Youth Conditioning (Part 2)


In Part 1, we discussed the obstacles to optimal athletic development for youths, and how to overcome them. Also, the ideal types of activities at various age ranges were considered. In Part 2 we will look at building an efficient, injury-proof young athlete from the ground up. After all, the under 10s, 12s and U14s of today are the seniors of tomorrow.

Building the efficient Athlete

Building a healthy, resilient, powerful, skilful player, who is less prone to injuries, can be likened to building a wall. Look at the diagram below.

image 1-large

You can see that each layer of the wall represents an athletic trait. Players love to master the skills of their game, but when you really examine a wall, which row of bricks is the most important? The top one or the bottom one? It should be clear that we have to build layers from the bottom-up to finish with a solid wall, or a complete athlete. Therefore, with this in mind, my work with athletes, of all ages, involves ensuring that adequate foundations are in place before moving anything other than body weight is considered. The coach’s job is partly to make the athlete Stronger, Faster, more Powerful – in other words, a better mover, regardless of the sport.  All trainers will vary to some extent in methodology and style. However, when starting out with a new athlete or team, it is crucial, in my opinion, to ascertain their training age and current condition. This is done by movement screening: the process of assessing the ability to perform primitive bodyweight movements like squatting, lunging, etc… By analysing these movements, we can identify asymmetries between left and right side, muscular imbalances, and mobility and stability issues. If these remain hidden, then the athletes are only trying to build strength on dysfunction and are doomed to either plateau, get injured or both. By screening the athlete, the coach knows which layers of the “wall” are solid and which are weak. Something as simple as bad posture is dysfunction. It messes up the alignment of the body. Imagine the body is a car: how good would it be for the car to drive at 100kph with the handbrake on and all the wheels out of alignment? The first night I work with a team or athlete, we perform simple movement drills designed to show up compensation patterns. By identifying mobility issues in the ankles, hips, shoulders, etc… it provides us with a roadmap of where each person’s training must begin and the direction we need to take.

Mobility and Stability

image 2-large

I will deal with mobility and stability together, because they are

intrinsically linked. The joint-by-joint approach used by Gray Cook and Michael Boyle best illustrates this: In my book “Training and Optimal Health for Sports”, I explain the kinetic chain and how everything is connected to everything else. Cook and Boyle teach how to visualise the body as a series of joints stacked on top of each other with alternating needs. See Table 1.

Table 1.


Primary need

Shoulder (gleno-humeral joint) Mobility
Scapulae (shoulder blades) Stability
Thoracis Spine Mobility
Lumbar Spine Stability
Hips Mobility
Knees Stability
Ankles Mobility

If a joint that is meant to be mobile is overly stiff, then it shifts this responsibility to the joint higher up the chain. For example, if a person tries to squat but has poor hip mobility, then the necessity of mobility is usually shifted to the lumbar spine, which needs stability. The result is likely low back pain, which is cause by poor hip mobility, not necessarily a weak back (as is sometimes thought). By understanding this joint-by-joint approach we can ensure our clients meet the needs of the joints by tailoring the exercises accordingly.

Examples of recommended exercises for mobility are:

1. 90-90 Kneeling with rotation image 3-large

Purpose:      improves thoracic extension-rotation, stretches hip flexors, activates glutes.

Method:      Adopt a half-kneeling position, pushing hips forward, with hands at side of head and elbows back. Rotate in the direction of the front leg. Perform 8-10 repetitions and change legs. Ensure to “fire” glutes each repetition.

2. Side lunges image 4-large

Purpose:           To warm-up the muscles of the thigh/hips and stretch the adductors.

Method:            Stand with feet approximately twice your shoulder width, keeping feet parallel. Bend one knee keeping the other straight, thereby squatting to one side. Keep both horizontal. Shift weight to the other side without moving the positions of the feet. Perform 10-12 repetitions.

Examples of recommended exercises for stability are:

1. Side Plank image 5-large

Purpose:           To develop the stability and endurance of the lateral (side) trunk muscles, e.g. internal and external obliques.

