Home Blog Youth Strength and Conditioning Programs: “He’s a Big, Strong Kid.”

Youth Strength and Conditioning Programs: “He’s a Big, Strong Kid.”

Written on July 27, 2011 at 8:25 am, by Eric Cressey

Recently, while discussing one particular athlete we encountered at Cressey Sports Performance, my staff members and I got on the topic of how it's more of a challenge to train bigger (taller and heavier) young athletes than it is to work with smaller guys.  Interestingly, the challenges come less from the actual physical issues they present and more from the social expectations that surround their size. Here are seven reasons why I cringe when I hear parents say "he's a big, strong kid" when describing their children on the phone.

1. Bigger kids are often forced into sports and positions that may impede their long-term development - When you're the heavy kid, you're automatically pushed toward football and put on the line.  If you're playing baseball, it's first base or catcher.  If it's basketball, you're the power forward.  You get the picture - and similar "pushes" are made on tall kids to play basketball or volleyball.  The problem is that in most cases, these sport and positional "predispositions" put bigger kids in situations where they don't develop in a broad sense because there simply isn't enough variety.

2. Bigger kids usually start weight-training on their own - This point relates closely to point #1.  Unfortunately, when you're already labeled as the next star offensive lineman or power forward and you can already push your buddies around, chances are that you learned to lift with Dad in the basement, from a misinformed football coach, or be screwing around with your buddies.  I would much rather have a completely untrained 16-year-old start up with me than be presented with a 16-year-old with years of poor strength and conditioning programs and coaching under his belt.  This is true regardless of body type, but especially problematic in bigger kids for reasons I outline below.

3. "Strong" has different meanings - Sports require a combination of absolute and relative strength.  Strength is also highly specific to the range of motion (ROM) in which one trains. There is also a difference between concentric and eccentric strength.

What do most big young athletes do when left on their own?  Focus heavily on absolute strength (train what they're good at) through small ROMs (rather than fight their bodies) with concentric-heavy workloads (because pushing a blocking/tackling sled is sexier than a properly executed lunge).

I can count on one hand the number of teenage athletes who were called "big and strong" who have actually showed up on their first day and demonstrated any appreciable level of strength in any context - let alone usable strength that will help them in athletic endeavors.  Usually, we wind up seeing a sloppy 135-pound bench press with the elbows flared, legs kicking, bar bouncing off the chest...in a kid who can't do a push-up.

And this is where the problem arises: kids who have always been told they were strong don't like coming to the realization that they really aren't strong.  We don't have to directly tell them, either; taking them through basic strength exercises with proper form will reveal a lot.  And, there is typically an example of a smaller athlete like this kicking around not too far away.

The kids who check their egos at the door will thrive.  A lot might never come back until they're injured from poor body control or riding the pine because it turns out that their "strengths" really weren't that strong.

4. Bones grow faster than muscles and tendons - In young athletes who haven't gone through the adolescent growth spurt, you often don't have to do any additional static stretching, as a dynamic warm-up and strength training program through a full ROM can cover all their mobility needs.  Unfortunately, when kids grow quickly, the bones lengthen much faster than the muscles and tendons do, so we run into situations where bigger kids have truly short (not just stiff) tissues.  Effectively, this adds one more competing demand for their time and attention - and it's the worst kind to add, as most kids hate to stretch.

5. Being bigger changes one's stabilization strategy -  As I described in great detail in The Truth About Unstable Surface Training, the taller one is, the further the center of gravity is away from the base of support.  As such, taller kids are inherently more unstable than shorter kids - although this can be partially remedied by gaining muscle mass in the lower body to lower the COG and learning to "play lower" in appropriate situations.

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Not surprisingly, though, being heavier - particularly with respect to having a belly - can dramatically change one's stability as well.  Carrying belly fat shifts the center of gravity forward - which is why individuals with this "keg" instead of a six-pack appear more lordotic (excessively arched at the lower back).  Compensations for this occur all along the kinetic chain, but the two things I'd highlight the most are:

a. An increased need for anterior core strength - As evidenced by the high incidence of spondylolysis (lumbar spine fractures) and how badly most kids perform on basic prone bridging and rollout challenges, the inability to resist lumbar hyperextension (and excessive rotation) is a serious problem.  The bigger the belly, the more extended the lumbar spine will be.  Just ask any pregnant woman how her back feels during the last trimester.

