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Strength and Conditioning for Youth Athletes: Good Lifting Technique Is Key

Weight training

The purpose of lifting weights and resistance training in sports is simple: as a means to an end (improving performance), not as an end in itself (lifting more weight).

The problem is that poor lifting technique or form increases the risk of injury, decreases the overall strength gains, and does not maximally address core stabilizing muscles.

Understanding the basic benefits from good lifting technique and risks of poor sports training is critical to developing a purposeful and appropriate strength training program.

The stronger, faster, and bigger athletes usually have it easier. They can hit a ball farther, dunk easier, and tackle better. You may think that the genetic advantage some athletes have is not fair, but it's simply a fact. For the 99.999% of athletes who are not born superstars, strength and conditioning programs are utilized to improve overall performance through increased strength, speed, power, endurance, agility, etc.

The problem starts when strength and conditioning becomes the center of attention over performance. All too often, the view that more weight equals better performance is prevalent in youth sports. Athletes participate in the usual squat, bench, biceps curl, and overhead press exercises with as much weight as possible. To get those "few extra reps and pounds up" athletes will twist and turn their bodies every direction. Basically, the athlete trades form to increase weight.

Bad form leads to cascade of problems

Replacing good form with bad form begins a cascade of problems

First, bench pressing while lifting the butt up, bouncing the weight off the chest, and leaning from one side to the next becomes standard practice. This technique allows an athlete to perform a few more reps but at the expense of significantly increasing the risk of lower back strain, chest and rib fracture, or a rotator cuff tear. Once the focus shifts from improving performance but lifting more weight, form goes out the window, with the benefits of strength gains offset by an increased risk of injury.

An athlete may be tempted to ask, "It's just one exercise done wrong. How bad could it be?" The problem is that bad form in one exercise will spread to others. For example, a simple bar biceps curl using the added benefits of swinging the weight fast, bouncing the knees, and arching the back considerably will allow the athlete to lift considerably more than if that same athlete was using good form. Good form forces control of all other muscles in the body, thus, reducing the effects of momentum. The increase in amount lifted with bad form will encourage the athlete to use similar practices with other exercises.

Using this same thought process and example, extrapolating bad form to several exercises generates considerable concern.

Again, the purpose of lifting is to improve performance and decrease risk of injury. Utilizing bad form during strength and conditioning exercises can lead to the following:

  • Joint damage from high velocity / low control exercises
  • Muscle /tendon strains and tears
  • Back strain
  • Lumbar fractures from excessive hyperextension of the back with heavy weights
  • Shoulder impingement from excessive overhead lifting

For younger athletes, the affects of poor form and improper strength and conditioning may not show up for years. Just like hitting a baseball, throwing a football, or shooting a basketball, there is good and bad ways of accomplishing a specific sports movement. The most successful athletes all have similar form in their respective sports, suggesting that certain body mechanics produce more points, runs, and goals. This theory similarly applies to strength training, as performing exercises appropriately has major long term benefits.

Importance of mechanics: improve performance

The purpose of good mechanics in sports is to improve performance. The purpose of proper form in strength and conditioning is to improve the body's ability to produce good sports mechanics. While this includes the concept of reducing risk of injury, appropriate strength training can improve the following:

  • Joint mobility and stability
  • Stronger bones, tendons, and ligaments
  • Responsive decelerating muscles to slow down body (e.g. rotator cuff in pitching)
  • Core strength to maximize balance and control
  • Flexibility
  • Proprioception (knowing where body is in space)
  • Endurance
  • Focus and concentration

While doing a standing biceps curl is not going to improve a jump shot, utilizing proper form will increase trunk control, improve scapular stabilizers, and improve focus on the task at hand. Learning this level of control will benefit a sports specific movement, such as a slap shot or kicking a soccer ball. The body, through appropriately done strength training and conditioning, will learn to maximize its own potential.

Not a magic bullet

While good form and an appropriate strength and conditioning program are great for sports, they are not the magic bullet for success. Strength training is a small component in the overall success of an athlete, yet, considerable time, attention, and money is directed towards its development.

Instead of focusing on the quantity of time spent on strength training and conditioning, it is more important in the long run for young athletes to concentrate on the quality of time in resistance training. Ensuring young athletes develop a foundational understanding of strength training is important, as years of bad habits can wreck future careers. Good form and age appropriate intensity and types of exercises will develop a platform for future success. Young athletes deserve the opportunity to build an athletic foundation for a career of sports successes.

The take-away message: start with form ... end with success.

Keith J. Cronin is a physical therapist in the St. Louis, Missouri area and a MomsTeam expert.

Created July 11, 2010, updated January 4, 2012