Why Your Pre-Teen Is Weak And What To Do About It

The statistics are staggering. There’s nearly 3.2 million children age five to 14 who received medical treatment for a sports-related injury in 2017. More than a million of those needed emergency room treatment. Yet we continue to hold up youth sports in America as a solution. To what exactly? I’m trying to figure that out.

We’ve placed success in sports on a dangerous pedestal. As a result, some of our kids have become really good at one, maybe two sports. Others have been relegated to the couch, or at least out of the lineup, because they can’t make the cut.

The result is that a huge industry has grown up around “teaching” sports skills. Parents and coaches place more value on hitting, pitching, shooting and other skill lessons than they do on the essential athleticism of their children. If little Johnny or Janey can make the team, all is well.

While you, mom and dad, are celebrating that “success,” a dangerous truth is waiting to be revealed. The simple reality is that your preteen athlete is so weak that it’s no longer a matter of if he or she will suffer a catastrophic injury, but when.

Your preteen is weak, and it might just be killing him or her, and those perpetuating the cycle are complicit in that. They’re accomplices to negligence, and maybe even a passive form of child abuse.

Pretty strong words, I realize. If you’re a little pissed off at me right now. Good. Maybe you’ll pay attention.

To be completely fair, most parents are simply doing what seems right. My aim here is not to beat them up, or to disabuse the coaches involved in the process (often volunteer parents.) But if you come away understanding how important strength is to your kid, this will be a success.

Like I said, your pre-teen is weak, but it doesn’t have to be this way. In fact, not only am I going to tell you what’s missing from your pre-teen’s life as it relates to not being weak, I’ll explain why the missing elements are so crucial and how they relate to those precious sports skills you want for your kid – that we all want for our kids! I want them for your kid, too.

But first, some quick thoughts.  For many years, kids grew up with sports as an added part of their lives, not a centerpiece. This was how I grew up. Little League in the spring and summer, and then it was done. Basketball in the winter, and then it was done. That’s just how it was.  As youth sports gained prominence in in the fitness and activity life of kids, two things happened.

First, those kids with little or no evident athletic ability, or in some cases just less than their peers got pushed aside. They lost opportunities to develop athletically.  Second, kids lost their general physical literacy, in pursuit of an ever narrower set of sports-related movement skills. We allowed and often encouraged this process, so our kids could have “the opportunity to succeed.”

What is physical literacy? Physical literacy means the ability to move well, and the desire to move more. And I mean a broad base of movement skills, not a narrow one.  In truth, both of these trends created generations of kids with less movement skill, not more.

The problem with that is these same children now express strength and athletic ability in fewer ways. Outside their sport, if they have one, they aren’t very good at things like climbing, free running, tumbling, crawling, and even getting on and off the ground. 

I occasionally get the opportunity to speak with groups of kids about nutrition and fitness decision making. And I’ve always asked, who’s ever climbed a tree beyond the first branch? What really made me sad was that many of the students responded “Why would I climb a tree?” I grew up climbing trees, kids should grow up climbing trees. It’s something they should do. 

You see, when children develop a broad base of movement skills, they get stronger. When they’re stronger, they get better at sports, and all the skills required to play them. When they’re stronger, they get hurt less often, meaning they can play longer, they can play more frequently, and they can even play harder. When they’re stronger, they’re more confident, more capable and less afraid of the world.

As Mark Rippetoe, one of the wisest strength coaches in the world, once said “strong people are harder to kill, and they’re generally more useful.” There’s no excuse for your preteen to be weak. None.

Let’s talk about the key elements to developing your preteen’s strength levels, as well as how they translate into real sports skill and important improvements.

By the way, understanding this stuff will allow you to talk to “that” sports coach who’s urging you to go to one more off-season practice, one more skill lesson or another showcase or evaluation instead of dedicating some time and energy to physical skill development. So here we go. 

Key Element #1 – Mobility. Yes, yes, I know I said you’re preaching is weak and that’s true. Often however, lack of mobility and weakness go hand in hand.

