We work with hundreds of teen athletes every year that want to take their game to the next level. The purpose of my company is to provide a clear and proven path to athletic success for middle school and high school athletes. When we break this down there are four components to becoming a better athlete that ANY athlete can do take their game to next level:
1- Get Bigger – add lean muscle mass.
2- Get Stronger- strengthen the legs, core, and upper body. This will increase joint stability and create higher amounts of force.
3- Get faster- use the strength and lean muscle to create speed, power, agility. Jumping, sprinting, reacting, and rapidly changing direction are all skills that every athlete can improve with coaching and training.
4- Become more skilled- practice your sport to improve technical sport specific skills such as batting, shooting, dribbling, throwing, etc.
These all sound very simple when broken down however, the “secret” is that each one of these categories rely on the other. For example, its hard for an athlete to improve speed with out improving maximal and/or relative strength. Its also hard for an athlete to become more skilled with out improving speed. We can say this for all the above mentioned categories. My job as a strength and speed coach is to coach athletes to become bigger, faster, stronger and then let their sport coaches handle the skill work. Below I’m going to outline how we increase size, speed, and strength in our teenage athletes.
Getting Bigger (#getbig because you can’t flex bone!)
Most new (to training) young teenage athletes that come into our gym for an initial evaluation are way too skinny. We classify this awkward, skinny, weak athlete as a “Wet Noodle”. We are not trying to be mean however, we are trying to hammer home the point that they HAVE to get bigger to have any sort of athletic success. Wet Noodle refers to the the athlete not having any sort of lean muscle and in return they have very poor joint and core stability. These athletes are very unstable, usually run awkwardly , and tire quickly because they don’t move efficiently. These athletes are also at high risk for injury because of the instability and poor movement patterns associated with being too weak and skinny. The saying “you can’t flex bone” is always true. Every athlete needs a minimal amount of muscle tissue to maximize performance. How much muscle? That depends on the athlete and their specific sport! Below are the 4 main mistakes most teen athletes make when they are trying to put on lean muscle mass.
1- Not admitting you need to gain weight – Pretty straight forward. If you can see your ribs and if you can’t make the 106 lb weight class (the lightest weight in h.s. wresting)… you need to gain weight. Seriously though, all joking aside I meet with parents who want to see their teen athletes get stronger and compete harder but they don’t want to see them grow and gain weight! It is perfectly healthy for a teen athlete to strength train and to grow bigger!
2- Not eating enough quality calories- Again not rocket science. You can not expect to gain lean muscle mass and perform at your peak when you’re fueling the machine with garbage. Sugar, processed foods, and fast food are unacceptable for anybody let alone an athlete. Bottom line… if you want to pack on hard, lean muscle you need to consume quality, fresh, whole foods. We start our athletes at around 20 x bodyweight in calories and break down the percentage of proteins, carbs, and fat depending on the athletes goals and their specific sport.
3- Lifting like a college or pro athlete- One of the worst things that a teenage athlete can do is mimic the workouts that they see high level professional and collegiate athletes performing. Teen athletes need volume. They need a lot of quality reps in basic strength movements. Many times I see young athletes trying to perform lifts and jumps that are way too advanced for their strength and skill levels. Most teenage athletes need to be on a basic hypertrophy program to elicit a growth in the muscle tissue. This usually means reps in the 8-15 range with moderate weights. Most young athletes try to lift weights that are way too heavy. This prohibits them from learning motor control and also from eliciting the hormonal response needed to grow the size of a muscle. We train all our young athletes for hypertrophy. This means we want them to do moderately hard sets of 8-15 reps rather than single heavy max out sets. Training in this manner is not only safer for them but they get much better results.
4- Not being consistent- Consistency is the key! Most young athletes don’t get in nearly enough workouts to get the volume of repetitions needed to elicit the growth that they need. 1 or 2 workouts a week just will not cut it for a teenage athlete looking to get bigger, faster, stronger. We need our athletes to get a minimum of 3 sessions per week with 4 being ideal!
Getting bigger and stronger go hand in hand. Even though one of our young athletes may be on a hypertrophy program (described above) with the goal of growing bigger muscles they will be getting much stronger as well. The two are not mutually exclusive. Young teen athletes will see gains in maximal strength even though they are lifting on a higher volume program aimed at growing their muscles bigger. At this point they do not need to lift like a powerlifter with 1 rep maximal effort sets. Now once we see they have developed proper somatotype (body type/muscle size) we switch them over to a program that will emphasize increasing maximal strength. When we switch to this type of lifting at the right time… the results are amazing! This is when we start to develop the type of athletic body that everybody wants! The key here is to remember that with out the proper base as discussed in the “Get Bigger” section this will not be possible.
