|I’m often faced with the question “When should my son or daughter start lifting weights?” Parents are often surprised at my response. “Weight training” in youth has been made into a complex enigma based on old urban myths, overzealous, uneducated parents and coaches, and fruitless convention. When one stops to evaluate what weight training is and the role it should play in athletic development, the answer to the questions becomes very simple and logical. My response to the questions is “When they need to.”
We all have grown up witnessing elite level athletes and their relationship to weight training. We start to draw the correlation between weight training and athletic success. It appears that if you want to be a successful athlete, you have to lift weights. Usually upon entering 9th grade we deem it the magical time to take our kids to the gym to start “showing them the machines” or turn them loose in the athletic weight room to get under a bar. We assume that the sooner they can start pushing the weights, the sooner they can reap the “benefits”. While the conclusions we draw in regards to young athletes and the weight room may have a small degree of merit, we are often misguided in assessing the relationship between the weight room and athletic success in youth. Two of the biggest problems I see with youth in the weight room are:
1. Coaches and parents use age and not actual physical competency as a guide to begin loading an athlete in the weight room.
2. Coaches and parents misinterpret the relationship of weight training to improving athletic performance.
We have to remember that physical development is not necessarily a point in time, it is a continuum. One physical skill develops another. Crawling as an infant helps develop the neural patterns for walking, running, climbing, etc. Squatting to standing leads to ambulation. Shaky ambulation leads to a normal walking gate, giving way to running, etc. Notice that each advancement in ability involves a certain degree of overload. The first time we go from a squat to a stand as an infant, our body is being presented with a challenge it has no idea how to deal with. The demands for strength, balance, and coordination for standing are well beyond the demands of being on all fours. The more we do it, however, the body adapts and the nueral system gets really efficient at dealing with these increased demands. Then we start moving, creating another overload. Using this example, what would happen if the first time we tried to stand up, our parents put a weight vest on us? They would have taken a task that is already difficult, and made it far more difficult. Is this going to shorten or lengthen our learning curve as to how to stand effectively? Would the weight vest advance or hinder our ability to move on to more complex tasks such as walking? What if we had a special machine that helped us go from squatting to standing, but it was only available at our house? How adaptable would our ability be? The answers to these questions would suggest that adding the extra load to an unfamiliar movement or using a specialized machine would be detrimental to our development. Weight training in our youth is being used in the same manner unfortunately.
I work with quite a few athletes of all ages that couldn’t squat, lunge, skip, do a push-up or pull-up, or crawl when they first came to me. Why would I “teach them the weight room?” How could overloading their biomechanical inabilities possibly be advantageous to them? Why would I add foreign objects to a system that isn’t efficient with it’s own innate structure? I don’t care how old they are. They need to learn to be efficient with their own bodies. Even for the first two weeks of a professional athlete’s program, I don’t use any external weight. If you overload a compromised structure, injury is eminent. With today’s youth, we often need to re-gress before we pro-gress. When kids don’t have P.E. on a regular basis or they don’t play outside all the time, they don’t develop the fundamental movement skills developmentally necessary for higher level skill proficiency. By improperly adding overload, we force them to compensate in some way for the lack of these innate skill sets. The compensation manifests as injury as well as a decrease in performance on down the road.
With the athletes I work with, they need to be able to do 30 wall squats (facing the wall, toes as close to the wall as possible), 40 seconds of perfect push-ups, 40 second static lunge holds, 2 minute plank, and 20 TRX pull-ups with their back flat on the ground before I consider adding external load to their program. If an athlete has trouble doing any of these movements, I re-gress to more fundamental movement patterns in order to bring up their general ability. Once they can do all of the above, basic movement patterns no longer provide a significant neuromuscular challenge. In this case, I look for means to increase this neuromuscular challenge. Adding load in the form of weights to these biomechanically efficient movements can create this challenge. As long as I use the above criteria to add load to exercises, I’m not really concerned with an athlete’s age. As long as they are biomechanically efficient with movement, in order to improve, they need added load. Adding this load needs to be incremental and the athlete must still be able to maintain proper movement mechanics. There is no relevant literature contraindicating youngsters from following a developmentally based resistance training program when it is addressed in the above manner.
While strength training can get an athlete stronger, facilitating better movement, it cannot teach an athlete how to run, jump, cut, swing, etc. The only direct way to get better at these skills is to practice these skills. Strength training has a more indirect relationship in regards to improving athletic skill. An athletes’ time and energy are finite. As coaches and parents, we need to decide how to allot time and energy effectively in order to develop well-rounded, effective athletes. If I want an athlete to be better at a sport, they need to practice proper execution of the skills and tactics directly involved with that sport. In order to improve the effectiveness of these skills and tactics, I would work on general athletic skill such as proper running, jumping, cutting, etc. In order to help facilitate these movements more effectively, I would utilize strength training. Notice that strength training is actually 3rd on the list. It is still essential, but when I look to see how to directly improve performance, it is tertiary to game tactics and athletic skill development. I would organize my training to reflect this, depending on the specific needs of the team and age of the athletes. Remember, the younger the athletes, the more indirect and general physical training should be. Also remember that running, skipping, etc. can be overload to a young athlete, therefore improving strength. Improving performance involves strength training and the weight room, but it is not merely strength training and the weight room.
So my answer to “When should my son or daughter start lifting weights?” can be summarized as the following. Adding overload to an activity is only effective when the activity is executed properly. If a youngster demonstrates proficiency in an activity with their bodyweight, you can add incremental overload. Jumping to a 45 pound bar is not a good idea. Use dumbbells, weight vests, medicine balls, etc. Teach integrated movements like squat, deadlift, pull-ups, push-ups, etc. Proper technique is always criteria for advancement. Compromising technique at a young age in favor of heavier load ONLY leads to injury and decrease in performance down the road. When it comes to how much time should be spent in the weight room, remember that the best way to improve athletic skill is to practice athletic skill. Use strength training to help facilitate improved execution of athletic skill. Weight room lifts can be, and are, a sport unto themselves. Use strength training to help your sport, don’t make it a sport unto itself.
Last but not least, utilize resources and educate yourself as a parent or coach. Break the trend. Train youngsters to be happy, healthy, pain-free adults.
Coach Brett Klika is the Director of Athletic Performance at Todd Durkin’s Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, CA. He specializes in youth fitness and athletic performance, overseeing a staff of 8 strength coaches developing programs for over 300 youth per week, both athletes and non-athletes. In addition to coaching, Brett currently authors for a variety of publications, produces DVD’s on fitness and athletic performance and presents around the world on topics in fitness, wellness, and sports performance. Brett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. .