If your pre-teen has ankle mobility issues, that mobility requirement will shift up the kinetic chain to the next available joint, the knees. If the knees are absorbing and dispersing the mobility stress normally managed in the ankle, especially frontal plane or side to side stress, the structures in the knee responsible for stability will be under duress.  This can easily lead to damage to ligaments over time. microscopic or micro tears in the anterior, medial or lateral cruciate ligaments can add up over time weakening the structures until a rupture occurs.

In a similar sort of domino pattern, a lack of hip mobility can cause stress on spinal erectors from excessive flexion and extension as well as cause increased tension in the hip flexors and hamstrings. All of these can weaken muscles and muscle systems leading to, you guessed it, being weak.

With limitations in the hip flexor we also get a reduction in both stability strength at the knee and in force production in the lower body. If the hips are incapable of moving through an adequate active range of motion or ROM, we lose end point as well as a mid-point force production. This reduces the ability to decelerate force all of which leads to Little Johnny or Janie being weak in the lower body.

In case you’re wondering, this isn’t just my opinion,  this is scientific fact. This has been proven time and time again through research studies, double blind randomized studies, through muscle testing and just about every other imaginable method. It’s all out there, you can find it. In fact most of it’s in the public domain. 

At the shoulder, a lack of mobility in the neck can actually increase the potential for concussion. Read that again. A lack of mobility in the neck can actually increase the potential for concussion.

If the neck can’t move well and decelerate impact and whiplash forces, shifting of the brain in the skull is more likely. This is a principal cause of concussions, particularly in non-impact or sub-concussive impact conditions.

If the thoracic spine or the section of the spine between the base of the rib cage and that little bump on the back of your neck is immobile, bad things can happen, Your shoulders are kind of counting on your thoracic spine, or T-spine, to be able to move freely.

T-spine mobility allows the structures in and around the shoulder to stabilize during movements like throwing, pushing and pulling. Other than overuse from throwing too much T-spine mobility issues are probably the biggest single contributing factor to injury in baseball and softball players and other overhead athletes (think basketball, volleyball, lacrosse, water polo.) 

The bottom line on mobility and strength is this: immobility fosters immobility. By reducing the range of motion in joints and leaving them unstable, your preteens ability to generate strength and produce and reduce force is significantly lowered. Risk of injury goes up, performance goes down. Not really an ideal scenario for playing sports well, or even just having a positive experience as a kid. 

One of the best ways to ensure your preteen retains their mobility is to avoid specializing in one sport, at least until high school. Unfortunately, that is rapidly becoming more difficult, as every youth sport seems to have taken a year-round, exclusionary approach. One way to ensure that your kids learn to move well and remain mobile is to get them into a strength and conditioning program that provides a wide variety of movement skill development as part of its program. I run one of those in my facility, but you don’t need to come to me. There’s a lot of great facilities around the country you can find one of your own, for sure.

If your kid is still a multi-sport athlete, you’ll know when it’s time to start specializing in a single sport. If you’re asking “when should I start specializing?” the answer is simple: when coaches start asking about one specific sport over others.

The other scenario is when your child just decides that they’ve got two or more sports that they play really well but they really love one more than the other(s.) That’s a really good time to do it as well. It really depends on you and your kids as to when to make that decision. Well, for THEM to make that decision, really. I’ve worked with a number of professional and high-level athletes whose path followed this trajectory. None of them have expressed any regret to me about how things worked out. Something to remember, I think.

Key Element #2 – Squat pattern development and strength.

My athletes know I’m a huge fan of squatting. Dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells, two legs, single leg, split stance, tempo squats, ass to grass squats, you name it. The squat may be the single most primal movement pattern there is. It’s the foundation for so many sports activities like jumping, shuffling, all kinds of all kinds of contact in sports like football, hockey, lacrosse, etc. and sitting on a toilet.

Okay, that last one was to see if you were paying attention. Sitting on a toilet is not really a sport skill but try doing without it for a while. 

