Below is an exact quote from a parent who called this week looking for advice on what sort of offseason program would be best for their son and his athletic development.
“I don’t want my kid to lift any heavy weights, stay away from compressions, he still has to grow right.”
It’s fitting that this week’s breakdown is focused on youth training and athletic development following my phone conversation. North America has placed a premium on winning in sports, and, despite the participation medals showing up at some events, the competition and stress that young athletes face are higher now than ever before. This has led to the “unbroken season”, a term we’re now using to describe the never-ending slew of leagues, tournaments, camps, and development sessions. The idea of “working on my game” has become hyper-focused and what is required for success is being dictated by well-meaning, but not always knowledgeable coaches and parents.
Before we discuss strength training for young athletes, and if you are a parent reading this, before you spend a single dollar on strength training put your child in a different sport, please, they will thank you. We’ve spent over a decade in high-level athletics and the best in the world played it all.
The “ unbroken season’ has led to a phenomenon of ‘early specialization’, which in layman terms means, the athlete is moderately competent at one activity and horrendous at any others. They can stickhandle a puck but not dribble a ball, pull an oar but not kick a ball, swing a bat but not set a volley. You get the idea. The discussion on LTAD (Long Term Athletic Development) is one for a different time but I would be shrinking my duty if I didn’t at least mention it briefly before you invest in strength training start with a different sport.
Assuming that you have enrolled your young athlete in a second or even third sport, and they want to start strength training lets answer a few of the more common questions.
Should My Young Athlete Lift Weights?
Absolutely, for a few different reasons. Firstly, becoming stronger is never a bad thing, although most of the improvements at their age will be neurological they will notice results relatively quickly. The improvement in strength will make them faster, more stable, less likely to get injured, and generally better at their sport. By no means should they be focusing on improving their bench press one rep max or getting under a squat bar with hundreds of pounds on it. Focusing on quality movements, with excellent technique under an appropriate load.
Will Strength Training Stunt Their Growth?
At this point, the research is quite clear that lifting weights does not have adverse effects on the growth rate of youth athletes or affect their “linear” development. The specific area of concern is the epiphyseal plate, or, growth plate. This area is a cartilaginous section at the end of bones that allows for growth during childhood but hardens fully in adulthood, ending the growing process. The myth and concern is that adding load to the body will prematurely close the plate. This has since been disproved and proper weightlifting may actually have a positive influence on bone density and bone mineralization. (1)
When Should They Start and How Often Should They Train?
This is a hard question to answer, individual levels in maturity, puberty, training age, and motivation can range significantly amongst athletes of the same age. (2)There are benefits to lifting pre-puberty that are not impacted until physical maturation. It helps to have an unbiased coach to assess and recommend but as a general statement, we do not work with athletes under the age of twelve. We suggest twice a week, 45- 50 minutes including a warm up and cool down component with an almost overbearing emphasis on technique. The frequency and intensity of the workouts can increase as the athlete’s physical maturation and training age increases.
1. Pediatrics, April 2008, VOLUME 121 / ISSUE 4, American Academy of Pediatrics
2. Patel DR, Soares N, Wells K. Neurodevelopmental readiness of children for participation in sports. Translational Pediatrics. 2017;6(3):167-173. doi:10.21037/tp.2017.05.03.