Male athletes that play youth/high school sports are being told a troubling lie right on the brink of puberty: they must “get big” to play at a high level. First of all, athletes need to "get athletic" and "get strong" not "get big". Go look at your favorite athlete in high school or college and compare them to how they look when they play now... they were much smaller than other people might have thought they should have been to be at their best. Strength is an undeniable component of athletic development but proper athletic development is complex to train and stimulate. Shifting the focus of athletic development to purely “packing on muscle” is a sure fire way to ruin athletic promise. In fact, it is extremely important to long term athletic development that you do not force weight gain in a young athlete if you want to maximize their long term potential. The "get big" lie comes from the muscle and fitness magazines that sometimes trainers and coaches blindly follow. The problem is that these magazine articles and “experts” writing them are only focused on selling themselves, their products, and their body building routines. The truth is that no trainer will make your child taller any faster than they would have on their own. No trainer is going to bring on puberty any faster either. In this blog I will explain why you should focus on all elements of athletic development and never send your athlete to someone who will claim to make them "get huge".
History of strength training:
Let me be clear to say that I feel it is important for athletes to get strong(er). My concern is that we associate strength with history by placing emphasis on the wrong things. The brunt of traditional strength training comes from body building. Most gyms and facilities are built from the body building influence that Arnold ushered in. The sport of bodybuilding does not yield ANY successful athletes outside of that sport. Isolation = incoordination. Powerlifting & olympic lifting have the same issue. Iron games are not crossing over and if they did the best lifters in the world would all be dominant professional sport athletes. This does not mean that body building, powerlifting, or olympic lifting are not tools to be considered, it simply means that we do not need to feel bound to them as the only way. Our profession is guilty of letting these sports define what we do. These sports are finite, extremely powerful, but only in one fixed direction- the sagittal plane. Strength training needs to prepare you like you perform - proprioceptively and from the demands of the sport. What makes this situation painful is watching parents send a youth to work with a body builder whom has no college degree but is “Huge”. Therefore, somehow physical appearance is the only or best requirement for someone to lead a youth in their athletic development.?! These people do not know how to help athletes. They spend hours a day on themselves and have an unrealistic long term nutrition practices and possible drug habits. You need someone that has spent decades educating themselves on how to help others be the best, while also overseeing the long term athletic development of over thousands of athletes, not someone that is trying to make a poster of themselves. To be clear, someone that has trained Mr. Texas figure champ or is currently Mr. Universe is not a qualified performance specialist. Let us examine the truth on what is best for the development of youth athletes in the fold. We need to be open to understanding what we are actually doing with strength training.
"If we train muscles we will forget movements, but if we train movements we will never forget muscles"
The early pioneers of strength such as Mel Siff, listed several strength factors in their research:
max Strength, Speed, Power, Stamina, Suppleness(flexibility), Skill, Spirit
There is so much to consider while improving "strength". Where does traditional hypertrophy(getting big) fit? Watch any pro sport and tell me where hypertrophy is the difference maker? No NFL quartberback or MLB pitcher looks like the body builders at your gym. No lineman or basketball player does either. Hypertrophy is only useful in function if it is critical mass. Hypertrophy can be elusive. It is not just what you see in the muscle magazines. What clients that need hypertrophy must have is increased muscle cross sectional fiber which is functional for performance.
The Science of "Getting Big" (Muscle Hypertrophy)
There are two basic types of hypertrophy: Sarcoplasmic and Myofibrillar
Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy- increased volume of sarcoplasm. This is NON functional hypertrophy. SH increases size by concentration of FLUID. Performing SH training has been proved to deter any neuromuscular facilitation for athletic development. SH gains tend to be seen, not felt. So, not great for performance but the primary source for body building. One of many methods for SH has been taught at 9-12 reps , 60-90 seconds per set, 70-80% 1RM.