The ability to lower and raise the center of gravity under control is essential to avoiding injury and central to the development of more complex movement skills. Teaching the squat properly, then, is an essential tool in the injury prevention toolbox.

In fact, the very first thing we teach in ACL injury prevention seminars and workshops is the proper form and tempo for a stabilization squat. This is a squat with a four second eccentric, or lowering, phase, a one second pause at the bottom, and a two second concentric, or rising phase.

Athletes need to gain the ability to perform a full ROM squat with their heels under their hips and toes pointed forward, with no more than five to seven degrees of external rotation. That’s not much and it’s fairly narrow.

Once that’s mastered, we can talk about other foot positions and stances, but in my opinion and based on my 20 years of experience helping athletes get stronger, the neutral stance ass to grass squat is the place to start.  After all, we don’t run with our feet way outside our hips, and we sure don’t run with our toes pointed out at 30 or 35 degrees. That would be called external rotation and pronation, boys and girls.

Teach your pre-teen to squat in a full range of motion with the ankles under the hips and toes no more than five to seven degrees externally rotated. You’ll be teaching their brain and their muscle systems an essential strength development and injury prevention pattern. 

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Once that’s mastered they should progress to loaded squats, then a split stance, which is one foot slid slightly back and the front foot bearing the brunt of the body weight. And then finally single leg variations.

I’m leaving out a bunch of micro-variations and I’ll leave the equipment modalities to you, but you get the point. Make sure they learn to squat and they do it well. Then load that sucker up and make that lower body strong like bull. 

Key Element #3 – Hinging.

Hinging is about being able to create maximum flexion or forward bend at the hip with minimal knee bend. Hinging is glute driven with assistance from the hamstrings and to a lesser extent the low back.

Deadlifting in all of its forms is hinging.  Would I expect your preteen to be hoisting massive barbell deadlifts to gain strength? Not really. You’d be shocked, though, at how many 11 to 12 year old athletes coming to my facility really really really really like to deadlift! They love to pull some weight. It makes them feel like beasts.

Most pre-teen athletes I work with begin by learning the Romanian deadlift. This technique allows the athlete to learn to hinge with lower weight and more freedom of motion in the upper extremities. It lets us teach the proper postural control and build postural strength before moving to a hex bar and eventually a straight bar, if it’s appropriate. 

Deadlifting and other hinge movements will allow your preteen to build a stronger posterior chain. Both acceleration and deceleration are dependent on posterior chain activation and strength to some degree. Hinging also translates to sport skills like jumping, skating and shooting in sports like hockey and lacrosse. 

The reality of it is hinging is a simple act of putting things putting things on the floor and picking them up again or putting things in the car and picking them up again. I wouldn’t say it’s a primal movement, but it’s a pretty common everyday movement that we use frequently. If your pre-teen gets good at hinging, the benefits will translate to their sport and last a lifetime!

Key Element #4 – Lunging.

I’ve described lunging as the art of moving from one foot to the other without looking like something out of a clown show. We’ve all seen people in health clubs, fitness classes and other places wobbling all over, leaning forward and generally looking really bad trying to lunge.

One of the other things that gets better when lunge patterns improve is resistance to injury, especially knee and hamstring injuries. But that’s not the end of it. Lunging is the functional basis for running, bounding and leaping.

By building a quality lunge pattern, we can help pre-teens get faster, more agile and even improve first step quickness and vertical leap. These are important skills in just about any sport.

The best way to teach effective lunge patterns is to begin with the reverse lunge. Since the athlete is not stepping forward, there is less weight transition to manage in space. By having the athlete step back with one leg, we can teach weight centration over the stabilizing leg, maintenance of the torso in an upright position and deceleration of body weight through the hips of the front (stabilizing) leg. We can also teach the athlete to develop hip drive through that front leg more quickly and effectively.

