Now that you realize (hopefully) the need for a foundation of strength over specialized training for your youth athlete, let’s talk about what you can do about it. As tempting as it is to throw your kid under the bar or on to the latest greatest machine, he really needs to start with just his own body weight! Focusing on making the athlete stronger with just his own body weight will help reduce his risk of injury as well as make him more functional and athletic.

As simple as this concept is, there are still coaches and parents who take this too far too early in the athlete’s training career. Focus on the big three and give the athlete time to master the movements before going on to more advanced movements.


The squat, as we all know, isn’t only a leg movement. It’s full body training at its finest. In order to become proficient at the squat, the athlete must develop not only strong and mobile hips and legs but also strong abdominals and a strong lower and upper back.

Form cues:

  • Head and chest up
  • Big belly (or Mr. America chest/Buddha belly as Dan John teaches it)
  • Back arched
  • Arms straight out in front of the body or hands behind head
  • Sit back and down
  • Lead with the chest and drive the knees out on the way up

All reps should have full hip extension, and the athlete should get his hips below parallel.

One mistake many coaches make when teaching the squat is that they teach the athlete to suck his stomach in and hold his abs tight during the movement. This is supposed to increase the pressure of the abdomen and help stabilize the spine. What actually happens is instead of creating a large, stable base for the spine and the rest of the upper body to sit on, it shrinks it and allows the chest and upper back to collapse forward.

This same principle holds true when athletes begin using a belt. By sucking the stomach in and cinching the belt as tight as they can, they’re decreasing their base and making the abs collapse. Instead, they should leave their belt slightly loose so that they can take a big breath of air into their belly, which expands it out into the belt creating a larger base and increasing intra-abdominal pressure.

If this still doesn’t make sense, try stacking a 5-, 10-, and 25-lb plate (in that order) in the palm of your hand and pressing it overhead. The problem isn’t the weight (it’s only 40 lbs after all). It’s keeping it balanced and stable. Now reverse the stack so that the 25-lb plate is in the palm of your hand followed by the 10- and 5-lb plate. It’s the same weight, yet it’s much easier to control and press because the base is larger.

While this isn’t much of an issue if you’re using just your body weight, it can lead to injuries when the athlete does get under the bar. The last thing you want when teaching new movements and motor patterns to a client or athlete is for him to develop poor habits early because theses poor habits are hard to correct later.

Once the athlete can complete 15–20 reps with proper form, he can move on to lunging or split squats with body weight.


This is as basic as basic can be. While most consider it just a chest/shoulder/triceps exercise, it also strongly involves the abdominals, upper back, and hips.

Form cues:

  • Big chest
  • Tight abs
  • Tight hips
  • Head, shoulders, hips, and heels in line

Touch the chest to the floor and fully extend the arms on each rep.

The first two cues make sense to most everyone, but the last one probably doesn’t. The reason for keeping the butt/hips engaged is to keep the heels from drooping toward each other. Some may not think that this is a big deal, but it can really help improve hip stabilization and teach the athlete to keep his entire body tight during the movement, which is huge during the big movements like squats, deadlifts, and the Olympic lifts (if they’re utilized later on). The upper back comes into play because unlike the bench press where the shoulder blades are pulled together and locked to build the base for you to press off of, the muscles of the upper back have to help stabilize the shoulder joint and the shoulder blades as they move through their range of motion.

Once the athlete has established proficiency with the movement (a solid 10–20 reps for multiple sets), he can move on to push-ups off of a medicine ball, push-ups using blast straps, or dips.

Inverted row and pull-ups

I chose these two because very few kids can do a single pull-up with proper form, so it’s more appropriate to start them with the inverted row instead. However, I wouldn’t go straight from the inverted row to barbell rows, deadlifts, or cleans. Inverted rows are a great basic exercise for the posterior chain, but the pull-up is king.

The inverted row is best started with a barbell on the safety pins of the squat rack. This gives a nice stable base for the athlete to work off of. The angle his body is at will depend on his strength level. Stronger athletes may be able to lay almost completely parallel to the floor while weaker ones will have to start at a higher angle and work their way down.

Row form cues:

  • Big chest
  • Tight abs
  • Tight hips

The athlete should fully extend the arms on each rep as well as touch the bar to the chest.

Sounds familiar, right? The inverted row is basically a reverse push-up. The reason I have “big chest” listed as a cue for all three exercises is because if the athlete lets his chest collapse on any of these movements, he loses the activation and use of his upper back and spinal erectors during that exercise. This can lead to low back injuries while squatting and shoulder injuries and sagging hips while doing push-ups and rows. Much of what these three exercises teach is how to keep the body tight and stable while moving.

Once the athlete can do multiple sets of 8–15 rows, it’s time to move on to pull-ups. For your bigger kids, simply doing 2–3 pull-ups will be quite the task, even after several weeks of training. The lighter, smaller kids may be able to crank out multiple sets of 8–15 reps on this. Be sure to have them practice several different grips when training the pull-up and inverted row. Once they have proficiency at these two exercises, they can move on to performing them with added weight or on blast straps.

Pull-up form cues:

  • Big chest
  • Don’t swing
  • Pull through the elbows (not the hands)
  • Drive the bar to your chest (don’t pull yourself to it)

Get the chin over the bar and fully extend the arms with every rep.

These are the three most basic and valuable exercises as far as the youth athlete is concerned. They are valuable because of the endless variations that can be used for each one. This style of training should never be dropped by the athlete or coach. It may be utilized in a different fashion, but it should always be present.

Now, this article is written for any athlete who is just beginning to weight train. This could be anyone from middle school to college. It doesn’t matter. The basics are the basics. However, there are many lifters who jump straight into lifting with a barbell or dumbbells when they shouldn’t necessarily do so. Ideally, these lifters should go back, perfect the basics, and then move into barbell lifting. This won’t happen though because it seems like two steps back. People are stubborn, and everyone thinks that they’re an advanced lifter. Why do push-ups when you can bench? Why perform body weight squats when you can get under the bar (or like 99 percent of people, leg press—you know who you are)? And why do pull-ups or inverted rows when you can do pull-downs, barbell rows, or dumbbell rows?

For these people, I recommend using body weight training for a warm up and for accessory work. You can utilize both at the same time as long as you don’t get in over your head on the barbell work. Lunges and split squats are great for deadlift/clean accessories. Push-ups and dips are great for overhead pressing and benching. And pull-ups help build the back strength to stabilize yourself while pressing, support the bar while squatting, and lockout your deadlift.

These types of exercises are the foundation that advanced strength and athleticism are built on. Don’t let the foundation crumble because you’re working on your skylight.