Myofibrillar Hypertrophy- Enlarged muscle fibers due to increased myofibrillar density and therefore the addition of sarcomeres. This is functional hypertrophy that adds strength and potential for power. Think farm strong- ranchers, blacksmiths, miners. MH is a product of time and intensity. One of few methods for MH has been taught at 6-8 reps , 20-40 seconds per set, 80-85% of max.
It is important to understand the science of hypertrophy because so many youth athletes believe that this type of training is king. In addition, some trainers and adults do not understand the shortcomings / consequences of strictly SH training. It’s proven that sarcoplasmic hypertrophy decreases sprint speed and ground reaction speed, thus, decreases athleticism. Sarcoplasmic hypertrophy can only help an athlete in acute recovery(at isolated joint) and body composition. In a study conducted by Dr. Todd Miller at Washington University Medical Center in D.C. as little as 2% increases in non-functional mass such as fat or sarcoplasmic hypertrophy can decrease anaerobic power production significantly. For example, a 170lb athlete gains 2% or 3.4lbs of non-critical mass: this could decrease vertical jump as much as 2 inches and 0.26 seconds off a 40yd dash. Those are big time numbers for an athlete just moving from 170 lbs to 173.4 lbs, in fact it’s a game changer. So, if your athlete is "getting big" on the pec deck or leg extension machine - you are building non-critical athleticism killing mass. Movements create athletes, isolation trains you to be uncoordinated. Again, sarcoplasmic hypertrophy gains tend to be seen and not felt. When possible, choose strength movements that integrate at minimum 2-3 joints and at best are a full body movement. Don’t buy into the talk about speed coming strictly from the weight room. Strength supports power, but power doesn't always translate to speed. Speed needs a master conductor to combine strength qualities and is coordination specific. Speed combines power, suppleness, and reactivity + skill.
When your athlete will benefit from gaining muscle:
For an athlete to develop athleticism and gain muscle mass at the same time several things need to happen. Youth athletes are not little men or women and cannot be trained as such. Scientific research plainly tells us that young athletes can improve and be positively effected short/long term with the appropriate training. This same research clearly shows us that the wrong type of training or focus can be an extreme detriment to long term athletic development and most importantly psychological development.
Training the ages of 12-17 (roughly) bring unique challenges and, in my opinion, are the hardest athletes to train. Within this group you have 4 basic types: Pre-puberty, Peak Height Velocity(shooting up), Peak Weight Velocity(filling out), Post-puberty. All of these stages are very different and very complex. Parents, coaches and athletes have to communicate / evaluate in order to identify which of these stages your athlete is in.
The pre-puberty athlete is an older version of the youth athlete. During this youth stage the only thing that can have an actual training result for performance can be contributed to nervous system development and cerebral maturation. This means that the best thing to do with this type of athlete is develop correct movement patterns, athletic motor skills, and inter/intramuscular coordination. Inter-muscluar coordination is the ability to use different muscles together harmoniously for greater coordination. Intramuscular is the coordination of the small fibers within a muscle working to full function with the proprioceptors. Within this youth stage is a window of opportunity to train the brain and nervous system for goals in which to grow the body. Simply put, you are programming a machine that will reveal itself later in life(post-puberty). After making that point, usually the first thing that comes to parents heads is strength training. A youth athlete can become stronger through training because of inter/intramuscular coordination but NOT because of changes at a muscle-fiber level. So, you can’t actually control getting a youth functionally “bigger and stronger” with a training effect, no matter what any salesman tells you. This desired effect is only possible by unnaturally increasing hormone levels or waiting until puberty when it is in fact trainable. You can, however, damage them mentally and physically forever through the wrong type of endurance and/or strength training at a young age. You can do appropriate strength training for mobility and coordination with you athletes, however, it does not include body building or hypertrophy training.