Set-up:                Take the side plank start position. N.B: attention must be paid to maintaining neutral spine. Knees, hips and lumbar spine should all be extended. NO ROTATION. Maintain until position can no longer be comfortably held.

2. Bird-dogs 

image 6-largeimage 7-largeimage 8-large

Purpose:      To develop the stability and endurance of the posterior core, e.g. low back muscles, gluteals, also abdominals. It is particularly for rotational stability.

Set-up:         Kneel on the floor with hands under shoulders, knees under hips. Ensure spine is kept neutral. A PVC pipe or sponge noodle can be used to assist in this. See Fig 6. Brace the trunk muscles and raise one arm to the front without moving the low back out of position.

If the pipe rolls off, this indicates inability to maintain position. Hold for two deep belly breaths and slowly lower the raised arm to the start position. The next progression is to raise contralateral arm and leg while maintaining position.

General Movement Skills

This layer of training involves making sure that the young athletes can correctly perform the primal movement patterns, e.g. squatting, lunging, pushing, pulling, bending, twisting and gait.

Example 1: Prisoner Squat. image 9-large

One of the key exercises I like to makes sure is correctly done, is the prisoner squat.

Purpose:        This is a bread-and-butter exercise for developing strength and power for any athlete. However, very few pubescent (and older) people do it correctly. When done properly, it works most lower body muscles in a movement capacity with a great deal of core stabilising and other proprioceptive benefits.

Set-up:           Have the athlete stand with feet approx shoulder-width apart, with feet turned 10-15 degree outward. Hands are held beside the head. When lowering, teach sitting back, NOT down, with weight on the balls of the feet and heels. Upper and lower back should be arched with the chest up. The knees should be tracked with (but not past) the knees.

Example 2. Lunges image 10-large

Purpose:        Great exercise for working most muscles from the trunk down. It is a also a great tool for assessing a student’s hip mobility (hip extension) and proprioception (balance)

Set-up:           With feet hip-width apart, have the students step BACKWARD into a reverse lunge.       Emphasise maintaining correct upright posture. Focus on creating right angles at both knees and hips. Trunk, rear leg and front calf should be perpendicular to floor. Front thigh and rear            calf should be parallel to floor. Return to start position by PULLING from front leg NOT pushing from back leg while remaining upright.

Mistakes:      Inability to step into the correct lunge position could indicate some or all of the following – weak hip extension as a result of tight/overactive hip flexors and inhibited/weak hip extensors. Inability to return to start position as described could indicate weak hip extension as a result of tight/overactive hip flexors and inhibited/weak hip extensors. See Fig 11 to observe the typical, incorrect lunge position.

Strength and Power

As a martial arts coach in Ireland, I have observed over the last ten-fifteen years that children coming into my classes are, on average, displaying less flexibility, less cardiovascular fitness, less strength and less favourable body composition than previously. This, I believe, is partly due to the advent of the games console, the now restricted level of physical activity in first-level schools and nutrition changes in society. Coaches and parents have a responsibility to try to turn this around, and I believe structured resistance training for children can play a key part in this. There is some concern about the safety of children undertaking strength training, but studies have shown that there are far more injuries from playing actual sports than from following an appropriate and properly supervised training programme. Fear of injury need not be a preventative factor in juniors doing resistance training once internationally recognised recommendations are adhered to. Some of the confirmed benefits of strength training for children are:

  • Sizeable strength gains, beyond those of normal growth
  • Reduced risk of injury in sporting activities
  • Increased performance
  • Improved recovery from normal sports injuries
  • Improved bone mineral density
  • Reduced risk of cardiovascular disease and/or obesity
  • Improved psychological health e.g. self-esteem

With all these benefits, it seems surprising that there aren’t more structured resistance training programs available. Perhaps it is because of circulating myths about strength training:

  • It has been said that strength training can stunt the growth of children – in actual fact, it has been shown that as long as professional recommendations of exercise and nutrition are followed, resistance training may have beneficial growth results and will NOT negatively affect the height a child would naturally develop. (Zatisiorsky and W. Kraemer, 2006)1
  • There are fears that there is potential risk of damage to growth plates – According to Paul Gamble2 there is no documented evidence of this. As previously mentioned, growth can be enhanced as long as the resistance is kept appropriate (See below).
  • That there are injury risks involved – it seems universally accepted amongst experts that the most frequent causes of injuries in resistance training for children are the same as those of adults, namely: incorrect technique, using inappropriate weight, and lack of qualified supervision.

