Many trainers offer younger clients the same types of exercises and advice they do with elite athletes. The only difference is they shrink it down to size. Lift lighter weight. Go shorter distance. Aim lower. They’re treated like miniature adults.
But are beginner athletes being shortchanged with this approach?
Without baseline strength, coordination, and skills, many exercises aren’t helpful for younger athletes. Some may even be injury risks. Let’s dig into what I’ve seen and what would be better for athletes just starting out.
Bear Crawl Races
Let me preface by saying that bear crawls are not dumb. In fact, I use them with all my athletes. Bear crawls have many variations that can develop a number of important athletic qualities. The problem? Some coaches program them in ways that are dumb.
These coaches use bear crawls in ways that can cause injury, especially to the upper body. They believe that more, longer, and faster is better—all of which, when it comes to crawling, are bad ideas.
If you are looking to injure a wrist, elbow, or shoulder, then look no further than bear crawl races. Nothing like taking an exercise that should be slow and controlled to a still-developing young athlete whose upper body is most likely weak and unstable, and asking them to crawl as fast as possible without regard for form or technique.If you are looking to injure a wrist, elbow, or shoulder, then look no further than bear crawl races, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Let’s remember we are human beings and our preferred method of locomotion is walking upright. Our lower bodies are specifically made to handle the forces of the ground when moving. Our upper bodies, especially as children, are not.
Bear crawling shifts a significant amount of body weight onto the upper body. When athletes bear crawl as fast as possible, they are repeatedly slamming the hand into the ground. The small bones of the wrist are not made for this type of high-load, high-speed stress.
Ask any high-level linebacker or offensive lineman how their wrists feel after a season of smashing their hands into opposing players. These players go to great lengths in training to sensibly strengthen this area—most athletes asked to bear crawl at high speeds do not.
Another dumb way coaches use bear crawls is as a form of punishment disguised as mental toughness training. I once watched a youth football coach make his 6th grade players bear crawl up and down a hill at the end of practice. As the players fatigued and their form deteriorated, the coach droned on about how poorly they played their last game, how they needed to be mentally tough, and how this particular activity would make them “not quit” in the 4th quarter.
About two minutes into the bear crawls, most kids were already quitting because they simply couldn’t do the exercise anymore and they certainly were not listening to their coach’s inspiring words of encouragement.
So what is bear crawling good for and how do you use them? Bear crawls are great for developing:
- Shoulder and core stability
- Cross lateral coordination
- Systemic strength
- Spatial awareness
- Hand/wrist strength and mobility
Crawling should be used in very small doses, though. Typically I use them in distances of 10-12 yards during the warmup period of our training sessions. The idea is to be slow and controlled in perfect position.
As the athletes get better at the exercise, instead of adding distance we simply add reps or change the surface the athlete is crawling on. For example, we use soft foam blocking pads to increase the balance demand, or planks to decrease the surface width and add incline and decline. This serves as a great way to improve upper body strength as well as stability.
Elevated Handle Trap Bars
Way back in 1995, I bought my first trap bar. I loved using the handles on the side rather than bending over to pick up a traditional barbell. I worked hard and long at that exercise and after some time and sweat equity, I was finally able to handle some decent weight and had some of the nice muscular gains that come with lifting heavy loads.
Today you see everyone and their mother on Instagram smashing heavy loads with a trap bar. But there is one major difference between ‘95 and now. Unlike today’s trap bars, my original trap bar had no elevated handle. In order to pick it up you had to have good hip mobility and sink fairly deep to pick up the weight, which ultimately limited how much weight I could lift.
Today’s trap bars with elevated handles make for a very short range of motion. The elevated handles make a lift that was once the perfect hybrid between a deadlift and a back squat more like a quarter squat.Today’s trap bars with elevated handles make for a very short range of motion, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
Somewhere along the way, someone thought it was a good idea to introduce the elevated trap bar deadlift to 10- and 11-year-olds who were yet to even hit a growth spurt. By combining the elevated handles with a body that is short in stature, we get an exercise that is all show and no go. The end result is that you have a movement with very little range of motion, and nearly zero benefit.
With very little hip flexion and knee flexion, athletes are not really learning anything in terms of movement skill. They are not really squatting or deadlifting. It’s a crappy hybrid that does not appear to carry over to the field or to more complicated lifts. At least a walking lunge or goblet squat really focuses on developing strength through a full range.
With such a small range of motion, what comes next should have many parents concerned: the belief that the kid is actually strong. Next, the coach start piling on weight. We know that young spines are growing rapidly and rapidly growing spines will have weak spots. Believing that a young athlete can handle high loads just because he can lift through a small range of motion is a sucker’s bet and the results can be catastrophic.
Before teaching young athletes how to lift weights, we need to teach basic movements through their full range, under control with moderate loads. Young athletes need to focus on building complexity rather than loading. The loading part can come later when the athlete has mastered a number of different movements and has a solid movement skill set.
Age-appropriate exercises are safe, carry over to the field, and lead to learning more complex lifts in the weight room. For my money I choose the kettlebell sumo deadlift. It’s a legitimate hip hinge that’s easy to set up, choose a load, teach. Best of all it allows for a full range of motion. We can teach it in bilateral stance, single leg, and staggered stance. Once an athlete masters the kettlebell sumo deadlift, they’re ready for its more dynamic cousin: the kettlebell swing.