Once the reverse lunge is mastered, forward lunges and walking lunges should come next. Frontal plane, or lateral, lunges come next, followed by rotational or transverse plane lunging and more complex variations.

When the athlete has developed adequate torso control, lunge jumps can be added. These can later be connected to sprinting or jumping activities as well. Just don’t rush the process. Lunging is a key movement skill connected to speed, agility, quickness, plyometric power and injury prevention. It’s worth getting right, so it’s worth taking the time to do so.

Key Element #5 – Pushing.

Pushing or extension strength can be expressed in a number of ways. Perhaps the most iconic is the bench press or the push up. While this kind of pushing strength is valuable, most pushing in sports activities is far more full body or systemic in nature.

Helping your pre-teen to develop pushing strength is important, but should be undertaken in a manner that involves the kind of full body systemic strength they’re going to need.  It should also encourage core strength and trunk stabilization as well.

Medicine ball squat tosses are a good choice. They work particularly well when paired with traditional pushing activities like a push up.

If you like traditional lifts, single arm dumbbell presses, especially when they’re performed on a stability or a Swiss Ball are great way to develop the kind of systemic pushing strength your pre-teen needs.

Additionally, don’t ignore overhead pushing strength. The ability to extend overhead under load not only develops strength needed to create stability in the shoulder joint but increases range of motion through the thoracic spine. This is important for injury prevention and for effective movement and overhead activities like throwing, shooting a basketball and sports like volleyball.

Like with pushing from the chest, a more systemic rather than isolated approach is best. Dumbbells work better than barbells for this age group, in my experience. Please understand, I’m not trying to give you an exhaustive list of things to do here.

Don’t let this be your kid!

Here’s a few examples of the things that I’m talking about. Again, dumbbells seem to work well for the pre-teen athlete. Movements resembling the last part of a shotput movement are good as well. Bands are a great tool for overhead pushing for the 9 t0 13 year-old crowd, too.

Improving pushing strength in a proper systemic fashion will go a long way to improving performance in throwing, in overhead sports and preventing injuries to shoulder and related structures. 

Key Element #6 – Pulling.

In a very general sense, I like the program a 1.5 to one ratio of pulling activities and pushing activities. And that’s true across all the populations that I work with. So it makes sense to establish this early on.

Kids are up against some forces that are creating negative postures, tightening anterior upper body muscles and really challenging back health and strength.

They sit in chairs for five hours a day in school, typically, and that doesn’t really help and screen time worsens that situation. And there are other physical, emotional and even psychosocial factors involved, but I think those are best addressed in a separate podcast. Suffice to say, your pre-teen’s back muscles and posterior chain really needs some help if they’re going to survive uninjured to help your kid perform well.

While traditional activities like barbell and dumbbell rowing are fine for this age, try getting a little non-traditional.

Try stringing a rope through a tire let your pre-teen perform a combination of dragging and rowing the tire across a measured distance of say, 20 yards. This is what we call an intuitive and reflexive activity to complete it to break down focus on creating the proper postures to complete the activity efficiently. As a result, your preteen ends up in a better position or better posture and working all the right muscles without anyone ever mentioning any of those muscles or boring them with a bunch of anatomical cues. Pretty cool.

Every preteen should learn to do a proper pull up, too. Those kipping pull ups you seen a lot of fitness videos online are fine, but that’s not a proper pull up. Start from a straight arm hang overhand grip. Drive the elbows down towards the floor and try to get that bar to the very top of the chest near the collarbone. Lower slowly until you return to the straight arm hanging position again. There, proper pull up.

Bands, suspension units like gymnastic rings and TRX suspension systems all make great tools for improving pulling strength.

Key Element #7 – Carrying heavy things.

Few activities improve your pre-teen’s strength, like loaded carries and few things that improve your kids strength are simpler than loaded carries.

Here’s how to do it. Ready? Pick up something heavy, carry it for time or distance, exercise complete. Repeat for several rounds. Alright, I’m being funny here, but it really is pretty simple.

