With obesity on the rise in many developed nations and child inactivity at levels never before seen in recorded history, it’s imperative that we start getting youth into physical activity early and often. That being said, there’s also a huge surge of kids getting into organized sports going from practice to practice and competition to competition. This is unlike our older generations that gained their athletic prowess largely from climbing trees and endlessly running about. In America we have this term “soccer mom” that helps represent the hustle and bustle of youth athletics: mom shuffling kids here and there in a minivan for this event, and that practice. Their Saturdays before 2pm are dominated by their kid’s athletics. Some may say Americans are obsessed with sports, but I like the idea a colleague from the Austin Sports Commission told me, that having practice and games every day is a kid’s dream. Just near endless amounts of fun and sports. With all of this competition and training, of course youth and parents are aiming to get a competitive advantage. So they turn to sports performance: namely speed camps and weight lifting. Other parents steer away from having their kids participate in such for a myriad of reasons, valid or not: stunted growth, safety, etc.
Well, should kids participate in training, specifically weight lifting? In most case, yes they should. Below I’ll go over the benefits of kids and teens getting into strength training, talk about concerns involved, recommendations for young people getting into performance training, and I’ll leave you with a basic sample workout appropriate for a fully capable preteen.
Benefits of strength training
A major benefit of getting kids into strength training (and MULTIPLE SPORTS) is improved motor development, aka better ability to move. Although there are kids who have natural talent and body awareness, athleticism is largely taught, with some learning how to move quicker than others. As a baby learns to walk by gaining more efficient brain-muscle nervous system signals sent, becoming a good athlete is no different. Teaching and rehearsing important movements such as squatting, lunging, sprinting, shuffling, etc. strengthen the brain-muscle connections which cause a kid to sprint better and faster, squat heavier, jump higher, and so on. It’s basically like studying, the more you do it, the more the body knows. Getting stronger is a result of bigger muscle fibers and better brain-muscle connections, and since prepubescent youth don’t have the hormones for muscle gain, the improvement in strength is better “learning” of the body. That helps lead to better performance. This is also why non collegiate athletes should not ONLY play one sport, it stifles their ability to develop overall athleticism. Most professional athletes were multi-sport athletes until college. This is also why I’m 5’5” (65inches) and can hurdle 42” college/pro hurdles without much difficulty, because I learned hurdling at a young age when I was 5’1” but the hurdles were like 27” or 30”. I have 6’+ friends who wouldn’t dare go over a 36” hurdle.
Another benefit of strength training is the reduction in risk of non contact injuries, namely ACL and hamstring tears. A strong body is less susceptible for injury. Most non-contact injuries in sport are caused from decelerating forces, namely:
- Planting (slowing down) to make a cut
- Landing from a jump, usually awkwardly
These are the main culprits for ACL tears and hamstring tears. Improving the ability of the muscles and connective tissue to absorb force are paramount in reducing the risk of these injuries. Outside of learning proper means to sprint and cut, plyometrics (jump training) and weightlifting contribute heavily. A strong muscle keeps better tension on tendons to make joints more resilient. Also, eccentric exercise which is slow, weighted, elongation of a muscle help improve the strength and resilience to injury of muscles from tears.
A third benefit of getting into strength training and other forms of training are that they can have better health. Strength training improves ones strength and also increases bone density. Playing various sports and being coached on movement helps improve coordination and athletic prowess. Having an aerobic component along with strength training will help with heart health and having clean arteries, and yes, kids (not even teenagers) are being shown to have clotted arteries from being inactive. Circuit training (bootcamp-esque workouts) contribute to this. Knowing how to train and having a positive feeling for exercise helps young adults be able to continue a lifestyle of activity allowing them to have better long term health.
Of course there are some concerns about getting youth into training. The biggest of these are safety. Many injuries are cause by training in a neglectful environment, having coaches and “trainers” who don’t actually teach athletes the correct ways to do exercises, don’t respect the need for rest to have quality reps, and give kids exercises beyond their stage of maturity. Making sure children and young teens are training under the keen eye of qualified and experienced performance specialists/strength and conditioning coaches helps mitigate that risk tremendously. Not that the dad who played football in college knows nothing about training, but it’s likely he really only knows how “he” trained in college, and likely didn’t study how to train youth and is winging it. You get what you pay for in this life.