Once upon a time, there was a professional athlete who was swinging some ropes around. Then someone put it on YouTube and before you know it the trickle-down effect began. College athletes started using them, then high school, and before you know it, every personal trainer or CrossFit across the country was swinging ropes around for internet fitness stardom.
Before I go any further let me just say I don’t hate battle ropes, but for young athletes they are a waste of time. They can obviously be used in many more ways than swinging them around and can be beneficial when used for certain cases. For example, I once used them for some basic conditioning for a football player who broke his foot and for an obese client who couldn’t run.
But when I see videos of young athletes swinging battle ropes, I cringe. Clearly this is another case of adults thinking that adult training ideas are good for young athletes.
I’ve heard that kids think they are fun to do, but I don’t buy that. Obstacle courses are fun, playing tag is fun, and relay races are fun, but swinging a rope around for 30 seconds while some coach yells at you is not very fun.
Then comes the argument that they are great for endurance. The problem is, the last thing we need to develop in young athletes is endurance capabilities. Endurance takes little time to develop and most kids get enough of it at sport practice or playing outside. What young athletes really need to develop are things like strength, power, sprinting ability, coordination, technique, and decision-making skills—all of which take years to develop.What young athletes really need to develop are things like strength, power, sprinting ability, coordination, technique, and decision-making skills—all of which take years to develop, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
In the small amount of time I have to work with young athletes each week, there are so many other activities I could be doing that battle ropes work isn’t even on my radar. Sprint work and reactive games like tag, learning strength training exercises, tumbling, movement skill work, and obstacle courses work/gymnastic/parkour all hold much more potential than standing in place swinging ropes.
But if you are the creative type, a battle rope can hold some value. Here are three alternative battle rope activities that I find useful when working with young athletes:
- Various hops over rope
- Tug of war
- Sled pull relay
Another complete waste of time for young athletes is weighted carries.
Again, let me preface this by saying that weighted carries and its variations are not necessarily bad exercises. Many of my much bigger and older athletes employ carries in their training cycles. It’s a hybrid exercise that trains multiple athletic qualities, mainly grip and core strength along with a nice conditioning kick at longer distances. Older athletes get a lot out of weighted carries.
But young athletes don’t.
First off, weighted carries for young athletes are just plain boring. Training young athletes has to be engaging and fun. Nothing is less engaging for an energetic young kid than walking around with weights in their hands.Training young athletes has to be engaging and fun, says @JeremyFrisch. Click To Tweet
My other problem is that it’s an exercise that promotes very little range of motion. As a coach I look for exercises that train the entire body through a complete range of motion.
All young athletes should be doing some form of hanging, swinging, or climbing. For example, climbing across monkey bars challenges the entire upper body, creates a rhythmic awareness, and improves hand-eye coordination. Not to mention, it is challenging and kids always love a challenge. We have many of our young athletes develop upper body strength by climbing across a training rig. It is my belief that if kids did more of this at a young age, we would see fewer arm injuries down the line when kids get into competitive baseball.
Pro-Style “Showcase” Events
That leads me to a problem in youth baseball, as well as in other sports: showcases.
Every summer as a kid, I would attend a football camp at one of the local colleges. Around 6th or 7th grade, I was introduced to another formidable camper by the name of “Horsepower.” As you can imagine, Horsepower was big, fast, and fairly athletic for his age group. He pretty much dominated the majority of campers in the 40-yard dash and agility drills. On the field I made it a point to stay out of his way.
The next year we crossed paths once again—but this time something was different. I’d grown and he hadn’t; I was faster, he was the same. The kid was still a good player, but Mother Nature had evened the score between us.
This story plays itself out over and over in youth sports year after year. The early developer dominates the youth sports scene only to become an average player later on. Look at the Little League World Series: how many of those players play baseball in college?
It doesn’t matter, though, because all across the country, parents are ready to spend money on their kids’ athletic future. Big or small, slow or fast, young athletes line up in droves in the hopes of getting scouted or discovered for a future scholarship. And savvy businessmen will set up scouting combines and showcases to lure in these young athletes and their parents.
As a youth football coach I see “youth football combines” pop up all over the place.
Pay us $100 and we will time your son in the 40-yard dash and pro agility drills. Afterwards, we’ll tell them how slow they are compared to the professional athletes.
Come to our skills clinic and in one day we will teach you how to….[fill in the blank: hit, shoot, block, kick, hit, etc.]
Name the sport and somewhere there is a “clinic” to turn your son or daughter into the next superstar. Or test them and compare them to adults. But why are we testing youth athletes who are still in the process of developing all-around athletic skills?
Asking the Most Important Question
Younger athletes need to develop things like basic strength, hand-eye coordination, and reaction ability. Their 40-yard dash times don’t matter and neither does their ability to do static drills while bored half to death.
When training younger athletes, it’s easy to get swept up in style over substance and do what the adults—and the pros—do. We see so many exercises on the internet, especially on social media, and as the years go by it can be difficult to remember what we needed as young athletes just starting out.
Trainers who work with younger athletes need to think seriously about what they’re teaching and why. If something seems beneficial, they need to first see through the glamour and ask themselves exactly how it would be helpful for an athlete.
Then they need to ask: how about for a kid?
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