Practical Programming For Young Athletes - What You Didn't Learn In School


Imagine this: you just finished four years of college and just landed your first job training young athletes. Getting prepped for your first day you spent hours toiling over the perfect program; the sets, reps and timing all line up and your excel document looks like it was done my Michelangelo himself.

Needless to say, you have everything ready to go to a T.

Day 1 you walk in the door confident and ready to train a group of ten 12-year-old boys. During warm ups you are starting to get to know the athletes and feel the vibe of the group. Before the lifting starts, you take a minute to explain everything in detail and before you know it things take a turn for the worst. Chaos has ensued: you have 10 young boys running around, hanging from the ceiling and yelling at each other like wild animals.

Not exactly what you had in mind for your first day of working with youth athletes.


Non Traditional Programming for Youth Athletes

Now imagine this instead: You walk in the door and all 10 kids are lined up, ready to go. Warm ups run smooth.  All the athletes line up nicely and are engaged. If people were to guess they would think you were running a class of army cadets. The session flows effortlessly and before you know it that hour is up.

If you've ever worked with young athletes, you might be wondering "How is that possible?!"

Well as you're aware, young athletes can be the trickiest group of athletes to train.

WATCH: How To Run a Championship Caliber Weight Room with Nick Garcia from Notre Dame High School

In school, we are taught the right sets, reps, loads and everything else numbers wise until we can recite Super Training by memory. We generally just consider traditional programming factors but it is the non-traditional factors that make our programs more efficient and effective.

These non-traditional factors are what can take your programs from good to great. 

Traditional Programming Factors

  • Volume - sets, reps, etc
  • Frequency - times per week
  • Length of session
  • Equipment
  • Space
  • Number of athletes

Non-Traditional Programming Factors

  • Fun
  • Novelty
  • Engagement/Focus
  • Mental Toughness
  • Maturity
  • Encouragement

What I want you to take from this article today is alternative ways to view programming so you can be more successful in implementing the programs you already have with your youth athletes.


The Four Pillars of Training Youth Athletes

Our Pillars of Performance are Movement, Nutrition, Flexibility/Mobility and Sleep. We use our Pillars of Performance and break down each pillar with some strategies to be more successful, to get us where we want to go. 

Pillar 1 - Movement - Mastering The Basics

  • Squat
  • Hip Hinge
  • Push- Horizontal and Vertical
  • Pull- Horizontal and Vertical
  • Carries
  • Crawls
  • Core and everything else

All our programs include these movements. They are an absolute must.

Other considerations with these movements and implementing them is kids just want to have fun. We should do things to keep them engaged. Let’s take a new exercise and its impact on how it can change the entirety of a session. Example is the variety cascade. 

Novelty = increased focus = better engagement = more effort = more success.

Do what you can to produce the most success now that also aligns with producing the most success long term. So, we get athletes familiar with a movement for a couple weeks and then add variety to them that aligns with the progression of a movement the athletes are capable of. Do not be afraid to think outside of the box and add fun variations of each movement.

Pillar 2 - Flexibility & Mobility – Gaining and Maintaining Optimal Movement

Flexibility and mobility provides improved positioning for each movement that we think every athlete may need. It also helps to manage time when we add it between sets, exercises or any combination throughout a workout session. 

Our usual implementation is to superset a lift with a mobility movement that improves the lift being done, the one coming up or one that is identified as needing a lot of work. If something needs extra work, we might give some homework. It is very unlikely that kids will be able to keep track of a lot so we assign just one exercise. We want to keep it simple.

Example: "Before bed every night until you see us again I want you to stretch each calf just like I showed you for 2 minutes each. That is 4 minutes’ total. Less than five minutes. You can do anything for less than five minutes. Got it?"

Pillar Three - Sleep - The Cheapest Way to Improve Just About Everything

Aim to teach your athletes about the benefits of sleeping, and also about good sleep habits. They should aim for 9-12 hours a night. Yes, that is a lot of sleep but young athletes need it. Naps are an effective strategy, along with setting a bedtime routine, keeping the temperature between 66-70 degrees and blacking out the room.

One other note is to kill any blue lights (cell phone, computers, etc). No blue light so that means no looking at computer or cell phone screens. If that’s too much you can download f.lux for computers or consider no blue light apps on your phone. IPhone’s have a bedtime setting that starts at a designated time you set it that stops the blue light.


Pillar Four - Nutrition – The Foundation For All Programs

This is a big one. “You cannot out train a bad diet,” is a common line. Kids don’t even know yet what carbohydrates, fats and proteins are. So, we need to give them a general education. Packets and weekly handouts are hit or miss but worth a shot. We still give them out weekly and build on the basics. We also end each session with a quick overview on nutrition.