Guidelines for resistance training for children

  • A child should have reached psychological and physical maturity to embark in structured resistance training. Consultation with the family doctor is recommended.
  • The programme should be individual to a particular child and not a one-size-fits-all team programme.
  • The child should be taught correct lifting and spotting (if relevant) techniques and supervised at all times.
  • Correct gym etiquette should be taught to avoid accidents, e.g. not leaving weights on the ground, etc…
  • Introduce resistance training to a child at a level that may be too easy rather than too difficult. It is better to gradually increase resistance as needed than to allow the child have a negative experience and/or risk injury.
  • New free weight exercises should be taught with a broom handle or an empty bar until competent.
  • It is vital to develop core strength to a high level with children as with adults. This can be done as part of resistance training using multi-joint exercises as well as traditional core exercises.
  • When a young athlete stops resistance there is deterioration in gained strength levels. To avoid loss of enthusiasm, a programme must include variation of exercises and types of training.
  • Prepubescent athletes should strive for neither hypertrophy nor explosive power; however, these may be introduced cautiously in adolescence3.
  • Young athletes should be allowed enough recovery time between sessions, as even growing takes its toll on the body.

Recommended Loads and Exercises for Young Athletes

Kurz (2006)4 quotes a study (Krumm 1988) which illustrates safe loading of weight for young athletes:

  • Eleven-twelve-year-olds should lift weight no more than 30% of body weight
  • Thirteen-fourteen-year-olds should lift no more than 50% of body weight
  • Fifteen-and sixteen-year-olds should lift weight no more than 100% of body weight

These weights should allow ten-fifteen repetitions for good strength gains.

According to the USA National Strength and Conditioning Association, young athletes should do only 1-3 exercises per body part in a workout and train 2-3 non-consecutive days per week. Drabik (1996)5 recommends alternating the body part exercised to allow sufficient recovery within a workout. Drabik also recommends the use of dumbbells instead of a barbell to minimise chances of spinal compression in younger children.

Speed and Agility

As in the prior section, there is so much to cover, that it is more a case of what to omit, than what to include. It seems prudent to define the topic first, in any case.

Speed can be simply defined as the ability to achieve a high velocity of a planned movement. Top linear speed while considered the main goal of track sports, is less applicable (although, useful) to field sports e.g. soccer.

Agility is generally considered the ability to decelerate, change direction and rapidly accelerate in the new direction. Agility is a keystone athletic trait in ball sports such as GAA, rugby, soccer, basketball, etc…

Both of these abilities are made up of two aspects – physical ability, and biomechanical training. Both aspects demand attention and are trainable with the appropriate drills. Remembering that this blog is in relation to youth conditioning, it is essential that we consider the sensitive training ages for speed & agility. According to Drabik6, the sensitive ages for developing speed are from age seven to nine for both boys and girls, with a further period of age ten to eleven for girls. He also states that boys’ speed may keep improving until the age of eighteen, whereas girls may peak by age 15.

Physical Ability:

Some qualities that need to be developed, particularly for multi-directional speed, are:

  • Balance
  • Co-ordination
  • Mobility
  • Strength

The latter two have been covered already in this article, but not balance and co-ordination. While there are simple exercises that can be done with young children to develop balance, I find I get the best results by doing it through gameplay. For example, single-leg exercises (which are great for children to develop independent leg strength and stability) can be easily incorporated in to races, etc… I sometimes like to give children an object, e.g. a book, to balance on their heads while performing a task. It promotes good posture – essential for balance and speed & agility. Partnering up the children to compete in push-pull games while standing on one leg, with a view to knocking the partner off balance is brilliant for improving spatial awareness, ankle mobility and balance.