With loaded carries the only real cueing I need to do is reminders about posture and travel speed.

My favorite varieties are the Farmer Walk, the Suitcase Walk, the Waiter Walk and the Zercher Carry.

In the Farmer Walk, you pick up a heavy object in each hand. Start relatively heavy but then work up to a quarter of your body weight in each hand, and eventually as strength levels get high enough, half body weight in each hand is pretty impressive, but don’t rush it. Grip the items tightly. Hold the head high and the shoulders back and walk. Try to walk a straight line. That’s going to work the hips and glutes and the lower body a little more intensely. Start at 20 to 30 yards or about 10 to 15 seconds per round at first, and you can work up a little bit from there.

You don’t need to go crazy though. And again, it doesn’t matter if you want to get more endurance, keep the weights a little lower, go a little longer. If you want to get stronger, the weights a little higher, keep the distances and times a little bit shorter.

In the Suitcase Walk the same rules apply except you’re holding only one heavy thing in one hand. You switch hands halfway through the rep, or alternate hands on alternating reps, it really doesn’t matter. That’s up to you.

For the Waiter Walk you would hold something overhead like a waiter carrying a tray. In this one we like to shoulder to sort of settle in, so the shoulder blade flattens out on the back but don’t be too worried about that. Just be cautious not to overload these too early. Also, I also want to warn you a little bit about letting the wrist fall out to the to the side. Try to keep that wrist stiff and the knuckles pointed up at the ceiling if you can.

For the Zercher Walk, you carry a heavy thing by holding it in front of you with both arms under it and hands wrapped around it.

Pretty simple stuff, right? The two key points to cueing most loaded carries are posture and shoulder traction and/or position. And then of course, travel speed is one of the other ones. We want to reinforce postural strength and the ability of the muscles in the shoulder to stabilize it and produce force. The side benefit is lower body strengthening, and some cardio endurance since carrying heavy stuff requires the legs to get stronger.

So those are the key elements to focus on to prevent your pre-teen from being weak. Weak people are slow and don’t perform well. On top of that they get injured frequently and tend to whine about it. Okay, maybe they don’t all whine, but you know.

The hard truth is your pre-teen doesn’t need another sports skill lesson. Your preteen doesn’t need to attend another “optional but not optional” off-season practice. Your preteens travel high school or league coach has zero right to demand that you attend something that they are running in the off-season. That’s worth reading again. Your preteens travel, school or league coach has zero right to demand you attend something that they’re running in the off-season.

As an aside isn’t it odd how many of these off-season camps and clinics cost you money, and how often these coaches are making money off of you on these off-season things that you don’t need to go to in the first place? And I’m not saying it’s all of them. I know a lot of school, league and travel coaches, and they’re great people and they really do care about their kids.

This is not an indictment of coaches. The system is the problem, not the people, most of the people are great folks, most are volunteers (or may as well be.)

Your pre-teen needs to be stronger and have greater physical literacy. If you’re really interested in giving your kid the best opportunity to succeed, you’ll foster a wider set of physical movement skills in that preteen not a narrow one.

If you disagree, I suggest you do two things. First, open your wallet. You’re going to spend a lot of money trying to replace movement skills with sports specific skill lessons, sports camps showcases and other similar things. Mind you, these things can be helpful, but if your pre-teen is weak and moves poorly, it’s like giving silk to a pig.

Second, find yourself a good orthopedic surgeon. Chances are your kids going to need one frequently in their athletic career.

The bottom line lesson here is this: sports movements get better when your kids are stronger. Trying to overcome weakness with more sports skill lessons is an exercise in futility and a huge waste of money.

Sports skill lessons have their place. Interestingly, they’ll be a lot more effective if your pre-teen is strong! So why not invest wisely and give your kids a real edge in sports – one that won’t go away in between lessons or in the off-season? Get the stronger and watch what happens on the field, court, ice, mat or in the pool!

Feel free to reach out if you think I’m wrong or if you have questions. Keep the faith and keep after it!

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