Exploring The Truth About Youth Athletes And Weightlifting

Weight lifting won’t stunt your child’s growth.

Reread that last sentence.

Alright good, now we’re both on the same page when it comes to the influence of weight training on the musculoskeletal growth and maturation of your child.

I’ve had a number of conversations with concerned parents who believed that any sort of strenuous exercise would destroy growth plates and turn their budding teenagers into dwarfed garden gnomes.

Turns out, much of their fear is based upon unsubstantiated claims from the early ‘70s and ‘80s when exercise was associated as being highly dangerous. However, what most don’t realize is that the data from certain studies was based on growth in child laborers, not weight lifters.

Now of course, any sort of exercise or sporting activity will likely have some sort of injury risk, but this is true for both adults and adolescents alike. Not to mention, the risk of injury in certain sports is actually higher than just weight lifting alone.1

In fact, due to the complex nature of many weight lifting movements, childhood may be the perfect time to teach budding trainees as brain plasticity is highest, allowing for the development of new motor patterns and activation sequencing.

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The Real Problems with High School Weight Rooms

Unfortunately, some high school strength coaches also double as PE teachers or assistant defensive coordinators for the football team. Now, there’s nothing wrong with a strength coach holding multiple positions, provided they have the necessary education and expertise to understand program design and periodization.

However, adolescent athletes begin to run into issues when coaches lose sight of their long term development and turn to chasing numbers instead.

Not only that, some coaches don’t understand how to properly regress or progress exercise selection, so each athlete is at the mercy of their individual biomechanical and physiological limitations.

 

Fitness Injuries: The Weighty Truth

Currently, all of the research on the topic of weight training in adolescent populations attributes injuries to inappropriate training technique, excessive loading, poorly designed equipment, or a lack of adult supervision.”

Most injuries occurring in youth training populations are due to coaches pushing athletes above a safe loading threshold and a lack of individualization within athletic programming.

For example, if an athlete can’t squat to depth with their bodyweight, what’s going to happen when you put a bar on their back?

Each athlete must be assessed on a case by case basis in order to properly determine exercise selection and sport specific demands. As soon as you begin to push trainees through cookie cutter programs, you start to run into problems.

 

Why Should Youth Athletes Lift Weights?

The National Strength and Conditioning Association recently came out with a positional stand on youth resistance training and summed up the main reasons adolescents should be lifting weights: Although there are many mechanisms to potentially reduce sports-related injuries in young athletes, enhancing physical fitness as a preventative health measure should be considered a cornerstone of multicomponent treatment programs.

Most athletes just aren’t prepared for the physical rigors of certain sporting practices and as such, weight training is required to help them reach an adequate level of development.

Asides the benefits to bone health, immune function, athletic performance, cognitive function, and metabolic regulation, strength training can be inherently fun if the coach understands competition from a psychological perspective.

When you create team chemistry revolving around self-improvement of the person within their individual sport then you produce an unstoppable force as you’ve just introduced athletes to their greatest asset: intrinsic motivation.

 

“How Much Weight Should I Use?”WeightliftingJoy

Ah, the age old question asked by every athlete at one point or another within their training career.

Athletes should be less concerned with the weight on the bar and more concerned with their performance on the field. Their strength coach will take care of all the loading parameters when it comes to ensuring their success.

In general, when most children are roughly 7 or 8, they’re old enough to begin playing organized sports and start learning the basics of strength training.

However, this isn’t strength training according to most folk’s definition, it should primarily revolve around teaching kids kinesthetic awareness of their body and basic bodyweight skills that they will need to master before moving onto free weight variations.

From a parenting perspective, there aren’t any specific strength minimums that your child should meet (aside from proper bodyweight mechanics) but teaching them to enjoy training for the mental and physical benefits is more important than any amount of weight they can lift.

 

Building Safe Training Programs, One Rep at a Time

In general, most adolescents should start training 1-2 times per week for the first few weeks and then they could maintain 2-3 sessions a week depending upon their sporting season and current workload.

Injury risk can be mitigated by limiting frequency, allowing for proper recovery between bouts, restricting maximal lift attempts, and responding to concerns expressed by each athlete about their body.

If adolescents are going to be performing plyometric activities then it should be implemented preseason, the volume should be kept low (6-18 jumps per workout), and they should be instructed on proper jumping mechanics to ensure structural integrity of the kinetic chain is maintained throughout the movement.2

In general, maximal strength tests are not a great idea as the trainee is just beginning to understand their bodies and how to move under certain circumstances. If the adolescent is playing a sport which requires higher levels of muscle mass such as football, wrestling, or track then a strength coach could utilize a 4-RM or 6-RM to determine the trainee’s initial strength levels and evaluate changes to absolute levels of strength over time.

Many parents are concerned with the implementation of such testing, but as the NSCA mentioned in their positional statement: “…most of the forces that youth are exposed to in various sports and recreational activities are likely to be greater in both exposure time and magnitude than competently supervised and properly performed maximal strength tests.

An Intelligent program design coupled with proper exercise selection and progression can be implemented at a young age to provide the trainee with a host of physical and mental benefits which can assist them throughout the rest of their life.

 

References

  1. Sports-related injuries among high school athletes–United States, 2005-06 school year.
  2. Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper From the National Strength and Conditioning Association

About the Author

Mike Wines has trained a wide variety of athletes and clients and seeks to provide programming and movement based solutions to match each individual’s goals. He is also a content editor at Muscle & strength