In a recent poll on Instagram, we asked if kids lifting weights was cool or not cool. As the former Head of Academy Strength and Conditioning for Northampton Saints Rugby I was very pleased to see 84% of people felt it was in fact “cool” …. as the kids say.
While the tide of opinion in this debate has been changing for many years now, thanks to great industry leading research, more and more great coaches working with youth populations and even the internet (yes, the internet) playing its part massively, the fact that our little social media poll was not “100% COOL” amazes me!
Now while I do recognise my bias of opinion in this topic, I am constantly confused by people who are afraid of strength training for any population let alone children and adolescents.
I believe this opinion to be outdated and based on the ideas like “strength training” only begins by lifting big heavy loads to failure, or that I am going to get too big and or slow as well as hurt/injured, this leads people to the idea that strength training will stunt the growth and injure the growth plates of young athletes.
Well designed S&C training programmes are not only safe for young athletes but may also reduce the risk of some sport related injuries.
It is important however that the training prescribed is age related (not age determined) meaning that it accounts for the biological status of a young athlete along with age but also motor skill ability, technical experience, existing strength levels and finally psychological maturity.
It is important to remember that a well-rounded youth strength and conditioning programme should aim to develop many physiological factors over a long-term athletic development plan. These can generally include but are not limited to, jumping and landing based tasks, speed and agility, endurance, core and full body strength work. For this article, we will continue to discuss factors around strength development.
It is now recognised throughout the scientific literature that all major physical athletic qualities including but not limited to, fundamental movement skills (squat, single leg, hinge and jumping landing tasks) mobility, speed and agility, endurance and metabolic conditioning, power and strength are all trainable at some level throughout childhood and adolescence.
It has been previously believed that “windows of opportunity” exist so that certain types of training happen after a certain point in maturation of young people. This has largely been debunked in the wider literature.
Regarding strength training and or lifting weights with youth populations, it was previously believed that because hormonal changes and the muscular development required to maximise strength adaptations does not really happen till later in adolescence, it was not worth or safe to train strength in young athletes.
However due to the neurological factors involved in strength training regardless of available muscle mass, strength training can actually be extremely valuable for youth athletes.
It’s important to remember there are numerous health benefits to increased physical activity in young athletes such as improved metabolism, insulin sensitivity, body fat levels, cardiovascular adaptations and risk reduction, along with muscle, connective tissue and bone density increases with strength particularly showing improvement on these later three areas.
In terms of injury risk reduction, strength development in youth populations allows the nervous system to essentially catch up with rapid muscle and bone growth during growth spurts and puberty improving coordination for sporting activities.
It also means that not only sport skill coordination is improved, which clearly lowers injury risk and improves learning and performance, but the ability to handle and produce force fast or slow in multi-directions during sporting skills is greatly increased.
Why does this allow injury risk to be reduced and performance increased?
Well when each ground foot contact can produce upwards of 5-8 times bodyweight of force plus is often happening in rotational or multi-directional position at high speeds on one or two legs, with the athlete’s attention on an external environmental object, I would think most people will begin to see the value improving the ability to handle these kinds of forces.
So, with all this said, I am suggesting that because strength development offers high value to young athletes that they should throw some weight on the bar and start building to a 3 Rep Max?
As I mentioned above, there are many factors to consider when beginning a strength development programme just as there would be with an adult with no experience. Training experience and previous exposure, along with motor skill ability and existing strength levels mean that you will likely start with body weight or different implements (such as medicine balls or weight plates) before you progress to full barbell variations on lifts with a young person with no experience. Perhaps starting with body weight squats for sets of 10, progressing to kettlebell goblet squats before lowing repetitions and increasing loads with a barbell back squat variation. Depending on age, this may take a full year or more.
Ultimately you will always be limited with very young athletes to the absolute weight they can lift on a barbell compared to older athletes, but you should be guided by technical skill. If proficiency is high, slowly adding some increase in external load (via any number of implements) is perfectly ok so long as the athlete shows a maintance in ability and the maturity to understand how to safely perform the exercise as loading demands (and therefore skill) is increased.
Lastly when considering age and maturity, older more mature (though this is not always the case) teenage athletes with a good training background behind them will more likely be able to handle traditionally structured programming for strength training. Where as younger less experienced athletes will develop far more rapidly in an open learning, fun and self-discovery driven training environment. The coach who can blend this kind of creativity with much of the points discussed above will likely achieve the highest outcomes with these kinds of young athletes.
So, to wrap up I guess you must remember that it is totally safe and should be encouraged that young athletes at any age begin strength training in some manner, however it is important this be well planned by qualified professionals, appropriate to the level, not just the age of the athlete.
Finally, that we understand that just like adults to exposure to external loads be progressive and driven by skill and ability shown. We cannot just water down adult level programmes and give them to kids, we must meet them where there are at and understand what this means and how it may look.