It’s your first day in the weight room with a young team, and half of them have never touched a weight before. Where do you start? Give them a barbell and have them perform a snatch? Not quite. At what age should kids begin lifting weights? How do you keep an eye on 20+ kids at once and maintain a quality program? Through this article, I’ll discuss how to effectively manage these young athletes in the weight room, and provide some examples on how to progress them safely and effectively.
First off: Is it Safe?
I want to begin by stating that under proper supervision and with appropriate progression, resistance training for youth is perfectly safe (Faigenbaum & Meyer, 2010). Poorly designed programs and unqualified coaches implementing programs on the other hand, is not. I'm an advocate for young athletes to be doing some weight training. With the teams I coach, we have the kids beginning a basic weight training program at about 11 years of age. From there, the frequency and intensity is increased with the athlete's age and abilities. Weight training has a wide range benefits. It enhances performance in their chosen sport, creates enhanced body awareness, improves coordination and overall athleticism, and helps prevent injury, to name a few of the benefits (Granacher, et al., 2016).
Where to Start?
Early on in a young athlete’s dryland program, and well before they begin to lift weights, we must engrain proper movement skills. Only once they can demonstrate bodyweight exercises perfectly should they proceed to weight training. As youth athletes become more mature, their dryland program will increase in specificity and intensity.
The first movement I teach young athletes who begin dryland training is a hip hinge (essentially a Romanian deadlift). Being able to properly hinge from the hips while maintaining a neutral spine is a skill that I think is overlooked far too often. It’s required for so many exercises and is essential to master if you want to decrease your risk of injury in the weight room. Examples of exercises that require hip hinge include deadlifts, squats, bent over rows, DB rear delt flies, and hip thrusts. Without being able to do a proper hip hinge, form will be compromised and the risk of injury is higher.
To teach the hip hinge (RDL), I use a wooden dowel like so:
- Place a dowel or broomstick the length of the athletes back.
- There should be three points of contact – the back of the head, the thoracic spine, and the sacrum.
- The athlete is to bend forward, by sitting back and must maintain the three points of contact.
- This small external cue will tell them exactly when they’re technique is faulting, and teach them how to maintain a neutral spine
The next two movements I prioritize for my young lifters is the squat and high plank hold. These two are staples, because let’s face it, squat variations are going to be prescribed in 90% of my programs. Here’s an example on how to progress a squat:
Wall Sit > Box Squat > Bodyweight Air Squat > Goblet Squat > Front Squat > Back Squat
The plank may seem a bit unusual, but think of it this way; if someone isn’t able to hold a good plank position and maintain full body tension, how will they be able to perform proper push-ups? It’s a good stepping stone to learning a push-up – another key movement that’s in 90% of my programs.
Managing the Training Session
The first time my athletes step into the weight room is when they are about 14 or 15 years of age. Teenagers, especially those who are very competitive, will likely be pushing themselves and each other in the weight room. Friendly competition between teammates is great. That being said, when you have 14 year old’s trying to out lift one another, things can get messy. I tell my athletes to leave their ego at the door and not to get caught up with how much others are lifting. Proper form should always be the number one priority. I've told athletes countless times to reduce the weight they're lifting when I see their form begin to falter.
In addition to designing a safe and effective program, here are a few other things to keep in mind when training a group of young athletes.
- Your position in the gym – you should be positioned so you can always see the entire group
- Be vocal – Encouraging is great, and always provide general quick tips for exercises
- Communication/motivation styles will vary from person to person
- Have fun!
Faigenbaum, A., & Meyer, J. (2010). Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(1), 56-63.
Granacher, U., Lesinski, M., Büsch, D., Thomas, M., Prieske, O., Puta, C., & Behm, D. (2016). Effects of resistance training in youth athletes on muscular fitness and athletic performance: A conceptual model for long-term athlete development. Frontiers in Physiology, 7, 164.
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