So many people believe that weight lifting can stunt your growth (including myself for longer than I’d like to admit) but that simply isn’t true. The myth says that the combination of lifting the weight and gravity will cause growth plates to become damaged and mineralize into bone when they heal. To quote Dr. Faigenbaum from Gettysburg College, “physiologically your muscles don’t know the differences between the resistance provided by strength training or the resistance provided by vigorous work or play. A muscle will contract and create force to counter any type of resistance. If the resistance is introduced safely, on a regular basis and at the right intensity, the muscle will respond by getting stronger.”. So no, my being not tall isn’t due to sport and lifting for football in 8th grade, it’s because my mom is under 5’ and I can almost look my dad straight in the eye. Therefore, go pump iron, safely.
Another concern is developing a young athlete’s attitude toward exercise and training. This needs to be said immediately, exercise should NOT be used as punishment. This can create a negative association of exercise with poor behavior. This is a position supported by research and sports agencies. A 10 year old who is always forced to run/do more due to being wrong, being disruptive, losing, etc. over years and years will likely refuse to run once he becomes an adult or teen who decides to not play sports. I’ve met numerous ex-NFL and college athletes who’ve gained weight because they didn’t exercise much after playing, likely due it seeming like a chore rather than fun. Coaches, teachers, and parents can easily create an environment where training is a task that must be done rather than as a fun activity that also makes them better at their sport. So be sure to create a positive and fun environment for training and seek out coaches that do so.
Now that we’ve talked about why strength training is good for youth athletes, let’s check out a few recommendations to get the most out of it. First of all, training should be focused on movements rather than simply muscles. Body building style does not improve athletic performance. A list of basic movements that should be trained in most sessions are:
- Postural stability: especially the back muscles by working via plank variations and rows (pulling exercises). Elite wide receivers (think OBJ) have excellent posture.
- Hip extension (hip thrusting) which is responsible for nearly all athletic/powerful lower body movements
- Pressing overhead
- Pushing and pulling at various angles
- Jumping in multiple planes (forward/back, sideways, rotationally)
- Moving sideways
- Changing directions
- Reactive ability: the ability to react separates great athletes from good ones, not endless ladder drills. Stop this. Ladders are great for foot coordination and rhythm development though.
For youth, maximal lifting is not recommended as it can lead to injury. Research recommends:
- repetitions between 6 and15 per exercise
- 2-3 sets
- 2-3 times per week.
Quite frankly, if a 13 year old can’t do about 10 reps without breaking down in form, they need to go lighter. Technique is far more important than weight. Learning how to move correctly does a kid much more justice than being able to do a lot of weight at an exercise.
Lastly, let’s consider the training age of the athlete. Is the kid a 12 year old brat that can’t follow directions? Keep him away from my gym. Is the kid 9 years old and is interested in getting better and listens to directions? She can certainly train with my crew! Maturity is an important factor in deciding if an type of performance training is appropriate as an immature kid is at high risk of getting hurt in the gym with weights and equipment bigger than they are. All 14 year olds aren’t grown equal, even if they’re siblings, so the means of training may be specialized based on body type, strength, maturity, interest, etc.
Here is a workout flow that can show the above recommendations followed by a sample weight workout:
- Dynamic warm up working on postural strength and mobility/active range of motion
- Movement preparation phase working on priming the movements needed for the training session and improving blood flow “marches, skips, squats, lunges, high knees, etc”
- Skills session working on jumping, throwing, sprinting, cutting, lateral movement, and movement patterns
- Strength session (see below)
- Aerobic workout to help the cardiovascular health of an young athlete
Sample strength workout:
Dumbbell front squat (goblet squat) 3×8-12
TRX Row/Inverted Row (pull into something) 3×8-12
Cable/Pulley High to Low Chop 3×12-15/each side
Medicine Ball RDL (stiff leg deadlift) 3×8-12
Cable Single arm Forward Chest Press 3×10-15/each arm
ViPR Drop Step to Rotational Reach 3×8-10/each side
This workout trains various types of key movements to making an overall strong athletic kid. I hope this was a good resource to you for figuring out if, and how, youth athletes should do strength training for sports. 3 main points to walk away with:
- Yes, youth should strength train to improve motor skills…and play multiple sports
- Lifting will NOT make them short
- Safety is paramount. Make sure what is being implemented is appropriate for the child’s current level
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