Why Young Athletes Should Train Smarter, not HARDER!

I stumbled on a Twitter comment that I’ve been ramping about for ages. The bottom line to the long time approach to athletic conditioning. He wrote, “It’s easy to make someone tired. It’s difficult to improve an athlete’s performance”.

It wouldn’t be hard to layout these thoughts… he saw craziness. Either coaches or ‘trainers’ were beating their athletes bodies to death (or athletes doing only what they’ve been taught or read about) with some form of Cross Fit, or other “boot camp” style nonsense!

Hunch back tire flips? Or perhaps, he had the chance to observe another cranking out rep after rep of plyometric box jumps, only to land each time in a high risk ACL occurrence and a loud thump.

Also seen, the notorious Olympic lifts performed with lousy form, a seemingly endless amount of push-ups, pull-ups and overhead pressing movements (can you say shoulder impingement?), or repeated sprinting drills done with no regard for proper running form, and almost zero in the way of recovery time.

Whatever prompted this remark, suffice it to say it’s a sentiment that more athletes, parents and coaches need to share. Because more often than not, the type of training described above does little more than increase your chances of becoming injured.

And please, spare the macho BS that seemingly goes hand-in-hand with this suddenly cultish approach to fitness. Beating your joints into submission on a regular basis doesn’t make you some sort of “bad-ass”; what it can make you though, is an orthopedic surgeon’s dream.

Not that I have anything against working hard, mind you. As all of my athletes will undoubtedly attest, the workouts that I put together for them are a far cry from what anyone would consider “easy”. We just try and be as smart as possible in how we go about implementing them and always train with the bigger picture in mind.

As such, the training serves as more of means to an end, rather than simply a way of testing the limits of what the human body can endure.

The truth is, if I wanted to, I could fix it so that my athletes couldn’t sit down for a week following a workout. I say this not to own bragging rights about what a great strength coach I am- in fact, quite the contrary!

As stated, it’s easy to make someone tired and sore. The real art to this stuff is being able to read your athletes and assess how they’re recovering from one training session to the next. This will allow you to adjust their training accordingly, to help ensure continual progress.

Keep in mind, you don’t make gains during the actual workouts- whatever improvements you’re able to make in terms of strength, size, or speed are made during the recovery period. Essentially, your body is learning to adapt to the progressive overloads being placed upon it at regular intervals.

Here’s the thing though, if the loads are too excessive, in terms of either their intensity, or volume, your body can’t adapt and the result is fatigue, burnout and almost certain injury.

The bottom line is that training is supposed to be progressive- not haphazard! Sure, you can always throw some things in for variety here and there to keep it fresh. For the most part though, your focus should be on making measurable increases in both performance and health.

Whether that means more weight on the bar/ more reps at a given weight, shaving some time off your 40 yard dash, enhanced flexibility, or better posture, at the end of the day, your goal is improvement…not merely exhaustion!

Obviously this is a topic I have some strong opinions on. So, rather than simply continue my rant, I’ve prepared a little checklist to help you ensure that your training (or that of your athletes) is serving it’s intended purpose:

1. Have a plan:

Work on improving things like mobility and systemic strength first, before rushing into more advanced forms of training. If for example you can’t do a basic body weight squat without your heels coming off the ground, or your lower back rounding, it makes absolutely no sense to load the movement with any sort of resistance.

Once you’ve improved your mobility and become more stable through the core, then start concentrating more on strength development. Finally, adding in some power training in the form of Olympic lifts, plyometrics and medicine ball throws would be the icing on the cake, so to speak.

Keep in mind however, that a progression like this would take place over the course of several weeks, months, or even years, depending on your age, and level of physical development when you start training.

2. Never sacrifice technique for reps:

This is one that I’m an absolute stickler about. And that’s because when you’re talking about things like lifting weights, plyomteircs and speed and agility training, it only takes one bad rep to hurt yourself.