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b. Substitution of lumbar (hyper)extension for hip extension - You'll see a lot of big-bellied kids who can't fully extend their hip and instead just arch their back to get to where they need to be.  This is a problem on multiple fronts.  First, the hip extensors are far stronger and more powerful than the lumbar extensors, so performance is severely impaired.  Second, there are huge injury implications both chronically (lumbar stress fractures, hip capsule irritation) and acutely (strained rectus femoris or hamstrings).

Simply dropping some body fat and improving anterior core strength is a huge game-changer for many overweight athletes.  It's not always the answer they want to hear.

6. Bigger kids usually have less work capacity - I've never been a guy who jumped on the work capacity bandwagon, as I feel that it's very activity-specific.  However, it doesn't take a rocket scientist to observe that the more body fat one carries, the more work he'll do oxygenating useless tissue, and the less oxygen he'll get to working muscles.  More importantly, though, try doing your next training session with a 60-pound weight vest on and see what it does to your work capacity.

The lower the work capacity, the less quality work one can accomplish in a strength and conditioning program.  Gains simply don't come as quickly on the strength and fitness side of things - even if body fat is pouring off heavier athletes.  In other words, they've actually sacrificed one window of adaptation (athletic development) in order to make another one (fat loss) larger.

7. I speculate that bigger athletes have an increased prevalence of "subclinical" musculoskeletal pathologies/deviations from normalcy - I've written in the past about how many athletes are just waiting to reach threshold because their MRIs and x-rays look terrible - even if they are completely asymptomatic.  You can see this just about anywhere in the body; most basketball players are just waiting for patellar tendinosis to kick in, and many football lineman are teetering on the brink of a lumbar stress fracture or spondylolisthesis (or both).

The heavier one is - especially in the presence of insufficient relative strength, as noted above - the more pounding one will place on the passive restraints such as the meniscus, intervertebral discs, and labrum.  A bigger belly and the resulting lordosis will drive more anterior pelvic tilt, femoral/tibial internal rotation, and pronation.  How would you like to be the plantar fascia or Achilles tendon in this situation?

Tall athletes tend to slouch more because they have to look down at all their peers.  Get more kyphotic, add some scapular dyskinesis, and see what happens to the rotator cuff, labrum, and biceps tendon over time.

There are countless examples along these lines.  And, to make matters worse, obese individuals are more likely to have inaccurate diagnostic imaging.  In an interview I did with radiologist Dr. Jason Hodges, he commented:

By far, the biggest limitation [to diagnostic imaging] is obesity. All of the imaging modalities are limited by it, mostly for technical reasons. An ultrasound beam can only penetrate so far into the soft tissues. X-rays and CT scans are degraded by scattered radiation, which leads to a higher radiation dose and grainy images. Also, the time it takes to do the study increases, which gives a higher incidence of motion blur.

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I want to be very clear; I love dealing with bigger kids just like I do all my other athletes.  We don't lock them in a closet with celery sticks and an exercise bike; we work them hard, but make training fun and support them fully in their quest to fulfill their athletic potential.  Having been an overweight teenage athlete myself, I know that weight management in young athletes is a hugely sensitive subject that must be approached with extreme care.

I also know, however, that in my overweight years, I would have much rather been worked hard like the other athletes and given the opportunity to choose my sport and position of interest rather than pigeonholed into one specific avenue because of my build.  That's where the "big, strong kid" label really concerns me and makes me want to plan out my strategy - both in terms of the physiological and social approach to training - very carefully.

For more information on how we train young athletes, I'd encourage you to check out the IYCA High School Strength Coach Certification, which I co-authored.  It's on sale for $100 off this through next Saturday, 8/20 at midnight.