A standard quick nutrition education to your athletes might go like this:

End of a training session going over carbs, fats, proteins:

  • Carbohydrates- vegetables, potatoes, rice, pastas and bread.
  • Fats- oils, nuts, avocados, eggs
  • Protein-eggs and all meats

Next training session add the when and why:

  • When to eat them? Every meal has protein. Around workouts have carbs. Any time except around workouts have fat.
  • Why to eat them? To help you be lean and strong. To be the best athlete you can be, you do not want your hard work to be wasted.

Talk to the parents at the end of sessions as well. Parents are the ones who get to control much of what is consumed so we need to make their lives easier and food prep faster. Recipes given to the parents can be huge. Give a simple crock pot recipe with a few ingredients can make all the difference.

Sample Program for 10-12 Year Old Youth Baseball Athletes

These are our movements. We have everyone doing the same thing at the same time because we have enough equipment. If we did not, we will split them in half with one doing deadlifts and the other doing the carry.

  • Kettlebell Deadlifts 5 reps + suitcase carry 20 feet down and back, 4 sets each
    • Why? Hip Hinge movement + unilateral carry. Both improve core and overall strength- the second activity helps activate the core for better engagement in the deadlift and take up time between the deadlift.
  • Goblet Squat 5 reps + Super Couch 45 seconds, 4 sets
    • Why? Squatting and hip mobility. The stretch improves the positioning for the squat. Kids sit all day long at school and it helps open the hips.
  • Plate OH Press 5 reps + Plate T’s 5 reps
    • Why? Vertical Press + shoulder corrective to improve scapular movement and stability. Lots of plates were available to use. They learned how to make a straight line from ankles to wrist.
  • Fireman Carries + wheel barrels, down and back (about 15 yards)
    • conditioning and fun- kids are working hard, figuring out how to stay tight while carrying a friend. They loved the carries, which are not easy.
  • Med ball series
    • Rotational throws 4x5 then ½ kneeling punches 4 x 5 for sport specific rotational power and coordination for baseball.
  • Stretch/ Recovery Cooldown
    • recover the positions from the workout. Decrease the heart rate and improve recovery. Allows the kids to settle down and start to figure out there is more than just the workout part to getting better.
  • Nutrition/Lifestyle talk -5-minute review- talk about getting enough sleep and how important it is. Having their parents make some breakfast bake so they can just heat it up in the morning. Hardly any kids we get eat breakfast when we first start. That changes very quickly.

We picked 5 reps because these athletes could keep their rep integrity and focus with 5. This also allowed enough repetition to aid in building movement competency. Having the consistency of the same reps and sets throughout the same workout allowed for less confusion on what to do, how many and when. All our movements were covered and loads were manageable with the flexibility intertwined in the movements. Nutrition and sleep we reviewed during the nutrition and lifestyle talk.


The 5-minute end of session review with the youth athletes is my favorite time. This is the most bang for your buck in the session. It is a super influential time where we can add a ton of value to athlete’s lives. During this time, we show them we are available and care. Opens the conversation and is a change for the athletes to ask questions. This gives an opportunity for further private conversations. During the private conversations, strategies of how to deal with stressors such as school, Girls/Boys, Sports, Peers can take place. This is where real long lasting change can happen and positive life impacts.

That is how we think through our sessions and run them. From that we make sure our periodization is aligned with the cycle and time of the season. That is where the nuts and bolts come in to play.

Take Aways

Always remember that there is NO right program. There is only a right program for the time and place. We must constantly re-evaluate and adjust, preworkout, intraworkout, postworkout, weekly, monthly, etc.  With those adjustments, my words of advice are to keep it simple.

We don’t work with the top Russian or Chinese weightlifters so we shouldn’t train our youth athletes like that and have extremely elaborate workout routines. Programs between athletes do not need to be radically different. Always cover your principles and revisit the pillars. I cannot stress enough how important the basics are. Additionally, do not be afraid to think outside of the box and have a lot of fun.

Good luck and have some great training sessions. Stay strong.

How To Run a Championship Caliber Weight Room with Nick Garcia from Notre Dame High School

About The Author

Ryan is the Director of strength and conditioning at Pro Performance RX In Morgantown, West Virginia. Ryan has been working in the private sector with hundreds of youth athletes for the last 5 years. He is always excited to talk training and dig deep into the Why. Never stop learning, growing and adapting. In the great words of Bruce Lee be like water. To connect further with Ryan reach out to