Focus on Programming

Strength Training for All Teenagers

We have learned that there are essentially two types of teenagers — those who enthusiastically participate in sports programs and those who have little interest in physical activities. Be assured that the vast majority of teenage boys and girls remain firmly entrenched in the latter category.

Both groups of teenagers need to do regular strength training, but for different purposes. Athletes typically use some muscle groups much more than other muscle groups, setting up muscle imbalances that frequently lead to sport-specific injuries.

Generally speaking, teenage athletes benefit most from a comprehensive program of strength exercise that effectively addresses all of their major muscles, thereby eliminating weak links in their musculoskeletal system and reducing the risk of overuse/imbalance injuries. We recommend a combination of free-weight and machine exercises that include single-joint and multi-joint actions. (See “Machine vs. Free-Weight Exercises for Teens.”)

We encourage coaches to bring their teams to our exercise center during the off-seasons. We train the athletes on a Tuesday-Thursday or a Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule, between 3 to 4 p.m., which is typically a low-use time.

As you might guess, teaching strength training to enthusiastic athletes is much easier than motivating sedentary secondary school students to start a strength-training program. Teenagers who are under-fit or overweight seem to be embarrassed about exercising in a fitness facility. Yet these are the youngsters who have the most to gain from strength training, so we must develop programs that encourage their participation.

We offer two such programs that have proved successful with younger teenagers. The more popular teen fitness program incorporates a full circuit of weight-stack machines (single and multiple-muscle exercises), and features both adult and older teen instructors. This 10-week class typically consists of 10 to 15 boys and girls, and meets twice a week from 3 to 4 p.m. Although discipline is seldom a problem, we emphasize more social interaction among the teenagers in the non-athlete classes to make the program more enjoyable.

Our more recent youth fitness endeavor was a carefully designed and closely supervised program for instructing young teenagers in the proper performance of free-weight exercises. This class met once a week (Saturday mornings) in the free-weight facility, and was well received by both participants and their parents.

In both programs, the instructional staff certifies teenagers who demonstrate acceptable levels of competence, confidence, manners and maturity to use the facilities and equipment on their own after completing their classes. Contrary to our cautious expectations, we have experienced essentially no problems or member complaints regarding our teen strength-training programs or the graduates who have become respectful and respected fellow exercisers in our fitness center. Keep in mind that your teenage program participants today will be your adult members tomorrow, so it makes good sense to prepare them properly for a lifetime of physical activity.

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is co-author of two books on youth strength training. He wrote this column with Cynthia Long, the wellness director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, Mass.

Machine vs. Free-Weight Exercises for Teens

With respect to the force produced and effort required by the target muscles, there is almost no difference between most machine exercises and the corresponding free-weight exercises. For example, a machine bench press and a barbell bench press are both effective for stressing and stimulating the pectoralis major, anterior deltoid and triceps muscles. The machine bench press obviously places less emphasis on balance and control than the barbell bench press, which may be seen as an advantage or a disadvantage depending on your perspective. From a safety standpoint, the machine bench press eliminates the possibility of being pinned underneath a barbell; however, using a spotter also eliminates this risk.

When time is a factor, programs may favor weight-stack machines, as resistance changes require only reinsertion of a steel pin rather than loading or unloading plates. On the other side of the coin, machines are more expensive than free weights and clearly present a different feel than handling a barbell.

Machines may permit more targeted muscle training than free weights, especially with respect to leg exercises. For example, barbell squats productively work the quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteal muscles together but do not isolate any of these muscles individually. To address the quadriceps, hamstrings, hip adductor or hip abductor muscles specifically, the preferred exercises are machine leg extensions, leg curls, hip adductions and hip abductions, respectively. And while the barbell squat is a most basic and beneficial exercise for the leg, hip and trunk muscles, it may place undesirable compression forces on the spinal column of young teenagers with immature skeletal systems.

For these reasons, we recommend that inexperienced teenage trainees begin with standard machine exercises, and progress to appropriate free-weight exercises if they so desire. All strength exercises for teenagers should be selected with attention to safety and simplicity, with emphasis on proper performance rather than weight loads.

Suggested Strength Exercises for Teenage Athletes

Machine Leg Extensions
Machine Leg Curls
Machine Hip Adductions
Hip Adductors
Machine Hip Abductions
Hip Abductors
Barbell Squats or Machine Leg Presses
Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Gluteals
Machine Chest Cross
Pectoralis Major
Barbell or Machine Bench Press
Pectoralis Major, Anterior, Deltoids, Triceps
Machine Pullover
Latissimus Dorsi
Dumbbell Bent Row or Machine Pulldown
Latissimus Dorsi, Biceps
Machine Lateral Raise
Dumbbell or Machine Shoulder Press
Deltoids, Upper Trapezius, Triceps
Dumbbell or Machine Arm Curl
Dumbbell or Machine Arm Extension
Bodyweight or Machine Trunk Curl
Rectus Abdominis
Bodyweight or Machine Trunk Extension
Erector Spinae
Machine Neck Flexion and Extension
Neck Flexors and Extensors

Suggested Strength Exercises for Sedentary Teens

Machine Leg Curl
Machine Leg Press
Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Gluteals
Machine Bench Press
Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoids, Triceps
Machine Seated Row
Latissimus Dorsi, Rhomboids, Middle Trapezius, Biceps
Machine Shoulder Press
Deltoids, Triceps
Machine Arm Curl
Machine Triceps Press
Triceps, Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoids
Machine Rotary Torso
External Obliques, Internal Obliques
Machine Trunk Extension
Erector Spinae
Machine Trunk Curl
Rectus Abdominis
Machine Chin-Up
Latissimus Dorsi, Biceps
Machine Bar-Dip
Pectoralis Major, Triceps, Anterior Deltoids

Suggested Strength Exercises for Beginning Teens

Dumbbell and Barbell Squat
Quadriceps, Hamstrings, Gluteals
Dumbbell and Barbell Bench Press
Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoids, Triceps
Dumbbell and Barbell Incline Press
Pectoralis Major, Anterior Deltoids, Triceps
Dumbbell Shoulder Press
Anterior Deltoids, Upper Trapezius, Triceps
Pulley Pressdown
Dumbbell Bent Row
Latissimus Dorsi, Biceps
Pulley Pulldown
Latissimus Dorsi, Biceps
Pulley Seated Row
Latissimus Dorsi, Phomboids, Middle Trapezius, Biceps
Dumbbell Arm Curl
Barbell Shoulder Shrug
Upper Trapezius, Neck Extensors
Bodyweight and Roman Chair Trunk Curl
Rectus Abdominis
Bodyweight and Roman Chair Trunk Extension
Erector Spinae

Guidelines for Teen Strength Training

l. Perform one to three sets of each strength exercise.
2. Use enough resistance to complete eight to 12 properly performed repetitions.
3. Increase the weight load by 1 to 5 pounds upon completing 12 good repetitions.
4. Use moderate movement speed that emphasizes controlled muscle effort rather than momentum (four to six seconds per repetition).
5. Use full range repetitions rather than abbreviated joint actions.
6. Train two or three nonconsecutive days per week.
7. Train with competent instructors.
8. Train safely.
9. Train progressively.
10. Train consistently.

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