When training to gain pure strength we like our athletes to lift as much weight as possible for 1-5 reps per set but with out letting form breakdown! We use this rep range with compound movements such as squats, deadlifts, presses, and sometimes even pull ups. Ideally our athletes will train like this 2x a week leaving the other 2 training sessions for explosive training and some higher rep hypertrophy training to maintain lean muscle mass. The goal with heavy strength training is to develop the CNS (mind muscle connection) to be able to produce high amounts of force. It is the high force production that helps an athlete run, jump, swing, throw, and move quickly and efficiently in competition.
Many parents and athletes overcomplicate getting faster. Put more force into the ground at the right angles and an athlete will run faster.
SPEED = STRIDE LENGTH X STRIDE FREQUENCY
This formula is very simple. Stride length is the distance an athlete covers with each step. Usually the least amount of strides win the race (a.k.a Usain Bolt). Stride frequency is the amount of strides taken over a given distance or period of time. This is all very simple however, many coaches and parents screw this up royally by trying to verbally cue an athlete to take longer strides and/or quicker steps and this simply results in the athlete taking away from one aspect to give to the other! We don’t want to improve stride length by just over striding and reducing frequency. We want to improve stride length by improving traits like mobility and force production.
For example, many taller young athletes have a hard time accelerating over a short distance because moving longer limbs requires more specific strength and coordination than they currently possess. In this situation many coaches will tell the athlete to take shorter choppy steps. All this will do is the screw up his footwork and timing and it will not address the underlying issue which is lack of specific strength. This athlete needs full body general strength training and some sprint specific strength work such as hill sprints and sled sprints to improve his coordination and force production while accelerating. In short, athletes need to improve physical characteristics to see speed improvements.
There are five main components that I look to improve when training athletes for speed. Below I will briefly touch on all four and explain how I see them as they relate to TEENAGE athletes.
1- Somatotype- Athletes are all born in different shapes and sizes. Without getting to deep into the role that genetics play, it is my job to make sure we maximize an athletes potential by developing the type of body that will suit him best for his sport. Basically, we need to make sure an athlete has the right weight, and the right amount of muscle in the right areas to maximize their speed. This is where all the information for the Get Big section comes into play. Most athletes we see are too skinny. Occasionally, we see teen athletes that need to drop body fat. These athletes still usually need to get stronger though.
2- Mechanics & Sprint Form- I wrote above that strength and size were not mutually exclusive. Neither is strength and speed. Strength plays a major role in sprint mechanics because an athlete must have the proper strength to have good posture and to be able to hold the “sprint position” while moving at top speed. This is why many young athletes run very awkwardly. They simply lack the strength to execute the mechanics of sprinting. Many coaches and parents can’t figure out why their athletes can’t lift their knees high enough or swing the arms properly or stay off their heels even though they constantly tell them to. It’s because they lack to strength to execute what being asked of them! When training for speed it is vitally important to pick drills for young athletes that they can properly execute and will improve from. There are endless drills to improve mechanics but not every athlete is ready to do all of them.
3- Force Production- Very simple. Sprinting is based in physics. For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. The more force and athlete can put into the ground the more force the ground pushes back with and propels the athlete in whatever direction they push off in. Again the major factor is strength. The stronger an athlete the more force they can push into the ground with and if the angles and mechanics are good they will run faster. Obviously, there is a limit or the fastest athletes in the world would be powerlifters and strongmen. Thats where the next component comes into play.
4- Stretch Shortening Cycle (SSC) (#trainfast)- Basically, we are training the body to move explosively. It is important that while improving strength we are also training explosively. The SSC is referring to the cycle of stretching and contracting. The faster a muscle stretches the more explosively it will contract. Think of your body dipping down before it jumps up. The faster it descends down the less time it will spend reversing path to come up and the jump will be higher. The principle holds true for most athletic movements (throwing, batting, jumping, running, etc). We use jump training, med ball throwing, and olympic lifting to train explosiveness.
5-Mobility- Many people get confused and interchange mobility and flexibility. While they are the similar they are not the same. Flexibility refers to the length of tissue or the length of a given muscle. Mobility refers to the range of motion (ROM) of a given joint or movement. Mobility includes movement so it encompasses flexibility of the tissue but also core stability. Somebody may have the flexibility to squat down properly but they may not have the mobility to actually do a proper squat due the ankles, hips, or core. The same can be said for sprinting. An athlete can have the flexibility needed to sprint well however, they may not have the mobility needed to get in the proper sprint position because of host of stability issues. This factor plays a major role in speed training. If we see an athlete not be able to hold the sprint position we need to ask why and include programming to correct those factors.
If you would like to learn more about our 6 week Bigger-Faster-Stronger program got here: bernardostraining.com/bigger-faster-stronger/
Matt Bernardo is the owner of Bernardo’s Training LLC in Ocean Township, NJ. Bernardo’s Training specializes provides a clear and proven path to athletic success with their strength and speed training.