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Weekly Wellness: Can kids get faster by getting stronger?

<p>Sun-Times Media file photo</p>

Sun-Times Media file photo

Our weekly fitness column, "Weekly Wellness," is back again. This week, Matt Gallagher, from MFC Sports Performance in Darien, talks about why strength training kids is actually the way to get them faster in sports.

The number one reason that parents bring their children into our facility is to get them faster. The common phrases I hear are “He needs to get quicker.” or “We just need to focus on her speed.” or, my personal favorite, “We do not care about how strong she is, she just needs to be faster.” Regardless of the sport, it seems that kids who are athletes just need to be faster on the field or court.

One life lesson I have learned is that there is always an underlying cause or issue that goes beyond what the current problem actually presents. This same lesson is certainly applicable to athletic ability and fitness. So, when parents feel their child can be faster, they are usually right – but the solution is almost always to not train in the way that most people think athletes should train to become faster. Please let me explain, and bear with me while we work our way through some technical fitness jargon.

In athletics there is something called the Strength-Speed Continuum. This consists of:

 

  • Absolute Strength - training that utilizes maximal loaded squats and deadlifts
  • Strength-Speed - also known as Olympic lifting
  • Speed-Strength - refers to exercises such as weighted jump squats
  • Absolute-Speed - the most commonly-used portion of the spectrum, which includes plyometrics and sprint training  

 

It is important to train all athletes across this entire spectrum of performance. Another way to phrase this is to say that in order to make an athlete faster, there needs to be some time spent training not only in the Absolute-Speed section, but also on the opposite end of the performance continuum in the Absolute-Strength section.  

Why does this work? Simply put, strength increases force production. More force applied quickly improves power. Power is the key for explosiveness and speed. More strength, more force production applied quickly (with the proper training), more power and eventually more speed.  

Alright, let’s back off on the technical stuff for a moment and think of this logically. I would say that almost all kids who are athletes (especially those in the 8-13 year old range) that come to our facility definitely need to get faster for their sport. Parents know this intuitively, so it tends to be the first reason for seeking out professional help. Interestingly, many of these kids have tried agility camps, footwork camps, speed camps and other programs exclusively geared for improving kids’ foot speed. But if these programs worked to improve foot speed, then why are their parents bringing them in to see me for improving their speed? The answer is these speed camps simply do more of the same: more sprints, more ladder drills, more cone drills, more footwork.  

These kids are already spending the majority, if not all, of their time in the Absolute-Speed end of the performance spectrum just simply by performing their sport, as well as in practice for their sport. So how would more Absolute-Speed training in these speed camps actually produce more speed? Their power output has already been maximized. At this point, you need to take this athlete into the completely opposite end of the performance continuum and build up their strength potential. Remember, more strength, more force production applied quickly, more power output and eventually more speed. It’s simply science.

If I train a kid two days per week that needs more speed, we will spend the majority of that time in the strength realm using extremely safe strength training protocols. Yes, eight to 13 year olds need strength training. They will not be doing any spinal loading type exercises (barbell back squats, deadlifts) but they will be doing toned-down variations of these classic strength-builders, for higher repetitions. This will improve their force production and body control, all of which carries over into the speed realm.

With the hundreds of kids who are athletes that I have trained thus far, I have yet to see a child not increase their speed using this scientifically-proven performance plan. One particular nine and 10 year old baseball team I trained recently improved their 30 yard sprint time by 0.6 seconds as a team! This was a 10-week program, two days per week, for 45 minutes per workout. The majority of the 45 minutes was spent building their leg, hip and core strength with safe, proper strength training. There was perhaps five to eight minutes of actual speed training during these sessions.

Given just two sessions per week with most of the time spent on building strength, I can improve a child’s sprint time by an average of one half of a second on a 30 yard track (the distance of our track is 40 yards with 30 yards used for sprinting) in about eight to 12 weeks. I am referring to young athletes, eight to 13 year olds. This is a noticeably dramatic improvement in speed for a kid. And it was almost all a result of using strength training methods with him or her – improving their body’s ability to produce force on the earth and against moving objects.  

When you safely build a child’s strength, you are giving them the best shot they have to take their game to that next level of play. To ignore strength development for a kid who is an athlete and to continue to make them do more of the same footwork drills, cone drills, ladder drills, etc., is to unknowingly limit their potential and keep them slower and more unstable.  

The Takeaway:

So can kids really get faster by getting stronger? I think the more appropriate question is: Can we really expect our kids to get faster by only doing drills that fall under the Absolute-Speed end of the Strength-Speed Continuum? Just like everything in life, there is almost always an underlying issue. To help kids become faster, something else, other than what they have been doing, needs to happen. Strength training is the solution.

Matt Gallagher is the Fitness Director at MFC Sports Performance in Darien, which specializes in functional training for both adults and younger athletes. You can reach Matt by emailing him at Matt@MFCSportsPerformance.com

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