Should young athletes lift weights?
In short, yes, absolutely! But first, lets address the elephant in the room, is lifting weights safe for a young athlete and will it stunt their growth or damage their growth plates.
Lifting weights in a controlled setting, under the supervision of a trained professional is relatively safe for youth athletes. The recommendation for earliest starting age is whenever an athlete can safely follow instruction and behave properly. Therefore the earliest recommended time is whenever they begin sport. The incidence of injury strength training is reported to be a fraction of the incidence of actually playing sports. Proper, supervised training is recommended by organizations in Canada, United States, UK, and Australia to name a few!
Damage growth plates?
A common misconception is that weight training is hazardous to growing bones in an athlete. The theory is that an external weight puts too much load on the system and can damage it. We need to remember that when an athlete sprints, jumps, or cuts, their body is absorbing anywhere from 2-5 times their body weight in forces! This is far greater than any load you could impose on the gym and is a reason why strength training can be a safer option for athletes then high volume sprint or jumping/plyometric programs. Where they find that damage can occur is with doing too much volume of work, and this goes with any sport or activity. Therefore, we generally only work with younger athletes 1-2 times a week so that we aren’t overloading them. Comprehensive research has found that resistance training improves bone health in young athletes.
This is another area that is a misconception in the area and doesn’t hold much water, and the research shows that strength training improves bone growth and development. The reason people interpret weight training as stunting growth is because they see people who compete in strength training sports (weightlifting, powerlifting, etc) who are generally short. This isn’t to say that weight training made them short, it’s more that these athletes are good at what they do because they’re short. Short people are generally better at lifting weights, because their levers are shorter and they don’t need to move the weight as far as someone taller than them. This is the same reason why most volleyball, basketball players are tall, why sumo athletes are big. They are more naturally selected to be good at their sport. I always say tongue in cheek that lifting weights stunts your growth like playing basketball affects your ability to be tall! Lebron James didn’t get tall playing basketball, just like Olympic weightlifters didn’t become short lifting weights. They’re just naturally better suited for their respective sports.
Here’s a list of the benefits of strength training in youth population in terms of sports from the research:
Some of the findings in research seem pretty obvious, like strength and power. Some are less obvious, liked speed, coordination, and flexibility. Improving strength in young athletes happens mostly by making the nervous system more efficient and powerful, not as much in terms of adding muscle to their bodies. What this means is that it’s like giving them a bigger engine to work with. This allows them to be faster. The repetition of good movement patterns under load helps improve the coordination of their muscles and become stronger. This is especially true in athletes that hit growth spurts and seem to lose control of their limbs that become longer. A longer limb is harder to control, so adding strength helps create a better control for those limbs.
Injury reduction is something that is seems counterintuitive. The vast research show that athletes who engage in resistance training are far less likely to get hurt playing their sport, and return to play quicker if they are hurt playing their sport. Strength training helps protect an athlete because it helps build up the strength of tendons, and muscles so that they are more resilient to the impacts of playing sport. This is especially true when it comes to being able to handle fatigue better. Strength training also increases the coordination and control of muscles and joints (such as knees) that are put at risk during cuts, jumps, etc.
On top of being awesome for improving sports performance, strength training also positively impacts general health of athletes. Some of these benefits include:
Improved body composition
Cardiovascular risk profile
Improved psychosocial well being
Exercise is something that young athletes and people need more of. It can help improve some of the areas that are becoming problematic in our society. On top of improving physical components, it also helps athletes psychologically. It helps increase confidence, mood and social aspects similar to those of playing in a team sport.
How we make sure strength training is fun, positive and safe
To make sure it’s a safe, positive environment at APT, we make sure that we have a great coach to athlete ratio. This allows for safe and proper instruction. We also have a progression system of training. We don’t have all athletes do the same program. We teach the fundamentals initially, and the increase the difficulty and weight slowly as they show ability. Having a progression system allows the athletes to start at a level they’re capable of executing and therefore having early success. Success is fun, and fun keeps them coming back. Hopefully this article put some light on the positive aspects of strength training and how it benefits young athletes.
1. Faigenbaum, Avery D., Kraemer, WJ, Blimkie, C, Jeffreys, I, Michelli, L, Nitka, M, et al. Youth resistance training: updated position statement paper from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 23: S60–S79, 2009.