of the stimulus


Kids are not small adults

Kids are not just small adults, we need to take a different approach to their training. Kids and adolescents go through lots of big changes as they are growing and we need to take this into consideration.

They are like little sponges and just as kids learn things much quicker, they often adapt much quicker to training than adults. 

The rate of progression might look very different from one kid to another and in comparison to adults, so we need to be prepared to make appropriate changes to the progressions/regressions of exercises and the stimuli we are giving them.

Where it may take an adult a few weeks to learn a new movement or skill, it could be as quick as one session for some kids, as they pick up the technique of certain movements very quickly. 

The same is true for certain physiological adaptations as well. We obviously wouldn’t expect to see any vast change in one session but where it may take an adult months to adapt to a certain stimulus, kids can respond very quickly in just a matter of weeks.  

This does also have a little bit of a drawback. Because some adaptations such as muscle strength/growth can occur much quicker than their tendons, along with rapid growth of their bones during growth spurts it can lead to growth plate issues such as Severs or Osgood-Schlatters (Jess has touched on this in a previous article)

We know that tendons take longer to adapt compared to muscles, whether an adult or a child. So we might need to be more conscious about including exercises/stimulus that challenge the tendons a little more. Maybe including more isometrics, plyometrics to train their tendons to help keep up with the rate of growth of the muscles and bones. 

Physiological vs Chronological Age

Often parents get sucked into old myths such as ‘you shouldn’t lift until you’re at least 12’. As we’ve spoken about before and continuously have conversations with parents, resistance training when done appropriately under the supervision of professionals is extremely safe and good for their physical development irrespective of their age.

Just because a child turns 12 doesn’t mean they will be any more physically competent than an 11 year old.

If you’ve spent any time around junior sport or schools, you’ll know that not all kids of the same age are at the same stage of development. Their chronological age may not necessarily represent their ‘physical age’. 

We simply meet them where they are at and work through the progressions based on their development, not their age. 

If you are working with larger groups of kids, it may be useful to group them by their physical ability rather than just their age.

Training Age and Training History:

Piggy backing off the chronological age vs physiological age. We must also consider an athlete's training age. Simply this is how many years an athlete has done sport and/or trained in a gym. Two youth athletes that are 14 years old could have vastly different training ages and this should be taken into consideration when constructing a program. 

Understanding what previous exposure an athlete has had in the gym and the type of training that they have done will allow us to make better informed decisions about what stimulus and progressions we are going to do. 

Furthermore, understanding what sports and to what level they have played will also give us an understanding of what physical qualities they need to perform their sport as well as the stressors that they have been exposed to eg. change of direction, contact, throwing, kicking etc. 

Current Sporting Load and Schedule:

This is one of the biggest factors that will determine how much and what we do. For any youth athlete who isn’t partaking in a strength sport, the gym is complementary to their sport. We shouldn’t lose sight of this. 

The most important thing for an athlete is to be able to play their sport to the best of their ability. We never want the work we do in the gym to negatively impact their sports training and performance. 

Overuse and growth injuries are very prevalent within youth sports. In the gym as coaches we have a great opportunity to build up their strength and capacity so that athletes can perform higher volumes of their sport. But, we must ensure that the volume we do in the gym is appropriate and not overload the athlete and contribute to these overuse injuries.

Fortunately, in the gym we have much more capacity to scale the intensity and volume as well as alter the weekly schedule to each athlete in comparison to a team sport setting. As a parent or athlete it is vital that you communicate with your coach to discuss your weekly training and competition schedule so you can adjust volumes and intensities in the gym accordingly. 


Dose and Intensity of Stimulus: 

The devil is in the dose. 

As we have discussed, youth athletes can often adapt far quicker than adults. As a result, they may not require the same volume of stimulus that an adult will in order to adapt as everything is relatively novel for them in the beginning. 

There is no need to smash them with heaps of volume, why would we do more than we have to. Especially if they are also playing a lot of sport outside of the gym, we want to do as little as possible to elicit an adaptation.

Although we may not want to do lots of volume, we must consider the intensity of the stimulus we are giving them and whether it will actually evoke the desired adaptation. Have they just come from the playground having spinted around playing chasey or jumped off the monkey bars and you’re making them do rudimentary progressions/regressions that they are more than capable of doing and regularly exposing themselves to higher outputs. 

Again, we must meet the athlete where they are at.


Written by Adam Komatsu.