Strong and durable is good, weak and fragile is bad. We can all agree on this, right? Kids, now more than ever, are participating in strength training. They do this in hopes of becoming physically prepared for their sport. Which brings up the question; is it okay for kids to lift weights?
ARE THEY PHYSICALLY PREPARED FOR WEIGHT TRAINING?
First, we should find out if the trainee has the prerequisites needed to start a lifting program. We want to own the movement pattern with body weight before adding an external load. In other words, they should be able to move well – before moving on to barbells, dumbbells, and the like. Here’s why: Position dictates function & ability.
If your wheels are out of alignment, you’ll wear out your tires before their time. If the alignment is bad, other problems will start to unfold. Same thing happens with our body. If you pick something up from the ground in a bad position (like a rounded back and knees caving in) you’ll add excess stress to joints. These joints will eventually give out. Make sure the trainee can show movement competence first. This does not mean mastery or even skill. If we waited for perfection before progressing, nothing would get done. Be safe first. Then you can challenge the trainee by adding resistance or movement complexity.
START WITH BODY WEIGHT
Strength can be achieved without anything other than body weight. In fact, this is where most sports scientists suggest we start. This is also our recommendation. Many larger organizations, including the American College of Sports Medicine contends that, “strength training can be a safe and effective activity for this age group, provided that the programs are properly designed and competently supervised.” Several other noted groups including the American Pediatric Society agree that kids lifting weights does not stunt or damage growth plates. Keep in mind these statements are made with the caveat that the program is “properly designed and competently supervised.”
My background in strength training began in the early 80’s. I would cringe at the thought of someone’s child being thrust into the gym under the wing of someone who thinks they know what they are doing. When the reality couldn’t be farther from the truth. Children are starting to lift weights at an earlier age under the supervision of adults that have best intentions. But they may or may not have the knowledge to teach our kids.
ONE-SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL
One of the early programs is “Bigger, Faster, Stronger” (BFS) and is currently in use. This program became successful since it was offered to the High School Coaches Association. This happened after some heavy marketing and some money exchanged hands. The one-size-fits-all computer generated program was thrust into 10,000 plus high schools across the country. It offered a simple program to test young athletes, and then allow them to participate in a progressive resistance program. The computer decided on the athlete’s weight, sets, and reps. The performance of the athlete was then re-entered and the computer offered an update. Then the next workout was printed out and this made coaches sing with happiness. That was because the same four lifts were performed by all athletes. Everything included a print-out for the weight, reps and sets.
The biggest problem with this BFS is the quality and qualification of the actual lift by the student. They used the big lifts; dead-lift, squat, bench press, and power cleans. These can be the four most difficult and dangerous lifts if not properly executed. Kids are under a great deal of pressure to perform and compete. So it’s human nature to sometimes push forward too quickly. Trying to get the kid to do too much, too soon is what causes a lot of injuries. Many factors may not have been entered into the computer. The child may have had a loss of sleep, poor diet, or a head cold. Then they attempt to perform at a higher level of weight, making them susceptible to injury.
SOME BASIC RULES FOR YOUR CHILD
Consider that in 1984, few colleges had strength coaching programs. Fewer had master programs, and none of these schools had PhD programs in that area. Less than 32 years later, weight training is everywhere. The information is here, but implementation of best practices is the missing link. As a coach, athlete, and father, Jeff and I have seen some real nightmares. We can suggest the following rules with your child.
• Always train to get a cardiac base or improved cardiac output. This provides many things to any youth, including the ability to perform at a greater effort again and again. It also is a simple fact that the youth has a small heart and other organs relative to their bones and muscles. While a good aerobic base is good, this does not mean running mindless miles is better.
• More is not better – better is better.
Speed is king and everyone wants it, but not everyone should train it. Remember what we said earlier? Make sure they’re good enough at the pattern before adding repetitions. Can they accelerate, decelerate, plant, cut and change directions under control? Speed and agility are game changers, but movement competency precedes performance training.
• Have your child focus on bodyweight resistance exercises first. Make sure they can perform the movements slow enough to show they own the pattern.
TAKE THE TIME TO DO IT RIGHT
Everyone always tries to speed things up. This often hides deficiencies and allows compensations that may show up as injuries down the road. I am a middle school and high school coach. I can’t tell you how crazy it is to see a kid wanting to play football, but they can’t do 10 solid push-ups. Kids want to push to be stronger, but even the NFL doesn’t test players on maximum lifts. The bar is loaded to 225 pounds, average body weight of NFL players, and then the number of reps is counted.
True athletes are more than just strong. They have power and can repeat their athletic ability again and again. This is why we work on the fundamental movements that underlie athleticism first. Urban Meyer is the current head coach for The Ohio State Buckeye Football team. He is more interested in athletes who can play the whole field and not just fourth and one situations. This means players who have a balance of strength, agility, power and explosiveness. I have always suggested that youth be limited to lifting their body weight until they are within a few inches of their father’s height. At a minimum, kids must show competence with body weight prior to external resistance. In addition, a child needs to be mentally sound to participate in heavy exercise, since recovery is of primary interest.
About the Authors
Jeff Turner is a personal trainer of more than 30 years experience. He has coached and trained athletes from the Columbus Crew to National teams. He mostly is involved with youth athletes at this time and has dedicated his life to training younger athletes.
To contact Jeff Turner email him at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Dr. David Ryan has an extensive background in both coaching and playing professional sports, and has been the team physician for several highly ranked teams. Dr. Ryan now serves as the current Co-Chairman of the Arnold Sports Festival (www.arnoldclassic.com) and is a former Medical Director of this internationally acclaimed event.
Dr. Ryans numerous articles have been published in International Medical Journals, Muscle & Fitness Magazine as well as on the popular BodyBuilding.com website. Visit Dr. Ryans home page on here: www.drdavidryan.com and his YouTube page here.