That is a picture of NFL MVP and Super Bowl Champion Aaron Rodgers in high school. He was very undersized. I think it worked out fine for him. In addition, I know Aaron and have been around him a few times because of our work with Packers QB Graham Harrell and trips to Green Bay... he does not look like a body builder and does not have a low body fat percentage. He has always focused on being an athlete first, and still does!
The peak height velocity athlete is sprouting up at an unprecedented rate. This phenomenon leads to awkward movements and sometimes what looks like a real step back to parents. Pain is possible during this stage of development simply because bones are longer than the supporting tissues are ready to support. Conversely, other bones are short in relation to the proximal and distal bone segments which can also cause severe pain.
Post PHV athletes enter peak weight velocity. This period is characterized by natural body mass increases due to a result of the surge in sex hormone concentrations. No matter your level of nutritional excellence, there will be some odd weight shifting during PWV. Parents should not let kids use this as an excuse to vary from sound nutrition principles. Boys increase in testosterone and girls increased sensitivity to insulin, combined with insulin-like growth factor and growth hormone makes this an ideal time to introduce hypertrophy training to increase muscle size. Although muscle size will not naturally “pop” like body builders the athletes will be able to increase in strength more consistently and more obviously after PHV and PHW. Let me be clear on something: During this growth spurt athletes’ nervous system maturation, adaptation in muscle mass, body composition, and other structural parameters change dramatically leading to an unparalleled jump in performance of speed, strength, endurance, and power. This is the time to bring in the correct type of training for mass if you see fit.
Post-puberty athletes are only limited by their movement competency and lack of appropriate development in the earlier stages of development.
How to help your athlete Gain Weight correctly:
First of all, focus on true holistic athletic development. Small athletes know they are small and do not need you stressing them out about something they can’t control. In every sport you can point to undersized players that are phenomenal. For your athlete, watch their development closely so you can introduce nutrition habits at the appropriate time, thus ushering in mass gains once the testosterone starts. Be honest with them about what they are currently achieving while waiting on that peak weight velocity. Make sure they understand that they can be be elite now and the weight will come, they have no excuses to avoid greatness now. If they continue to focus on becoming better athletes, it will make them better now and in the long run. On that point, research states that it takes up to 1 month for the body to acclimate to 5 lbs of weight gain and retain current athletic ability. So you can imagine what it takes for 20 lbs of weight gain. The best thing to do is to continue to develop the total athlete as the weight changes are happening. If not, you can lose a dramatic amount of athleticism and possibly never get it back. Under extreme circumstances in a professional enviroment athletes can gain extreme amounts of weight and increase in testing and game performance. I assure you that this is under the watch of professionals and unlimited time to work day in / out.
I lived this. I was the smallest kid in my grade for several years. I was a salty 5'1 83lbs in 8th grade. I saw some commercials and ask my dad for a weight set for christmas. I lifted weights high volume everyday until I was around 16 years old. I wanted to get bigger so bad I seemed to think it was the only thing holding me back. In hindsight, I played my first varsity game at 118lbs and being big wasn't the problem, I needed to get better! I was blessed to get some great coaches that changed my ways and guided me toward a successful career before it was too late. Today I am only 5'9 today with a brother that is 6'2 that never lifted a day in his life until 16 years old. I have hip and knee issues from what I did to myself before I even had hair on my legs. From a different perspective, I get to speak to college coaches and pro scouts as part of my gig. They do not want a kid that is prototype size going in to college and sometimes even the pros. They expect for athletes to gain a certain amount of weight and if you are already at the weight they want then they will project you to get too big and slow. I have seen this hurt a lot of great athletes that didn't listen. Research, recruiters and personal experience agree: do not force weight gain, instead developing total athleticism is the king. The weight will come as it always does, however, dynamic athleticism is the king pin that separates athletes.
Look at these body builders try and compete with real performance based athletes. The difference is there.
As always thank you for reading! If you are offended by this blog understand that my priority is with the long term well being of our young athletes.
Bobby Stroupe FAFS CSCS PES CES FMR
APEC Founder I Director