Home Blog Youth Strength and Conditioning Programs: Systems, Not Just Sets and Reps

Youth Strength and Conditioning Programs: Systems, Not Just Sets and Reps

Written on June 3, 2011 at 7:54 am, by Eric Cressey

Back in November of 2010, a good buddy of mine who is a very accomplished college strength coach came up to Boston for a seminar we were hosting at Cressey Sports Performance.  The seminar was on a Sunday, but he actually flew up Friday night so that he could observe on Saturday while we trained our clients – which was a nice blend of high school, college, and professional athletes, plus our adult clientele.  All told, at the time, I’d say that high school athletes were 70% of our clientele.

That Tuesday morning, I woke up to this email from him:

“I just wanted to say thanks for everything.  I had a great time.  Your staff was outstanding and I really enjoyed watching you guys work on Saturday.  I realize you are managers, but certainly technicians as well.  Perfect form, I told Tony I saw two bad reps all weekend and someone was on the athlete before he had a chance to do another rep!!!   Thanks so much and come visit anytime, we would love to have you.”

This isn’t an email to toot our own horn; it’s to make a very valuable point.  If this coach had walked into every single private training facility and high school weight room in the country, in what percentage of cases do you think he would have come out with a favorable impression of the technique he witnessed in these strength and conditioning programs?  If I had to venture an extremely conservative guess, I’d say less than 10%.

Simply stated, both in the public and private sectors, some coaches are letting kids get away with murder with respect to technique, not warming up, poor load selection in weight training programs, and a host of other factors.

What happens, then, when the s**t hits the fan and a kid gets hurt?  I’ll tell you: certain exercises get “condemned” and strength and conditioning programs become more and more foo-foo; external loading is eliminated and kids wind up doing agility ladders and “speed training” for 60-90 minutes at a time in what can only be described as glorified babysitting.  Or, worse yet, weight rooms get closed altogether.  The door of opportunity gets slammed in the faces of a lot of kids who desperately need to get strong to stay healthy, improve performance, and build confidence.

That’s the reactive model, but what about a proactive model to prevent these issues in the first place?  Again, I’ll tell you: assess kids up-front.  Find out what is in their health history and evaluate how well they move.  Actually learn their names and backgrounds.  Then, program individually for them.  Coach intensely in their initial sessions and get things right from the start.  And, if an exercise doesn’t work for them, give them an alternative.

As an example, take the squat.  Some kids may not have sufficient ankle or hip mobility to squat deep in an Olympic style squat, so they’ll benefit more (and stay healthier) with box squat variations or single-leg exercises while you improve their mobility.  Others may even be too immobile (or possess structural issues like femoroacetabular impingement) to even box squat safely, so you give them more single-leg work and deadlift variations.  Regardless, you “coach ‘em up” well from the get-go – and they learn along the way.

In other words, the exercises aren’t the problem because exercises can be quickly and easily changed on the fly to match the athlete's level of abilities.  It’s the system in which they are placed that can be the stubborn, tough-to-change problem.

If you're struggling to get results with your youth strength and conditioning programs - or your business itself is struggling - be sure to look at your business model and overall systems before you start tinkering with the individual exercises.  Chances are that you need to rededicate yourself to relationship building and individualization more than you need to worry about sets and reps.

If you're looking to learn more about training young athletes, I'd encourage you to check out Mike Boyle's resource, Complete Youth Training. In it, he touches on everything from the problems with early specialization to age-specific training stages. It's a good investment for parents and coaches alike. From now through Sunday at midnight, you can get $50 off on the resource. No coupon code is needed; just head HERE.

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11 Responses to “Youth Strength and Conditioning Programs: Systems, Not Just Sets and Reps”

  1. Tyler English Says:

    Great post E!

    I was coaching last night in AR with two of our female champions in the 14+ crew. Had both of them slow things down and work on body position, hip alignment, shoulder positioning and neutral spine all by giving them a few new cues to remember before starting their exercises.

