When Can My Youth Athlete Start Strength Training?

Published by jeff on

When Can My Athllete Start Strength Training?
I get asked this question at least once a week and my response tends to shock people at first. Most parents of athletes have at least educated themselves enough on the subject to know enough that heavy weights shouldn’t attempted until they hits thirteen or so. They have been told or heard that the heavy weights will damage the growth plates of the long bones and even might stunt their growth. I have even been told this by doctors.
Now before I give you my answer, let me tell you something about me. I am an Exercise Physiologist with two undergraduate degrees and a masters. I hold eleven certifications in all kinds of specialties in my field and I have been in practice for over 25 years. And in all those years, I have heard the same reference, even read it in text, and my answer will probably not be what you expect. My answer is steeped in years and years on proven scientific research and study and can be backed up by most of the leading minds in the industry.
With that being said, the previous accepted answer is false. And I’ll tell you why. The best way to explain my answer is to give you my best illustration. Say you are at family gathering and the new baby, just learning to crawl-walk is scooting across the floor. It sees the coffee table and makes a bee line for it. It pulls itself up an upright position and then grabs low (instinctively), then bends at the waist and knees simultaneously with a straight back (again, instinctively) and then with everyone’s watching, the baby then proceeds to pull with all its might on the coffee table leg. Everyone watching thinks “how cute!” and watches the baby’s face as it turns red in an all out effort. Then it gives up and crawls to Uncle Ted’s leg and does the same thing, then the family dog, a rather large box and the list goes on.
Now, from a scientific point of view that baby exerted a MAXIMUM EFFORT LIFT. The same lift that we are afraid to let our 9 year old attempt. So what’s the difference? Why do we not think two seconds about the baby lifting maximally, but the 9 year old we always tell the same story, “Wait until you are older”? The Russian learned a long time ago that max effort training is perfectly ok in much younger athlete as long as (and here’s the key people) TECHNIQUE WAS FLAWLESS. Notice, when I described the baby lifting, I also described the form used to attempt the lift. The back was straight, the butt was low, the mechanics of the lift was optimal if not perfect. You see, babies, in instinctively learning movement skills, do not possess bad movement mechanics. They learn them as they mature and develop. We are ALL guilty of that. Bad posture, pronated shoulders, tucked hips, tight hamstrings, tight and weak hip flexors, are all dysfunctions that we throw upon ourselves.
So to finally answer the question, what age can my athlete start strength training. As soon as he/she is mentally ready. One needs a good attention span, a reasonable amount of maturity and can take instruction well. Those are the keys I look for. I tend to interview the athlete as well in my initial evaluations and I like signed “contracts” between myself and my athletes so that they know ahead of time what they are getting into and what I expect from them and what they can expect from me. So after that, form and technique are first and foremost. And then once mastery is achieved, then and only then do we add load/resistance.
In addition, my program does include a lot of functional movements and ‘odd lifts’, so that the athlete gets a much more well-rounded neuromuscular education (or re-education sometimes) so barbells and dumbbells are great and wonderful tools but my athletes are exposed to much more stimuli, thus the use of tools such as; med balls, bands, tires, sandbags, balance boards and such.
So, in conclusion, I like to quantify my youth athletes by their discipline, seriousness, dedication, maturity and pure love of sports in general or their specific sport rather than a number. Thank you for your time. If you have any questions about our programs, please feel free to call 205-970-2348 or my email is jgreen@iconperformanceonline.com.