Should young athletes lift weights or not? That is the question that seems to spark a lot of debate. I wrote a post about this topic on my other blog over a year ago and thought it was time to re-discuss the topic.
The popular theory out there in regards to youth athletes and lifting weights is that if they do it too early, it will stunt their growth. Now I’ve known quite a few short people in my lifetime and to the best of my knowledge none of them have thought the reason they were short is because they started lifting at an early age.
There is no documented evidence that suggests lifting at an early age will stunt your growth.
But, there is something to consider with that statement. The lifting itself will not stunt a child’s growth. What could affect the growth is if the child lifts incorrectly, with too much weight, and then hurts the growth plates. Yes, this could be painful to the child, but in the end it will not stunt a child’s growth. They can be repaired and your kid will be just fine. This was explained to me by an exercise physiologist back in the day.
I have seen kids lifting weights before and they have been perfectly fine. I’ve also seen the kid dubbed “Little Hercules” and thought the parents went overboard with the exercise. I have seen young athletes doing Olympic lifts and not have any issues. As I mentioned earlier, injuries happen when an athlete has improper technique for a particular lift. Combine that with weight too heavy to handle and you could be waiting for disaster to strike.
Actually, that is the cause for injuries for any age lifter, let alone someone who is 9 or 10. Once poor technique is brought in, then you are recruiting other muscles to help and not working on the muscles the lift was intended to develop. Not only or you not working what you really want worked, but you are calling on muscles that might not be as strong and eventually give out causing your injury.
If you want to have a young athlete lift weights, how do you do it?
First, you need to teach proper technique for any exercise that you show a young athlete. I’m going to classify a young athlete as single digits age or 10 – 12. Do NOT focus on the weight lifted, but HOW the weight is being lifted. If your goal is to gain muscle mass on a skinny 9 year old, then do not start weightlifting. You will only get the athlete hurt by trying to push him/her too much with the weights.
Focus on the technique, first and foremost.
The other thing I would do is start off very conservatively with the weight and start with about 6 reps or so. You don’t want to push this athlete with higher reps when the potential could be there for the athlete not to be able to handle that weight. If you are shooting for 10 reps and muscular fatigue starts setting in at 7 or 8, you will start doing the movement improperly. Keep the rep range short and build up over time. Going no more than 10 reps.
Do the basic exercises for the major muscle groups. You want to hit exercises that will hit multiple muscles at once (compound movements). You don’t want to do isolated exercises (like a biceps curl). We’re not trying to develop a bodybuilder here. If you are going to try your hand at an Olympic movement such as a clean or a snatch, you better be a good teacher. These are lifts where you need to know how to progress accordingly. They are highly technical lifts.
I personally wouldn’t start any athlete on a total body lifting program until they were 13, maybe a mature 12. That is just me. I like to let the body mature a little bit. Even at that age, I would still be cautious based on how the athlete has hit puberty. I don’t have the athlete start in a true periodized weightlifting program until they are 15 or so (freshman in high school age).
If I had a parent that just insisted I weight train their 9 year old, then I would do it because I wouldn’t trust how another trainer might work the kid, thus increasing chances of injury. But, I would talk with the parent so that we are perfectly clear what we are doing here. Trying to develop overall athleticism and neuromuscular coordination. We aren’t developing massive muscle mass or be able to lift cars.
That being said, with our speed program, I need our athletes to get their legs and core a little stronger. So, with our younger athletes, I do bodyweight exercises to accomplish this job. I’m always focusing on mechanics and not overloading the body. It is just functional exercises that they should be able to do anyways, we’re just trying to provide a platform to develop that. Which in turn will help their speed.
I think this is a fascinating topic and would love to hear your comments about it in the comment box below. If done right, then I think weight lifting can do no harm to a young athlete. Get a good trainer with a good philosophy and you should be fine. But, for me, I would just encourage you to be patient, hold off a few years, and let nature do its thing before you start trying to enhance it.