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Awareness for health and fitness has been increasing at a rampant pace in the last few years. Granted, the definition of what being healthy and what being fit really is varies greatly between individuals, the important thing is that as a whole, it seems like every day more people take the initiative to engage in physical activity and a healthier lifestyle. Like everything else, if we want to make a significant change in society and way of life for years to come, we need to incorporate practices that consider the future. While it’s never to late to change one’s well being, we need to pass our message along to the younger generations. We need to spread all of this knowledge and make sure that these kids grow up knowing the importance of exercise, proper nutrition, and good lifestyle practices. Again, parents will go about this in different ways. Some do it through outside “play” and others turn to sport. While these are both great alternatives, are they really getting the job done? Are we really providing the educational piece so that these kids actually learn about health and fitness? Furthermore, are we even putting them in the right place and having them go through the correct progressions? I’d argue that in most cases, we’re NOT. I could take numerous approaches and enter several rabbit holes with the subject. However, this article will focus on the physical training aspect for teenagers.

When I ask parents (particularly in Puerto Rico), or even the kids, if they participate in physical training, the most common reply will be somewhere along the lines of: “Oh yeah, he plays baseball and basketball in school, and in the summer, he travels to -insert a professional athlete’s name- camp to improve his game”. I’ll usually cringe when I hear this. You see, sport is one thing, training is another. It doesn’t matter the discipline, it’s one thing to play/compete, and another to actually TRAIN. In training, we work on improving our abilities to meet the physical demands of the sport we play. This may mean getting stronger, it may mean getting faster, could mean jumping higher, and in some cases it means rehabbing an injury. My point here is that regardless the sport, training should be structured in phases that focus on particular characteristics depending on what part of the season/offseason the athlete is in. This includes CrossFit. Yes, even the “Sport of Fitness” should include phases of training that in no way resemble a workout in a competition setting.

Then there’s the flip side. There’s the kids that are completely physically inactive. Their idea of sport is a Call of Duty tournament, and the only well developed and coordinated muscles in their bodies are their thumbs, from all the hours jockeying the remote. If they’re not overweight now, chances are they will be soon, and the lack of exposure to activity will prove to be a very difficult obstacle to overcome if they should ever decide to exercise.

One of the main things that I want to clear up here, is that kids do not need to participate or even give two shits about sports to exercise and be fit. The problem is, they’ll never go out and seek this information for themselves. We (the parents) need to play a huge role as facilitators in providing the education and exposure to real physical training. Yes, Im talking about getting them in the gym.

Now, I know that there’s a plethora of studies, theories, and research on what type of exercises kids should be performing and at what age it should happen. I won’t get into the specifics of that, but I do believe that barring a serious condition or illness, every single child in his or her teens (or any age, but remember, we’re focusing on teenagers) has the ability to engage in some type of exercise. What type, intensity, and frequency of that exercise will vary among individuals. As far as age, that also depends. We’ve all heard the cliché “age is just a number”. In this case, it fits perfectly, as we must look at the development of a child much more so than age to determine what training should look like. This is just one part of the assessment piece that should be performed before designing a training program. Body composition, postural analysis, movement screenings, and performance indicators must also be taken into account during this process. Let’s say that the parents have decided to invest in the fitness of their child (yes, it’s an investment in many ways) and has found a gym/coach that has taken all these things into consideration. What are some of the things that we, the coaches, should be thinking about when putting the program together?

Again, the immediate answer to this question is: “it depends”. However, there’s basic principles that we should live by, regardless of whether the athlete/ client is training for sport or general fitness. Below, we’ll take a look at these and I’ll explain the importance of them.

Structure

This is especially important in children because they are making their way through stages of growth. In teenagers, this often means a lot of awkwardness as far as the appearance and proportions of their bodies. This is often seen in very long limbs with relation to the axis. It’s important that we assess and most importantly REASSESS periodically so that exercise prescription considers these conditions and adjusts as these bodies change over time. This can be done through postural analysis.

Movement

This is way more complex than we can all imagine. There’s so many factors that contribute to proper (or poor) movement. Motor skills must be developed so that there’s good neural patterning from the brain to ensure not only that the muscles fire, but that they do so in the correct order from a stable base. Again, this applies to every human regardless of age, but is extremely important to identify and correct at a young age before they develop into bad habits, more difficult to break. This can be done through a comprehensive movement screen.

Balance and Proprioception

As they continue to grow, kids need to learn how to use their bigger bodies effectively. For them, things are not quite where they were a few months ago. Therefore, they’re in a constant process of adaptation to these changes. Unilateral training plays an important role in isolating one side of the body and ensuring proper development of those muscles in those movement patterns so that they don’t compensate and overload other areas. Tempo is also key in developing adequate stability and strength throughout the entire range of motion.