    Just the simple step of slowing it down and both were doing RDL patterns in awesome form and our new 14 year old Champion (who’s a ballroom dancer) was working on overhead lunge movements with little to no corrections needed.

    The best part, they left there feeling the difference.

    Thanks for sharing this man!

  2. Frank Frydrych DC Says:

    EC, right on with this blog! I’ve been following for over a year now and you always have great content and outlooks. It’s too bad this “reactive” model is so prevalent not only in youth sports but adult sports and the rehab industry as well. I think another problem can lie with the participant as well. I’ve noticed so many athletes search YouTube for the most “glamorous” exercises to use in their workouts even though that exercise is not applicable or (for lack of better terminology) just plain stupid.
    At any rate, keep up the good work!

  3. Tom Nowakowski Says:


    I could not agree more with you. As an Athletic Trainer in the high school setting, this is my biggest gripe in high school athletics. We have kids take up a sport that have never trained a day in their life for and wonder why injuries are occurring. Or, the other side, we have kids training incorrectly and are wondering why kids are hurt during a season and I can’t get them back on the field. The National Athletic Trainers’ Association (NATA) recently released a position statement on overuse injuries in the pediatric athlete. I started my blog in reaction to the release of the statement but have trying to get stubborn, old-school strength coaches in the high schools to be more proactive as you explain in the article. These coaches that are exposing the masses of youth athletes to strength and conditioning are not as skilled and knowledged as the majority of industry.

    My number one pet peeve from an athlete, his parent or coach is “I can’t squat because its not good for me, I have bad (insert whatever – ankle, knees, etc.).” In some cases this is true and modification is necessary and easy to do when you assess their condition. However, most complaints are overuse aches and pains from mobility and strength issues that would benefit from these exercises!

    Wish I was able to hear you speak in Louisville, taking a trip instead to New Orleans at the end of June for the NATA convention. I started my blog with my background experiences in observing what goes on in the high school weight rooms I’ve been in before I intervene and your 10% guess is probably inflated as I’m sure you’d admit.

    I’m slowly trying to release on paper my system into the youth strengthening approach I currently take now that I’m on the social media road. Would love to hear more from you on your thoughts about this kind of stuff as well as critique my system to help me improve professionally. Keep up the great work!

  4. Mike Kozak Says:

    EC, I couldn’t agree more. I see both ends of the spectrum all the time. On one end, I have freshman in high school who are focused on earning the 1000 lb club T – shirt and they can’t even do a body weight squat. On the other end, there are the people who completely misunderstand speed training to the degree that 400s are run on Monday and dreaded P90x plyometrics is popped in on Tuesday.

  5. Sam Lewis Says:

    I wish we had more like-minded people like this in the UK!!

  6. Rees Says:

    I liked that post quite a bit actually.

  7. Tony Dague Says:

    Too many times, I watch our patients perform exercises incorrectly. It is encouraging to read from fellow colleagues who are deemed “exercise analists” and want the best for their clients and patients. I view my attention to detail as not anal, but efficient. Why should a person waste his or her time performing exercises incorrectly! Shouldn’t they want to get the most bang for their buck?

  8. joseph Says:

    How can i train squat by myself? I am just a teen,
    I usually go to the weight room with no one, what is the most effective and efficient way to train my lifting? thx

  9. Nick Efthimiou Says:


    I have a hunch that the fact that these high school kids are training with college, pros and strong adults (not to mention the staff) alongside them, they see first hand that doing things the right way leads to very impressive results.

    It would be a much harder sell in a gym setting where all the big guys are throwing weights around with poor form – “they’re still big, why should I lift with good form?” kind of thing.

    Do you feel this would be a contributing factor?

  10. Nick Outlaw Says:

    Well put Eric. Form and technique are everything. I always say that if you are going to do something, at least do it right. Control the load, don’t let the weight control you.

    You are truelly an inspiration to our profession!!

  11. Cambridge Gym Says:

    Very good article. So many kids don’t take the time to learn proper form, technique.

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