A child’s level of co-ordination s directly linked to the ability to develop new motor patterns quickly. If coaches consider it important for a child to pick up new skills quickly, then I strongly recommend incorporating co-ordination exercises into the warm-up routines. The challenge of figuring out where the arms and legs need to go in space will, over time, yield motor learning improvements.

Technical Ability

There are a number of technical aspects to linear speed, multi-directional speed and agility that can have great bearing on how effectively an athlete moves on the field. Like any other form of programming, a coach must decide at what ages, and in what order, to implement these skills. In line with Newton’s First Law of Motion, more force is required to stop an object in motion than to overcome inertia and initiate motion. Therefore, I tend to focus much early speed work on deceleration. This, also, conveniently compliments the eccentric phase I emphasise in strength work. Plus deceleration is an unavoidable component of changing direction. Some skills to consider are:

  1. Forward deceleration
  2. Lateral deceleration
  3. Forward Acceleration
  4. Lateral shuffle
  5. Breaking right/left

Forward deceleration: Used when running forward and player has to decelerate in order to back-pedal or move laterally. Planting one foot forward while shifting the body weight back is typical. Ankles should be dorsiflexed, knees and hips flexed, with chest up. For back-pedalling the front foot is immaterial. However, if decelerating for lateral shuffling, plant the right foot forward to shuffle left, and lead with the left foot.

Lateral deceleration: Typically used when moving laterally image 12-large but may be used when running forward and the athlete plans to use a crossover step to change direction at angles of approx 135 degrees. Cues are to: plant the braking foot perpendicular to travelling direction with foot flat. Knees and hips flexed, chest up.

Forward Acceleration: The primary things to coach here are body positioning. To achieve maximum speed, lean forward (approximately 45 degrees). Feet should claw the ground – a common mistake is to plant the lead foot, heel first, ahead of the centre of mass. This only serves to decelerate, when the athlete needs to be accelerating. Arm mechanics are essential – elbows should be bent approximately 90 degrees and should swing freely from the shoulder. Avoid raising the shoulders. Avoid the arms crossing the midline of the body (coronal plane) – they should only move in the sagittal plane. Movement of the body should be horizontal, not vertical. Avoid the hips moving up and down.

Lateral shuffle: This is a relatively easy movement to master. The athlete should be careful to maintain an athletic stance, low with knees and hips flexed. Feet approximately shoulder width apart. Movement side-to-side is performed by leading with the leg nearest the intended direction.

Breaking right/left: This involves an opponent turning to run 90 degrees from the current facing, when a lateral shuffle wouldn’t be appropriate. The athlete should lead with the leg nearest the intended direction while truing the hips in this direction. The second step should now be from the back leg and the athlete is in a normal running gait.


  1. Science and Practice of Strength Training. 2nd Edition, (Human Kinetics 2006), by V. Zatisiorsky and W. Kraemer, pages 166
  2. Peak Performance Resistance Special report, Chapter “Women and Young Athletes,”, by Paul Gamble, page 65
  3. Science and Practice of Strength Training. 2nd Edition, (Human Kinetics 2006), by V. Zatisiorsky and W. Kraemer, pages 201, 208
  4. Kids’ Load Limits, by J.E. Krumm (1988) study quoted in Science of Sports Training, by Tom Kurz, page 165
  5. Children and Sports Training, by Józef Drabik (1996), page 136
  6. Children and Sports Training, by Józef Drabik (1996),

Check out Shane’s book, “Training and Optimal Health for Sports” which is available at


Shane Fitzgibbon is a 6th degree black belt in Taekwon-do and is a full-time martial arts instructor and S&C coach. Holder of a B.Sc and H.Dip in General Science, he dedicates his career to enhancing his sport in the modern era, constantly evolving and improving his training methods in line with the latest research. Fitzgibbon has won numerous gold medals representing Ireland in European, World and Intercontinental Taekwon-do Championships. He has served as a health and fitness columnist with Galway First newspaper, and specialises in functional training with personal training clients and sports clubs. He is a certified High School Strength and Conditioning coach (IYCA), Youth Nutrition Specialist, Youth Conditioning Specialist (Level 2), and Functional Movement Screening specialist (Level1). His book, “Training and Optimal Health for Sports” is available at

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