Connective Tissue

When we think training we automatically think getting stronger and developing bigger muscles. This is actually one of the things that attract male teenagers to resistance training. Fact is, the hormonal situation at those ages will have them on “natural steroids”. They have an incredible ability to regenerate muscle and the resiliency to recover quickly. It’s very important that we keep in mind that while muscles will break and regenerate bigger in size at a considerably fast pace, our connective tissue, particularly tendons, respond way slower. Tendons attach muscles to bones. The thickest and strongest bone in our bodies is the femur. On average, it’s approximately 1 inch in diameter. Now think about the size of our muscles. Think about large muscles like the hamstrings. They can be way thicker than 1 inch. Our tendons stretch in one end to accommodate and hold onto the thick strands of muscle, yet remain thin in the other end to attach to the bone. In other words, it kind of takes the shape of a cone. While we develop bigger, stronger muscles and are able to push higher weights, are tendons cannot adapt so quickly, yet need to be able to hold on to both ends and keep our muscles attached to our bones. To provide a clearer illustration, let’s consider the achilles tendon. The achilles is the thickest tendon in the body. At ages 10-17, achilles tendon thickness is approximately 6.1 mm. At ages 18-30, it has a thickness of approximately 6.3 mm. Past the age of 30, it can “grow” to approximately 6.9mm. As you can see, the tendons that we had as teens, look pretty much the same as they did when we were 30. However, our muscles can be much more developed and have way higher capabilities. This is why it’s important to develop absolute (slow moving) strength before incorporating fast movements into a training program. I’m talking squats before snatches to develop a strong base. The use of tempo training is also crucial here as it ensures the recruitment deeper muscle fibers and strengthens the tendon.

Intensity

This is one of the trickier things to control when working with teenagers. Intensity can be dictated the rate of contraction (speed at which an exercise is performed) or by load (weight on the barbell). As we all know, kids will always want to go faster, heavier. Besides the factors that we’ve already discussed of why this should be avoided, we also need to consider that in most cases, they don’t even have the ability to go truly fast/hard, or what we refer to as getting anaerobic. Their nervous systems haven’t fully developed yet and it doesn’t allow them to tap into the full potential just yet. Prescribing “anaerobic” activity could render useless, as it will only negatively impact recovery and not even elicit the desired dose response. In other words, we want to stick to slower moving resistance training and focus on developing a good aerobic base. This is not to say that they cannot perform quick movements or ever perform at high efforts. We can still work on dynamic movements in a skill level and get touches on high intensities, but at lighter weights and lower volume to ensure that the added intensity will not prove to be too much of a burden for the developing body.

Below, you’ll see the program of a 17 year old male. Chami is not currently participating in any sports. One of his favorite activities is Xbox and one of his main concerns is looking good for the ladies. His father, yours truly, is also his coach. At plain sight, he looks like he’s in the middle of a growth spurt. He’s very lean, stands at 5’10”, 134 lbs, lanky arms. I joke that he can scratch his ankles without bending at the hips or knees. After going through a thorough assessment protocol, it’s clear that he could have issues with certain bilateral movements, in both the lower and upper body. His training program focuses on addressing these issues to promote structure and muscle strength but also touches on certain skills to develop athleticism. Energy systems training is mostly cyclical aerobic work, with small touches on higher efforts. This is what a workout looks like for him:

Power Clean; slow to the knees, then go!; 10 sets OTM @ 115-135
B1. DB Rear Foot Elevated Split Squat; 30X0; 9-12/side X 3; 0:60 btwn sides and after set
B2. Supinated Grip Strict Chinups; 31X0; 6-8 X 3; 0:90
C1. Halting Clean DL; 6-8 X 3; 0:60 *1”pause at knees on way up and down. Use lifting straps
C2. DB Bench Press; 2011; 9-12 X 3; 0:60
+
10:00 Bike; 0:10 @ high (not max) effort, 0:50 easy spin

As you can see, we address the things that were mentioned above:

Full body workout that touches on
Dynamic lifting at moderate weights with specifications to provide skill acquisition
Unilateral split squat with an elevated rear foot at slow eccentric tempo to reinforce muscle control throughout the movement providing a stability challenge
Slow, controlled gymnastics movements to make sure he builds the proper stabilizers before going into dynamic movements
Postural posterior chain work
DB’s on the classic bench press to allow him to find a comfortable position for his shoulders through orange of motion
10:00 mostly aerobic breathing piece with small hits on intensity

By no means am I suggesting that every teenager’s program should look exactly like this. Like always, that will depend on the individual, his or her current state, and what the goals may be. However, these are solid principles to follow when designing a program. It is important that they be explained and discussed with the athlete/client so that they truly understand the reasoning behind the methods and and can fully buy into the process. After all, for them, it’s the beginning of a very long journey. It’s up to us, parents and coaches to set them on the right path.



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