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Is Weight Training Inappropriate for Young Athletes?

It seems almost routine now that we come across parents who are curious about what type of ‘training’ their child should be doing to become a better athlete. Ultimately, the majority of parents are concerned about their child lifting weights. Typically their child is 12-15 years of age and the parents feel that weight training at that age is inappropriate and could be potentially dangerous (e.g., stunt their child’s growth). Since this idea is so widespread, we felt it would be valuable to address the topic and the determining factors of whether weight training is suitable for a young athlete.

To start, let’s set the stage for our discussion by simply stating that weight training is one form of ‘resistance’ training. There are plenty of ways to apply ‘resistance’ to the body. From bands to weighted vests to body weight exercises, they are all considered resistance training. If you asked most parents if they had a problem with their child doing push-ups or walking lunges, the majority of them would likely reply, “No”. Lifting weights, at times, can provide less resistance than common body weight exercises yet lifting weights is somehow deemed more dangerous.

Why?

The majority of parents are primarily concerned about the risk of growth plate fracture and the possible result of stunted growth.

To address these concerns, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) published a position statement. They determined that resistance training is safe, even for children as young as 6, and that the risk of growth plate fracture and stunted growth is completely unsupported. Simply put, it does not happen and weight training is safe with appropriate coaching and progression. Additionally, research has demonstrated significantly higher injury rates in youth sports (football, basketball, soccer, baseball, hockey, etc.) when compared to weightlifting.
When it comes to coaching and progression, this is where considerations from Long-Term Athletic Development (LTAD) models become invaluable in helping to understand sensitive “windows” during an athlete’s development. These windows identify when to capitalize on certain physical qualities. Looking at LTAD models, children around 12 years old are in a critical window for their speed development. This means that while they can improve in all athletic attributes (balance, coordination, rhythm/timing, relaxation, strength), speed development will experience faster rates of improvement. Speed simply comes down to putting a lot of force into the ground quickly. Explosive movement requires high power output and this relies on your “fast twitch” muscle fibers. Resistance training is one method to efficiently train “fast twitch” muscle. In this context, certain exercises aren’t always what they appear to be. For example, a young athlete performing squats may not be simply performing squats, but rather “speed training” because it’s a tool to teach them to produce force quickly and utilize their muscles in an explosive manner. Improve an athlete’s ability to produce force and they will get faster. Force production is directly controlled by the nervous system. Neural development is very sensitive for children 12-13 years of age. This means that the nervous system, which coordinates all movement, is primed for learning and improving efficiency of complex movements. This is one reason why resistance training is appropriate for athletes during this time period; it can capitalize on a sensitive period of neural development to help kids move with improved body awareness AND coordination, thus resulting in increases in qualities such as strength, power, and speed.
Concluding Thoughts
There are many factors to consider when it comes to “appropriate training” for young athletes. While there are safety concerns, age-appropriate and developmentally specific training methods can be extremely effective. For young athletes, weight training is a safe and effective means to develop body control/awareness and improve athletic qualities, such as speed. Weight training, as part of an athletic development program, should follow a structured approach under the supervision of a knowledgeable and qualified coach.

To ensure the highest quality outcomes and safety, GP understands and utilizes LTAD models in the training of their young athletes.

Related Articles:

Success or Failure: What Are You Setting Your Young Athlete Up For?
Don't Fall for the Speed Trap
Identifying Strength Needs for Athletes
Athletes Do Not Need Balance to Be Successful
Why Your Technique is Ruining your Performance

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