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  • EC,

    As always, spot on! Thanks for sharing!

    See you in LVille!

    TE

  • This was perfect for me. I have an overweight female client who has significant athletic potential. You’ve provided some good cues for me to teach her the rollout. I will also pay more attention to her hip flexibility – I couldn’t figure out why she was having such trouble with KB swings.

  • Dave

    Nice piece! I enjoy your writing.

  • Frank

    Great Article Eric.

  • Mieke

    Excellent article.

  • Thank you for the great article Eric.

  • Tim Rudd

    Great Post Eric, so true.

    Thanks

  • Tim Rudd

    This is so true. I can’t how many times I’ve had big young kids come into my facility who want to lift big, especially those come from football programs in my expirience(Not saying it doesn’t happen in other sports).

    They always tend to lack proper mobility and stability and have horrible posture through their shoulders and hips.

    They do tend to get frustrated when I hold them back and focus on mobility, stability, form and technique.

    Sometimes they get it, sometimes they don’t. Those who leave like you said will eventually reach a breaking point, and most of the time come back my way with more of an open mind. I wish it didn’t have to happen that way, but sometimes expectations and egos get in the way of common sense.

    Thanks for the great post!

  • jacob

    I bought eric cressey`s book maximum strength on amazon.com.Great book he knows a lot about excercise and strength training.I hope i can bench 400lbs. and squat 500lbs.

  • Good article Eric

    Do not miss the Ali Museum in Louisville-must see for a sports fan.

  • bob maters

    i have a 16 yr old son who is a prospect for mlb pitching, we got back mri and it says there is a probable slap lesion in glenoid labrum.
    he can still do weight training kb swings squats etc with no pain. can the pain when he throws go away and heal this condition with proper stretching and training?

  • Steve M

    Those that pigeon hole don’t think “development”. They think “win”. You just described my son’s years on Pop Warner football. Played DE, Center, Tackle and NG while playing with kids 2 years older. Center in AAU basketball at 10u at 5’2″. Forced to play 1B 3B while not pitching. Thank goodness for agility and mobility programs… he’s middle school shooting guard,at 5’8″ playing with 6’4″ centers now. No doubt, without that additional training, he’d be in the stands watching. I’ve bought the IYCA program a few months back, but haven’t digested everything yet. Coaches oeverlook that growth varies at different ages. A really big kid now may be just a little above average size later.

  • Bob,

    A SLAP won’t heal.

    However, research has shown that 79% of MLB pitchers have some degree of labral abnormality; it can be an “incidental” finding. It depends on the type of SLAP – and, more importantly, how good his mobility and stability are.

    Get him to a qualified physical therapist for assessment.

  • Tyler

    Eric,

    GREAT article. I’m a tall person (6’9″) and I was scared of the weight room for a long time when I was a kid. I too had terrible posture, and just like you said, I’ve had a bankart repair on both labroms. I work specifically with basketball players and it still amazes me how very tall guys make it to the NBA and have never really lifted. And the ones that have never do it at full ROM.

  • I really enjoyed this post. Its true how coaches and parents alike blankly cast the bigger kids into sports they don’t want to play. I was always taller than others growing up and never wanted to play basketball or volleyball; I always wanted to play hockey. Fortunately I had parents that let me pursue a sport that I wanted to.

  • Ben

    You must be located in suburbia. Our teams play schools from farming communities and when parents or scouting reports from those areas say “big strong kid” they mean big strong kid.

  • Kamal Singh

    Excellent post, EC.

  • matthew greenwood

    Eric,

    I love reading your articles always great information

    I would love to talk to you ,more on this subject. My son is 10yo and is big for his age maybe a little overweight but he can hit a baseball 240ft and hit 58 to 60 on the radar gun. But you are right he could not to push up to safe his life and though getting faster still runs very slow. What can I do to improve his mobility.

    thanks

  • Eric great post as always. I am totally on page with you in terms of the core extension movement. These athletes have to develop their core strength through extension and stability. I believe that coaches don’t put enough emphasis on this in many strength and conditioning programs. Good job my friend.

