In 2012, I met a 140lb high school sophomore named Alex Gauvin. When I met Alex that day in the gym, he already possessed the most important tool necessary for success in any endeavor: drive. As he gave himself the “Eye of the Tiger” while doing bicep curls in the mirror, I asked him what he was training for. “I’m trying to get bigger to play football next year.” (Probably the most typical response of any American high schooler.) I took him under my wing and two years later, Alex became North America’s Strongest Teen. Read on to find out the winning formulae.
What’s Different About Training Teenagers?
When I became Alex’s coach, the first thing I did was give him a training book that he called his “Bible.” There are a few important things about that particular act.
Number one: the program was written down, concrete, tangible. A written program holds you accountable and sets up a template by which you can record and track your progress on a weekly basis.
Number two: the program contained a ton of volume and compound movements. Not only will this drive growth, but it will help create and reinforce neural pathways, i.e. it will solidify your form so as your weights go up, your chance for setback goes down. (My coaching really emphasized form during this early period).
Number three: it contained a sample diet plan.
Alex wasn’t growing because Alex wasn’t eating. I asked him what his daily intake looked like and basically doubled it while increasing the protein and subtracting as much sugar as possible.
As with a lifting program, a good diet is one you can actually follow. If you’re really trying to pack on the pounds, follow this saying: “eat until you feel sick, then eat again before you feel hungry.” Even if all there is is cafeteria food, the hormones rushing through teens’ bodies are able to put those calories to their best use.
My advice was to make an effort to get as big as possible as quickly as possible, then work on composition. Compared to an adult, the added mass from this initial growth phase is much more likely to be quality muscle, and this is again due to hormone function. Even with all the sugar Alex was eating he was very lean, while an adult eating the same diet would likely be pre-diabetic.
This approach also allows your body to acquire proprioception for the extra size, and also for the cardiovascular system to catch up as well – a pound of added bodyweight adds 4-6 miles of blood vessels. An added benefit to the extra size is loads of extra attention from the opposite sex. Adults simply don’t receive as much positive feedback as teens when they begin training.
As far as training considerations go for a teenager, one principle remains the same for teens and adults: consistency. A teenager is going to have more distractions than the average adult. Balancing training with school is likely new and/or difficult enough, but it’s also likely that training will take them away from their friends. The athlete and their friends are also beginning to date and have jobs, which will further compound the balance.
Setting a schedule and having a program are important so that other activities can be scheduled around it, but it also needs to be flexible as well. Again, the best program is one that keeps you consistent. Differences betweens teens and adults boil down mostly to differences in hormone levels, the intricacies of which are beyond the scope of this article.
The generally higher levels of the most prominent hormone we’re talking about here, testosterone, allows teens to handle greater volume, recover better, and utilize nutrients better, which overall leads to greater gains in a shorter period of time — especially in a sport with a steep learning curve such as strongman. Adults will typically report a feeling of being “banged up” by high volume, especially after a strongman training day, whereas teens can continue with aggressive programming.
One potential drawback to training teens versus training adults is the fact that muscles grow faster than tendons and ligaments. Building muscle quickly, as most teens will do, will cause an imbalance relative to tendons and ligaments. An injury to a tendon or ligament is a major setback, and this is especially risky if the teen’s bones aren’t done growing yet when they begin training.
This is why I advocate playing sports and running alongside regular programming to help strengthen tendons and ligaments.
A Sample Week of Programming
Below is an example of “The Bible.” Many variations were used, but the formula is the same: a high-intensity day followed by a low-intensity day. The program below is for strongman and includes event work through the week and an event day (or competition) on Saturday.
Rotating high-intensity days with low-intensity days allows for the athlete to be at or near competition-best levels for the entire year, but I also include a de-load week on every 4th week to induce supercompensation.
A de-load week can have the exact same structure, but where possible, barbells should be substituted with either dumbbells, or cables/machines while hitting similar or greater ranges of motion as the standard program for faster, higher reps.
For example, if an athlete is using 225lbs for RDLs on week one, this can be increased slightly in weeks two and three, then substituted completely, maybe for single-leg deadlifts during the de-load week, and then return to week 3’s weight on week 5, and so on.
The reps used above on Wednesdays were “work up and strip down,” meaning we would warm up, add weight until a good working set or sets was achieved, then perform one or two drop sets starting at working weight and finishing with an empty bar while performing as many reps as possible at each successively lower weight, e.g. bench press at 225×8, then 185×10, 135×10, 95×10, and finishing with the bar, 45×20+.
It’s important to mix in activities, in our case strongman, and de-loading to help maintain progression and reduce the grinding feeling of repeating the same movements over and over. When an exact program gets stale, rotate new movements in while maintaining mostly compound movements. This could be as simple as swapping your de-load week exercises for your regular program and either keeping those exercises and performing them as you would a de-load week, or moving further from gym lifts altogether for a de-load week before returning. (This should never be called a “rest week,” although those can and must exist as well.) Try to incorporate more calisthenics and stretching or go super low-impact with yoga or Pilates.
With teens, try incorporating these activities as often as they will let you. They need it less than adults, but will likely want to focus on regular programming, whereas adults probably can and probably need to work a mobility-focused hour into their normal program and increase the frequency of such activities during de-load week, which again is every 4th week.
The America’s Strongest Teen Event
Alex’s progression from a skinny kid whose best lift was a set of 10 pull-ups to North America’s Strongest Teen was more than 2 years. Rome wasn’t built in a day.
The Strongest Teen competition takes place in the summer, before Open Nationals. The location and events for the competition were released about 8 weeks before the contest, which is perfect for programming: 6 working weeks, a de-load week in the middle, and a taper week at the end. Our approach to the contest was to prepare as specifically as possible, so we plugged the actual events into The Bible and got to work.
The events were max giant dumbbell, car deadlift for reps, keg toss, keg carry/sandbag medley, and stone over bar. Giant dumbbell fit nicely into our pressing day, and deadlifts worked well in the program too. We put the medley on Tuesday and Thursdays, and alternated stones and kegs on Saturdays since stones were at the gym, and we had to build a keg toss apparatus at my house.
After taking it relatively easy for the week leading up to the contest (tapering), Alex was an animal ready to be unleashed.
The max giant dumbbell was the first event and Alex’s worst. He very nearly tied for first place, but settled for second with a 140lb dumbbell. It was a good result, and probably helped light the fire further too by marking the event winner.
The car deadlift was next. It was super heavy, but there was flex in the frame and bouncing at the bottom. Alex furiously banged out 20 or 21 reps — no other athlete even moved the apparatus.
Alex’s run at the keg toss was nearly flawless, giving him his second event win in a row, followed by his third in the medley — usually his worst event — and a fourth in the stone over bar. (At that point, he only needed to get more than zero in the last event.) His title of America’s Strongest Teen was a monumental achievement crowning more than two years of intensely hard work.
In conclusion, working with teens is highly-rewarding. They have certain needs that require more attention than an adult would in the same circumstances, such as being able to handle more volume while at the same time requiring more structure. They usually have no idea how to eat. They don’t have experience setting, tracking, and achieving goals. They can often feel overwhelmed by school, work, and home life which can carry over into performance, perhaps not unlike adults.
If the gym is a vehicle for dealing with those outside stresses rather than just another commitment that brings its own pressure, then the results should speak for themselves both physically and mentally. The mental part is probably the greatest by-product. Once you have transformed your body and literally done things that were impossible only a short time ago, it changes you permanently to better adapt to and handle any situation life can throw at you.
Featured image via @gauvinalex on Instagram.