The 3 Cardinal “Versus” for Training Young Athletes

About the Author: Eric Cressey

Today’s guest blog comes from Brian Grasso, the director of the International Youth Conditioning Association.

When I look around the industry, I find myself becoming more and more discontented with the view.  It seems that there is a never-ending litany of new, innovative and advanced techniques in the field of strength and conditioning that are, in essence, just re-fabricated models and methods that have proved tried and true for literally decades.

This is especially true at the youth level where we tend to walk the fine line of wavering between dumbing down adult-based prescription and creating ‘novel’ schemes of building the same results that can, and are developed through the standard basics.

When working with young athletes (aged 6 – 18) I implore you to resist the temptation of thinking too far outside the box and instead concentrate your time and effort on both pondering and answering these three specific questions:

1.       Is this Concept vs. Cool?

2.       Is it Recipe vs. Chef?

3.       What’s the difference between Athletes & Non-Athletes?

Let’s examine those further.

Concept vs Cool

Do we really need another 90-minute seminar that teaches Fitness Professionals ‘150 Awesome Exercises on the BOSU Ball?’


Or a certification that has 80% of its content based on sample programs for the specific demographic in question?

Our industry has become a ‘cool’ extravaganza.  The more daring, off-the-wall, dazzling and ‘neato’ an exercise or training system is, the more popular it becomes.  Ironically, the less effective it more often than not is, as well.

Lost in the sex appeal of watching fitness models slathered in man tan parade as ‘fitness gurus’ and performing the newest stunts on unstable surfaces (because that evokes a proprioceptive response and burns more calories, you see) is that we seem to have ditched our sense of ‘concept’ as it relates to exercise and performance gains.

I’ll be the first to admit that it’s mesmerizing to watch an incredible display of athletic skill being performed and that the symptomotology of the training program in question often seems worth the potential (i.e. beads of sweat pouring off one’s head as proof of the exercises difficulty and subsequent effectiveness).  But as Fitness Professionals and Youth Fitness Specialists who have stood up, raised their hands and declared themselves worthy of the task of caring for a population in such desperate need of a clarion voice, it’s disconcerting to know that we fall prey to this circus show time-and-time again.


In the ‘Concept vs Cool’ argument, I want nothing more than for you to use common sense when determining value and worth of a training program or exercise:

  • It looks cool, but what’s the concept behind the suggested benefit?
  • Although I’ve never considered science the linchpin of anything in fitness, are there any research conclusions that can back the claims?
  • One exercise or sample program does NOT a training system make… Where does this fit in?  Can it work with my young athlete’s life and honor what they need from a growth, development, long-term and tertiary life considerations?
  • Does the risk-reward equation produce a sum that’s favorable?

Recipe vs. Chef

I mentioned the reality of some certifications or products being as heavily weighted as 80% sample-based programs.  I want to examine that notion a little farther.

I’m the biggest fan in the world of ‘Done-For-You.’  I like time-saving.  I enjoy experts who really know there stuff giving me a glimpse into their brains and how they do things from a practical standpoint.

But I stop at the water’s edge every time… Sample programs are nothing more than a ‘glimpse’ into how they would do things WITHIN THE SITUATIONS THAT ARE UNIQUE TO THEM.  Without question, there are universal realities that can be applied to all young athletes irrespective of situational factors, but there is also a sensibility in programming that suggests individuality holds the key for optimum success.

What are the training ages of the young athletes the sample-program wielding expert has just given you?  How do they differ from the kids you train?

What precursor and preparatory elements were put in place from a technical perspective prior to the expert using these specific training programs?

What are the psychological differences and weight-room conduct variances between a 16 year old at Beverly Hills High versus a 16 year old at Compton Tech?  How do young athletes who attend historically championship high schools differ from kids whose high schools have never even made the playoffs?


Do the socio-economic factors relating to a particular high school demographic cause more or less stress to the young athletes in question than a high school who sits on the other end of the demographic spectrum?  Does this factor affect nutrition, sleep patterns or other forms of regeneration?

How many young athletes does the expert have to work with at one time?  How large is the space they’re working within?  Are the equipment options the same as they are for you?

Thus, the need for our industry to understand the concept much more than the practicality of how it’s applied.

Concept appreciation suggests that you get the ‘what’ and the ‘why,’ and are therefore fluent in figuring out the ‘how’ as it relates to your specific situations.

Athletes vs. Non-Athletes

This topic deviates away from the fitness industry at large and speaks more to the issues related to youth fitness, but it carries a very similar tone as the ‘Concept vs Cool’ and ‘Recipe vs Chef’ arguments.

A 10 year old soccer player needs nothing different in terms of training than a 10 year old basketball player.  Moreover, an 8 year old superstar baseball player should have a training system that has a remarkable resemblance to the one an 8 year old, non-athletic, overweight child should be following.


And thus the linchpin of the entire ‘concept’ contention – training programs of any merit follow the inherent and natural, organic features of the organism itself.  An 8 year old soccer player and an 8 year old overweight child have one discernible quality in common; their age.

Now, chronological age is by no means the only or even best way of determining the training stimulus needs for anyone, but it does provide a general backdrop of necessity; especially from a developmental perspective.

All aspects of coordination (balance, kinesthetic differentiation, rhythm, spatial awareness, movement adequacy) are most optimally developed when the human organism is very plastic and pre-peak height velocity.  Although the progressions or regressions of specific exercises may vary, these characteristics must be present in any training program written for young people.

Here are some key questions to ask yourself:

  • Is my training program more specific to the sport or the relative needs of the young athlete based on age?
  • Am I being varied and multi-lateral in my approach to movement, or concentrating on reflecting the innate patterns of positional play?
  • Am I programming for the things this young athlete DOESN’T experience or get exposure to in the sport they play?
  • Do I know for sure if this 8 year old overweight child will not grow up to be a star quarterback?  If the answer is ‘no’ (which it is) then should my training system be more regulatory in terms of human potential and less concerned with the symptoms associated with the young person’s current lifestyle?

Cool vs Concept

Recipe vs Chef

Athletes vs Non-Athletes

Three things I want you to consider very closely….

Brian Grasso has trained more than 15,000 young athletes worldwide over the past decade.  He is the Founder and CEO of the International Youth Conditioning Association – the only youth-based certification organization in the entire industry.  For more information, visit

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