  • Eric,

    The kid in the video that deadlifts the 525 x3 …extremely impressive by the way, would he be able to do that wt. doing a conventional deadlift?

    Just curious

  • Damien

    I’m a goalkeeper coach (soccer) for my local club in Sydney. At least half the kids I work with fall into this category so this article is very useful for me particularly the mental side.

    Thanks.

  • phil

    Excellent article. Comment # 12 couldn’t be more correct. Same with your answer to #11. But I would agree with that, I’m a PT

  • Andy – I saw him pull 500×6 sumo the other day, so he’s not far off, if at all!

  • Hunter Grindle

    This helped a ton! I’ve never had flexible hips and to make for that in my squats i always tend to arch my back more. I’ve had back trouble for about 5 months now… so ill give some hip stretches as hot! thanks!

  • Great post Eric. Your presentation in Louisville was awesome. Thanks so much for sharing your expertise. Keep up the great work.

  • Thank you very much, David!

  • Pretty cool how you always come up with posts that make me think,”that’s so true”. I’ve coached many soccer, hockey, and basketball players and the best thing is when that bigger athlete shocks you with his ability to move well. A coach has a few more options when your big guy can move with the smaller guys.

  • This post, Eric, was fantastic. When a parent would say that to me I too would cringe but I never nuanced why anywhere near as well as you just did. The initial thought in my head when a parent would say that to me was
    1. The poor kid’s probably been pigeon holed his whole life.
    2. He probably has even bought into it. And
    3. He probably isn’t strong. Just big.
    Again, you laid this one out really well. Congrats, BTW, for appearing on Swartzenegger.com.

  • Great article, much food for thought.

  • jetender

    thanks very informative, keep the good work.

  • Great article Eric! This is why my focus with younger athletes(I work with baseball players)is long term athletic development. My focus with younger players is oriented more toward developing a complete athlete as opposed to sport specific. Not only does sport specific training or to pigeonhole an athlete based on body type hinder the athletic development it can, and quite often does, lead to boredom and burn-out.

    Big and strong doesn’t remove the fact that they are still children and should not be viewed with the same considerations as a more mature athlete.

    Just sayin!
    D~

  • Very insightful as always. I’m helping several teenagers begin strength training and you mention some great points to keep in mind when handling younger clients. The idea that you’d rather work with a 16 yr old with no background as opposed to a dysfunctional training background: Agreed!

  • Antwan Harris

    Points well taken!!!

  • shocked me i had a young man weight was about 155 got a rectus femoris strain. i felike it was caused by draging the back leg forward with the inside of the push leg.

  • Eric, great post.

    I know this is really narrow and limited in scope, but from what I’ve seen, a lot of these heavy kids who are athletes have this great amount of strength and speed, regardless of their mobility and technique(most of the time it’s crap). However, they NEVER GET INJURED.

    As a skinny-fat-lanky kid during high school, I was injured like nobody’s business (cause of mobility- and technique-issues), but these big guys were trucking along like nothing.

    Any guess as to why my observations were so?

  • Mark,

    A few thoughts…

    1. If you’re not fast, you don’t pull your hamstrings!  Assuming they weren’t in distance-running oriented, high impact sports, they’re probably safer because they’re slower.  And, they’re not as involved in the action if they’re deconditioned.

    2. They’re usually bigger than their counterparts, and therefore not as susceptible to collision injuries.

  • ahkang

    Pertinent to your #3, some years back in an education context that had nothing to do with sports and athletics I became acquainted with a guy who had been a member of a United States Olympic Team in a jumping event. While we were talk about strength training for his sport, he shared this story with me. In the school where he taught he liked to go down to the gym with the football players, where he did a routine including power cleans. Of course the players wanted to try it, but even the “big strong” ones could not get more than a bar with 35 lb plates moving. They were benching more than their body weight and doing some arm and shoulder exercises, but they were not developing the core and posterior chain strength that this long, rangy jumper possessed, and which their football positions in fact demanded.


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