Friday Favorite: Workout for Early Teen Athletes

Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy participants perform push-ups.
Sunburst Youth Challenge Academy's 1st Platoon Wolfpack do push-ups as part of their military drill performance in front of about 1,000 people during the academy's Class 23 Family Day, March 16, 2019, at Joint Forces Training Base, Los Alamitos, California. (Senior Airman Crystal Housman/U.S. Air National Guard photo)

Now that school is out for the summer, I am seeing younger athletes come into our program looking to start a first fitness training cycle that will prepare them for sports.

The foundation starts with a calisthenics base for younger teens, then adding increased weights with weight vests or dumbbells as they get stronger and better at handling their bodyweight. If you have young athletes or teens who are just starting to train, consider some ideas below to add variety and safely challenge them.

Here is a good upper-body workout day we did with a group of 13- to 15-year-old athletes (runners, lacrosse players and swimmers):

The classic short run with a calisthenics pyramid is a great warmup for upper-body or lower-body days. You can adjust the exercises done in pyramid fashion and use either push-ups, pull-ups or squats, depending on the day.

Warm up with a push-up and run 50 meters pyramid: 1 push-up, run 50 meters, 2 push-ups, run 50 meters, going up to 10 push-ups. Stopping at 10 yields 55 push-ups and 500 meters of warmup jogs.

Try to do the runs on a turf field. Mix in dynamic stretches for the first 10 meters of the warmup jogs. This makes a difference for athletes, such as swimmers, who are new to running and helps prevent foot, shin and knee pain when they experience gravity. The softer ground makes a big difference.

Lightweight Shoulder Workout

This is a fun and challenging shoulder warmup using three- or five-pound dumbbells. Do the six exercises in a slow and controlled circuit.

No matter if push-ups are difficult or starting to get easier for these young athletes, add some weight and start practicing lighter dumbbell chest exercises to learn the benching movement. This even can help your push-ups.

I prefer starting new lifters with dumbbells before they learn the barbell. You can do it either way if you prefer, but focus on lighter weights (nothing more than bodyweight) and keep the repetitions in the double-digit range.

Mixing bench press with pull-ups is a classic push/pull combo, but if you cannot do pull-ups, you instead can do pull-downs if your gym has the equipment or use dumbbells for rows.

Repeat three times

Dumbbell bench press: 10-15

Pull-ups: max or DB rows: 10

I like to mix in a bit of core work between the push-pull upper body sections of the workout. These exercises will help build core stability with planking isometric holds, plus upper-back and lower-back strength with the PT reset movements. The hanging knee-ups are a core favorite that works the hips, abs and grip. These are all great for athletes.

Core Plus PT Reset

Repeat two times

Hanging knee-ups: 10-15

Reverse push-ups: 20

Birds: 20

Arm haulers: 20

Swimmers: 1 minute

Side plank: 1 minute (right)

Plank: 1 minute

Side plank: 1 minute (left)

The final section of the upper-body workout -- done after the “rest with core” activities -- is another round of upper-body calisthenics “heavy weight exercise,” with dips following the core activities as rest.

The final dumbbell movement is a combination of a biceps curl that moves into the military press in one smooth movement. Finally, resting with a plank pose before the next set starts is the end of the circuit. Often, I will add in a short cardio event such as a 400-meter run or a two-minute bike or elliptical in place of the plank pose as an active rest before the next set starts.

Repeat three times

Dips: max

Abs of choice: 20*

Biceps or military press: 10

Plank pose: 1 minute

The final event is a cardio interval that will start with running. Depending on the athlete’s history with running, I instead may put them on a bike, rower or elliptical for the one minute fast and one minute slow interval if I am seeing any shin pain.

Cardio intervals: 15-20 minutes. Do one minute fast, one minute slow and stretch.

Enjoy the summer training. If you are a parent or coach working with young teen athletes, give this workout a try a few days a week. It serves as an introduction to an upper-body foundation workout complete with calisthenics, dumbbell weights and cardio events.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you’re looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to

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