The single most common question that I am asked as a strength and conditioning coach when I speak to parents, and coaches of your athletes, is ‘Do you think he/ she is too young to start lifting weights?’. Another version of the question is ‘What age should my son/daughter start training in the gym?’. In this article, I want to deal with these issues so that you have some guidelines to go by whether you are a coach, parent, or young athlete.
The biggest concern of all
Let us first address the most common concern that ‘lifting weights early in life will stunt your growth’. To say that this is a absolute misconception may be going too far, but there is certainly a lot of misunderstanding surrounding this thought process. This point of view is based on the notion that lifting weights will damage the epiphyseal plates (growth plates) at the end of the bones, which are not fully developed in adolescent athletes. The fact of the matter is that yes, if you damage the growth plate of a young athlete, it will lead to injury (Mirtz et al. 2011). And yes, if a young athlete lifts something that is extremely heavy for them, and especially if they repeat that lifting, they can become injured. However, that is where the facts end when it comes to properly structured and supervised strength and conditioning training, and this is why.
Mirtz et al. (2011) categorically stated that mechanical loading of the bone is important for epiphyseal plate physiology, and exercise has a healthy function on the normal growth of this important biomechanical feature. In short, exercise will help development, not hinder it. Strength training as a safe and effective way of exercise and development for adolescents has been supported by Faigenbaum (2000)
Possibly the most recent and well placed publication on adolescent strength training comes from the UK Strength and Conditioning Association that stated that evidence in the research supports youth resistance training as a safe activity for children, but these interventions need to be professionally supervised and customised to the individual child's age (Loyd et al. 2014).
The other side of the coin
Now lets consider the forces that are going through a young athletes joints when they are running, playing GAA, rugby, soccer, basketball, or athletics. The forces that go through the joints during contact, sprinting, and twisting in a relatively uncontrollable environment are huge. In fact, as adult athletes, Wilson et al. 2010 have shown that musculo-skeletal injuries account for 1 in 3 of all injuries in Gaelic Football. This is a staggering statistic that needs to be addressed in the training of athletes from a young age. As a strength and conditioning coach, this corroborates the anecdotal evidence that I see each week in the field. Hamstrings, ankles, and groin injuries appear to be at epidemic levels among the GAA, and are all things that can be addressed with properly structured strength and conditioning training.
Abernethy and Bleakey (2000) carried out a study examining how best to prevent injuries in adolescent athletes, and concluded that injury prevention strategies that focus on preseason conditioning, functional training, education, balance and sport-specific skills, which should be continued throughout the sporting season. This further strengthens the case that properly structured and supervised strength training should be included as standard for any young athlete who has aspirations of success and injury free enjoyment of their sport. These finding support those of Hewettt et al. who sound that plyometric training (which is a part of most professional strength and conditioning programs in one way or another), worked in reducing landing forces during jumping, increasing stability at the knee, and preventing injury.
So What are the actual risks?
Considering the evidence that I have presented here, its safe to say that strength and conditioning training for young athletes is not only safe, but in fact a KEY part to their athletic development, and essential to staying injury free and healthy. However, like any form of physical activity, there are certain things that need to be considered.
Unsupervised strength training can lead to injury, in the same way that driving a car without a license can be dangerous. The program needs to be matches to the physical and emotional maturity of the athlete, and this should be adjudged by a strength and conditioning professional. Using maximal loads can also be a an unworthy risk, when it comes to developing young athletes. There is a common misconception that if an exercise uses an athlete’s body-weight that it is OK. But consider the heavy adolescent athlete performing a press up, having no strength training experience. That athlete is trying tor press their whole body-weight off the ground (which could be around 60 kg for some young athletes) and would often be scolded by a coach for not having the strength to perform a proper press up. Now if that same athlete was performing a pressing action with dumbbells, he could successfully manage 10 reps of a manageable weight, with much less stress on the bones and joints, as well as not having to go through the stress of an immediate failure due to not being able to perform a press up. Which do you think is the most suitable exercise?
- Position statement on youth resistance training: the 2014 International Consensus. Br J Sports Med. 2014 Apr;48(7):498-505. Lloyd RS1, Faigenbaum AD, Stone MH, Oliver JL, Jeffreys I, Moody JA, Brewer C, Pierce KC, McCambridge TM, Howard R, Herrington L, Hainline B, Micheli LJ, Jaques R, Kraemer WJ, McBride MG, Best TM, Chu DA, Alvar BA, Myer GD.
- Strength Training for Children and Adolescents, MD J Am Acad Orthop Surg. January/February 2001 vol. 9 no. 1 29-36. Jeffrey A. Guy, MD and Lyle J. Micheli
- The Effects of Physical Activity on the Epiphyseal Growth Plates: A Review of the Literature on Normal Physiology and Clinical Implications. J Clin Med Res. Feb 2011; 3(1): 1–7.Timothy A. Mirtz,a,c Judy P. Chandler,b and Christina M. Eyersb.
- Plyometric Training in Female Athletes: Decreased Impact Forces and Increased Hamstring Torques.. Am J Sports Med December 1996 vol. 24 no. 6 765-773 Timothy E. Hewett, Amanda L. Stroupe, Thomas A. Nance, Frank R. Noyes
- A 6-month prospective study of injury in Gaelic footballBr J Sports Med 2007;41:317-321. . F Wilson, S Caffrey, E King, K Casey, C Gissane.
- STRENGTH TRAINING FOR CHILDREN AND ADOLESCENTS Clinics in Sports Medicine, Volume 19, Issue 4, Pages 593-619 Avery D. Faigenbaum 2000
- Strategies to prevent injury in adolescent sport: a systematic review. Br J Sports Med 2007;41:627-638. Liz Abernethy, Chris Bleakley
This Article is By Ainle Ó Cairealláin Msc CSCS