Even as fatigue starts to build, you have to ensure that you’re still using proper technique. This holds especially true for Olympic lifts and plyometrics, which besides being very technically difficult to execute, target an energy system that isn’t meant to sustain prolonged effort. Meaning that doing them for high reps essentially negates any explosive benefits you may have otherwise gotten from them.

3. Listen to your body:

It doesn’t matter what you have planned from a workout standpoint on a given day. If you’re too tired, or sore from excessive practicing and playing, or if you haven’t sufficiently recovered from your previous workout, take a break. This happens with my athletes all the time.

I’ll have specific things I want to work on, or target goals in terms of weight, or reps for particular exercises, only to have them show up for the session completely gassed from a tough practice, or weekend competition. When this happens, we’ll either re-schedule, or change the focus of the session so as not to excessively tax specific body segments, or energy systems.

When it comes to training young athletes, I try and stick to a simple mantra: Educate, don’t annihilate! There’s no benefit to be had from subjecting kids to workouts that would make a superhero nauseous.

About the only thing they can expert for their efforts, besides being in a state of perpetual exhaustion, is placing themselves at increased risk for things like disc herniations, tendonitis and even early onset osteoarthritis.

If I come across as a bit of an alarmist, it’s because I’ve seen first hand what too much of the wrong kind of training can do to developing young bodies. So I’m determined to do everything I can to help reverse this disturbing trend.

It’s Rarely The Exercise To Blame For Pain

Low Back Pain


If you have strength trained for very long you are sure to have experienced some pain associated with a particular exercise. Far beyond some muscle soreness the next day, this is usually a sharp pain in a joint that happens while you are doing an exercise. The initial reaction is to blame the pain on the exercise and respond to this problem one of two ways….

The first way to deal with this is to avoid the exercise altogether. While this isn’t a bad choice in a lot of cases, what happens if the exercise in question is a core movement skill – squatting, deadlifting or pressing something over your head? In this case avoiding the exercise isn’t a good option because your overall results will suffer greatly, which leads us to the second way people usually deal with this problem.

This second way is to pop some pain killers and keep training through the pain. The old adage of “no pain, no gain” is usually cited as a reason here and the growing collection of pills, wraps and other things to keep the pain at bay are seen as a badge of courage. This approach is like hearing your smoke detector go off and simply pulling the batteries out – sure, the annoying beeping went away but your house is still burning down. This is why this path usually leads straight to the doctors office and surgery when the joint in question finally gives out.

So, what is the answer then? If you shouldn’t avoid certain exercises because they cause pain but you shouldn’t just pop some pain killers and hit it anyways, what are you supposed to do? There is ALWAYS a better way….option 3.

This third option is to address the cause of the pain, which is not the “exercise” but how you are doing the exercise. One of my favorite stories I hear A LOT is about a girl and how squats hurt her knees. After looking at her perform her version of a squat he told her that “squats don’t hurt your knees, whatever your doing there hurts your knees.” In other words, the exercise was not the culprit but how she was doing the exercise was.

This is something I have seen played out many times myself over the years. I have had countless people tell me that they can’t squat because it hurts their knees, can’t deadlift because it hurts their low back and/ or can’t shoulder press because it hurts their shoulders. Almost every time I checked their form there was a fundamental flaw with how they were performing the exercise. Fix the flaw and the pain goes away.

At the heart of this is a core philosophy that guides my approach to training – bad movement causes pain. If you move poorly then your exercises will suffer as well since you can’t practice the intended movement patterns like you need to. Exercises are not just a way to build strength and fitness but a way to refine and improve how you move.

The flip side to this is that the same bad movement that causes pain also decreases your performance. Bad movement is also inefficient movement, which mans that it produces less strength and power while also using more energy than efficient movement will. This means that you waste a lot of energy in the process of trying to work around bad movement.

Like many of my clients, once you start to employ this advice you’ll find your strength going up and your pain decreasing rapidly. And this is the power of training movement – if you move better you will feel and perform better. If you move poorly you will be fighting yourself and making things much harder on yourself