Updated: May 14
Youth strength training and Olympic weightlifting is often met with misconceptions on what the appropriate age is for participation. There are a lot of headlines that suggest strength training can cause early injury and even stunt adolescent growth. The concern is that the under-development of joints and the muscular laxity during early development propose a danger in the formative years of transformation from childhood to puberty. However, if placed in a qualified developmental program, the risk is no greater than playing baseball, soccer or pee-wee football.
The debate on what age is appropriate for children to begin specializing in a sport often comes from parents obsessing about their child being the best or trying to earn a collegiate scholarship. article. They often neglect or are unaware of the risk of injury associated with these sports including the overload of movement repetition. The dangers that arise from early sport specialization include tendonitis, stress fractures, and evulsion fractions from too much volume from a repetitive action. To take it one step further, most research suggests that athletes who continue on to professionals played multiple sports. Despite my beliefs on this topic, it is not the main focus of this article. The article is to provide a better explanation to why resistance training is beneficial to children during their developmental years, not only physically, but mentally and emotionally too.
Children can begin training as young as 8 years old. The format of the programming is important at this age and should focus more on movement and body mechanics. The amount of weight placed on the bar should never be a driving factor for progression. A thorough resistance training program goes beyond just the physical and athletic advantages ingrained in resistance training. These benefits include cognitive development, kinesthetic awareness, leadership and team building characteristics to name a few. As a coach it is my responsibility to teach the athletes that participate in my program, and that goes far beyond the proper technique of a snatch or a clean and jerk. I have a responsibility to show them key characteristics that will shape their lives and make them better humans as they move into some of the toughest years of their developmental lives, aka high school. Although there are several reasons to encourage young athletes to get involved in resistance training, here are my personal top 5 reasons.
5.) Listening and Communication Skills
In order to capture the attention of athletes in youth and adolescent programs there must be an element of fun and excitement in the engagement between the coach and the athlete. Communication is vital and if the athletes don’t feel like they are given an opportunity to express themselves then you will lose them as time goes on. A GOOD COACH knows how to allow his or her athletes to have fun while implementing activities to engage them still stressing the importance of staying focused on the task at hand. In a sport where barbells and weights are involved, paying attention and following directions is crucial for the athlete’s safety and everyone else around them. By having open communication about the rules of the class and speaking to them as young athletes given an opportunity to use a new piece of equipment, they see that as a proud responsibility and oblige. In exchange for their listening they can be rewarded with something they deem fun and enjoyable. Children love to play games and compete against one another. Having different relay races or obstacle courses double as a way that they feel rewarded for listening in class and the coach can sneak in extra accessory exercises without them realizing they are still training.
4.) Strong Foundation/Form and Technique
Beginning a strength training or weightlifting program at a young age, sets a foundation for years to come. Today’s generation faces a major challenge with the temptation to become sedentary between the cancelling of PE programs and the increase in technology. Getting involved in a resistance training program from ages 8-12 and older will help instill the ideologies that physical activity is fun and enjoyable in the right setting. Creating an active lifestyle now is something these athletes can take into their futures. As we get older, our body gets stiffer, more tired, and beat up from daily living. By learning proper movement patterns earlier, the brain can develop cognitively and recall those movements more easily as an adult aka “muscle memory”. The same way it is more difficult to teach an adult how to play baseball than a kid, weightlifting works in that same regard. It’s a lot easier to create with a blank canvas than a half used one.
3.) Potentiating Athleticism
Building off of reason #4, starting a weightlifting program has a unique advantage that other traditional sports don’t. Sports such as gymnastics, baseball, and soccer etc…expose children to athletic abilities that are specific to that sport. It goes back to the argument of sport specialization and whether solely focusing on that one sport is more beneficial than being a well-rounded athlete. As an athlete participates in sports, they gain a better understanding of what their body should be doing and how they should move in space for that specific activity. For example, if a sport only requires the athlete to move in one plane of motion then they are neglecting the other two ways an athlete should be able to move and react. Even though the athlete will development a comprehensive movement understanding they may be limited as to what else their body needs to develop as a well-rounded athlete. Strength training provides an additional advantage that traditional sports don’t, athletes can use weightlifting to develop strength, power, stability, and mobility required for those activities. Early exposure will enhance skills found in those more “common” sports including proprioception, speed-strength, reactive ability, central nervous system development, and overall confidence.
2.) Build Confidence
Confidence in movement ability is only one facet of development in a youth training program. One of the biggest things children struggle with is the fear of judgement and bullying. There is a constant inner angst to be accepted and be “good” at something in order to be receive that validation from their peers. There is something about knowing that you can lift heavy things that correlates to confidence in demeanor. It is not about the weight on the bar, but simply the fact that they feel strong for being able to do something others can’t. It creates an air of confidence that children need during these formative years in order to often survive those years of uncertainty that we have all experienced while growing up. I have a junior lifter who spent her first week in the gym doing an exercise and immediately commenting on how bad she was at it if it wasn’t absolutely perfect. Without realizing it, children place so much pressure on themselves for one reason or another and that negative self-talk will inevitably carry over to more than just weightlifting. After the third day of her telling me she was bad at the exercise, I told her the next time she says that she has to put a quarter in a jar. That quarter isn’t for her, but for me to buy whatever I want. Funny thing is, I haven’t heard her whisper those words since. Now whenever she is given a new or challenging exercise her response is, “I’ll try”. Once she does and realizes that she is capable you can see the confidence in her eyes grow. She is only 11, but I refuse to have her belittle herself because the pattern will only worsen as she gets older, and as someone who knows what that feeling is like, if I can prevent any of my athletes from feeling less than what they are then I’ve succeeded as a coach.
1.) Character Building
Physical benefits are only one element of a training program. The true value of a program stems from the character building it provides. Qualities including patience, accountability, support, healthy competition, and leadership will be learned and practiced for the rest of their lives. In order to do the “cool” movements or add weight to a bar, an athlete must earn it. Through hard work and an understanding of the movement, they can progress to more advanced exercises. However, that may happen at different times for different athletes and those other athletes must be patient and understand their time will come when they are ready. A lot of activities in youth programs can be done with a partner or a team. When athletes are relying on one another to complete a task, they are held accountable to their teammates to complete the activity. A positive atmosphere of support and encouragement that begins at the top with the coach will trickle down to the athletes as they create a community of friends that they care about and want to see succeed. This also has an effect on healthy competition. Athletes always want to do better than the person next to them. A youth training program helps foster that motivation and drive in a positive way. Leadership is a major character that presents itself in certain athletes as a by-product of these other characteristics. Not everyone is made to be a leader, but in programs and youth sport activities those who excel in the program and provide support and encouragement for their fellow athletes tend to assume a leader type role to help push the program forward.
There are obvious exercise and strength gains that will develop from the enrollment of youth and adolescents in strength training and resistance programs. However, these programs do so much more for these athletes as a human being than it does to create a prime physical specimen. We aren’t focused on the next child prodigy, because at the end of the day they are simply that, children. They are the younger generation who need guidance and focus to grow up to be successful and contributing adults in this ever changing and sometimes scary world. We had our chance to be young and carefree and now it is our turn to ensure that they get the same opportunity while learning valuable lessons and characteristics that we often wish we knew at their age. If I do nothing else for my youth and junior athletes, I will make sure that they are able to walk through life with their heads held high as good people with an understanding of value and self-worth.