Why Specific Load Prescription Is Unnecessary for Youth Athletes

Periodization of any kind is a model for your programming based on the length of the program, ultimate goal, and prescribed loads. No matter which model you use, the goal is to improve.

Oftentimes, strength coaches will prescribe loads to their athletes. These loads are typically percentages of the athlete’s 1-repetition maximum for that particular core lift. While this makes perfect sense for a well-trained, highly-skilled athlete, it doesn’t hold water for the novice, non-novice, or high school athlete. Here’s why:
The novice lifter is inefficient in terms of motor unit recruitment and neural drive. In short, it doesn’t matter what their 1RM is in the first 3 months or so because it is still a lower load than he/she is capable of moving with good technique. The ceiling is so high for this particular athlete’s gains. In fact, this athlete’s “1RM” will likely grow every week. Prescribing loads based on outdated or misleading data will only hold him/her back during a period of incredible potential growth.
The non-novice lifter has exited the novice stage and has a much better idea of what his/her body can do. However, there is likely still a ton of room for improvement. For the same reasons above, there simply isn’t any need to bog the athlete down by telling him/her to move weights that won’t yield positive gains if the technique is solid.
The high school athlete, if well trained, could potentially be a candidate for load prescription based on percentage of max. However, many high school athletes haven’t finished puberty yet. As such, there’s still room for rapid growth if the progressive overload is used. Because the high school athlete has some experience under the belt, he/she will have a very good idea of what weight to select based on the number of repetitions prescribed. Having a strict loading structure in place will limit potential growth during a very important time of college recruitment.
The Bodyweight Method
The Bodyweight Method is a great tool for teaching the Olympic lifts to anyone new to them. It involves prescribing loads based on percentage of the athlete’s lean (non-fat) body weight. Beginning at lower loads will allow the novice athlete to learn an efficient movement pattern. the downside to using this method is that it presumes strength where there might be none. It would be good to test the athlete before building the program to determine deficiencies. While you might start loading slower strength exercises like the bench press, deadlift, or squat with this type of loading scheme, be careful. Once the technique has reached an acceptable level, progressive overload needs to take over or else you risk holding the athlete back.

The Work-Up Method
Using the Work-Up Method, athletes perform work-up sets prior to beginning their first actual set. For example, you’ve prescribed the athlete 3 work sets of 3 reps for the back squat. Have him/her start at a relatively low weight (about 50% what they think they can do for 3 reps), then add load and do another set. Complete this process until form breaks down. The last set of good technique is considered 100% of the athlete’s 3RM. From there, count backwards and tally the number of sets working at or above today’s 90%. It would look something like this:

100 lb x 3
115 lb x 3
135 lb x 3
145 lb x 3
155 lb x 3
165 lb x 3
175 lb x 3
185 lb x 3   90%
195 lb x 3
205 lb x 3   100%

From here we can see that the athlete worked for 3 sets at or above 90%. Therefore, the athlete managed to complete his/her 3 work sets of 3 reps.Had the athlete only managed to complete 2 work sets above 90% then a third work set of roughly 90% of the day’s best would need to be finished before allowing the athlete to move onto the next exercise.
This is a method that is actually more complicated in theory than it is in practice but it can be used to great results.
Because your actual 1RM can fluctuate on any given day due to a myriad of factors, the Work-Up method is a great way to work at “today’s” maximum intensity.
The Ramping Method
This method is a great way to give more advanced athletes autonomy within the workout. Like the Work-Up Method, it involves starting low and ending with higher load. This is a good scheme for athletes who already have a  good idea of how much load they can use for a specific number of reps and can take cumulative fatigue into account. Let’s say your athlete has been given 5 sets of 5 reps for the deadlift. The ramp might look something like this.

225 lb x 5
235 lb x 5
245 lb x 5
255 lb x 5
265 lb x 5

This method might be the most advantageous because it takes less time. Because of the sets/reps scheme chosen to employ the Ramping Method in the example, veteran lifters can determine how they feel from set to set and load the bar accordingly. Novice lifters will still accumulate enough volume to practice and thanks to weekly progressive overload, continue to get stronger over the course of a program.Because of it’s flexibility, I tend to lean towards the Ramping Method for the majority of my athletes and clients, from the novices all the way to the more elite.
The Percentage Method
This method is one that probably should be used more for your most elite athletes. It is relatively common in collegiate weightrooms and works just like it sounds. You take the athlete’s 1RM and assign percentages of that load to each set. Working off a 1RM of 300 lbs for the deadlift, it might look like this:

3 x 3 @ 90% (270 lb)

The advantage as a coach is the ability to control the load used. The disadvantage, as stated above, is that you might be working off of a max that’s either a) old news or b) not applicable today for a variety of reasons. It’s best used for athletes and lifters who have reached their theoretical “ceiling” and are trying to move past it.
All of the above methods have their place in programming but for younger or newer athletes/ lifters, over-programming the load is a sure-fire way to hold them back during the biggest physiological window for gains that they’ll ever have. As long as the weight is progressed slowly, they’ll see sustainable growth for a long time. Start dictating the load, best case scenario they’ll be held back. Worst case scenario, they get injured trying to do too much..

Coach Runner is the Owner and Director of Sports Performance at Full-Stride Performance. Prior to founding FSP, Runner was formerly the Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Atlanta Gladiators of the East Coast Hockey League, a minor league affiliate of the NHL's Boston Bruins. Coach Runner was also the Head Strength & Conditioning Coach for the Husson University Eagles, Graduate Assistant Strength Coach at the University of Maine, and a former collegiate hockey player for Plymouth State University. He earned his Master of Science degree in Kinesiology & Exercise Science from the University of Maine and is recognized as a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist by the National Strength & Conditioning Association in addition to numerous other certifications.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *