Okay, here’s the deal. Today, we’re chatting about the youngins. These days, getting a youth athlete involved in a strength and conditioning program can be a huge advantage for their future. Not only is this a hot topic, but it’s a question I get a lot.
“When should my son/daughter start lifting weights?”
Well, the answer really isn’t a specific age. It comes down to where the athlete is developmentally, what kind of training experience they have, and whether they’ve had any actual coaching. The reason for this is that, just like adults, we’re all different. Kids just grow, eat, mature, and gain a sense of awareness differently than one another.
More specifically, for kids, puberty places a wide spectrum on what they should be doing in the weight room. You may have a two athletes, who are only a year apart, but look 10 times different when you are assessing them. It really just comes down to taking where they are at in development, and improving on things they need work on. With that said, there are a few other things that I'd recommend before starting them on a strength program.
Okay, let’s fire this up:
Get some level of introductory coaching
One thing I would absolutely recommend, is for the athlete to get at least some supervised introduction to the gym. This means learning basic concepts, equipment use, etiquette, and all things of that nature. All too often we see kids that immediately load up the barbell their first day at the gym with their friends, and boom. They end up hurt. Maybe it’s just the conservative in me, but seriously.
In my opinion, you’ve got to earn the barbell. Fitness trends have brought intense lifting and programming to the forefront of popular culture, so naturally youth athletes gravitate towards it. Which is awesome.... but as my dude Joe Colotti always says, “it’s the Exercise D syndrome.” You’ve got to learn how to do A, before B, C, and finally D.
Without the basic foundations of movement, the athlete is literally setting themselves up for a higher risk of injury in the future.
Learn the concept of Stability
With that said, one thing that challenges kids gaining movement competency, is simply learning how to control and apply skill to it. Like that scene from from Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where ya boi Kunu breaks it down.
“The less you do, the more you do. Pop Up. No, do less. Pop up. Remember, don’t do anything. Well, you have to do more than that.”
Here is the link because embedding videos that aren’t yours is illegal.
In the grand scheme of things, this applies to everything in the gym. We have to know the goal of the exercise, what should be moving, and what should be creating stability for the body. Youth athletes specifically, have a hard time controlling their body when they are first learning an exercise- and that’s okay! They have to have a chance to learn and progress.
Before they can understand this basic principle, it’s very hard for me to want to put a bunch of weight in their hands and say go. However, there may be certain instances where I might use weight, to help them create that stable base, such as in a goblet squat or a hip hinge exercise.
Understand the basic movement patterns
Squat, Bend or Hinge, Lunge, Push, Pull, Rotate, and simply staying “neutral.” Aka, keeping the pillar in complete control. In my eyes, for the sake of ease, I think that’s just about it. Once the athlete understands each of these concepts, then you are able to add others that may be more challenging: applying power, speed, multi-directional patterns, dynamic movement, to name a few.
Obviously, there are countless ways to teach this stuff without weights, but I’m a sucker for the exercises that look “easy,” but then the athlete is surprised at how difficult it actually is with a little guidance. Take this Half Kneeling drill for instance:
As I said, exercise for kids doesn't have to be complicated early in the process. Another thing that should be mentioned here, is avoiding early specialization (which is a topic of it's own). If you look at the best athletes in the world, many of them were 2 or 3 sport athletes through high school. This allows the athlete to learn different movement patterns as they grow, and that simply leads to better athletic development in the long run.
Listen and Respect
Nothing rustles my jimmies more than an athlete who won’t listen. Not because of my ego, because we as coaches truly care about the well being of our athletes. I don’t want them to get hurt. Their safety and the experience they have is my number one priority when they are training.
So, when you tell them one thing, and they go and do the other, that can be frustrating as a coach.
However, that is also where the education piece comes into play. More often than not, it just takes a little time to build a solid relationship, for them to respect your opinions and motivations. You just have to show your value and get them to trust you, and that’s where you can really start training.
Listen, the gym is a jungle. There are lots of shiny objects and toys (to me). But, there are also a ton of ways to injure yourself, inconvenience other people, and be disrespectful. The weight room is a solid representation of an environment that needs social skills, manners, and good judgement.
I’m all about having fun, but, there is a time for work and a time for play. The gym is a place that needs to be treated with respect, especially when there are people around you who are working their tails off to support their own goals. It’s a place where we go to grow (literally), and that should be taken seriously. Perfect transition...
Want the challenge
This is the age old question: Does the athlete want to get better? If they are indifferent and don’t truly want to get better, then that makes my job very hard. I can’t force that mindset on the athlete. It has to come from them, without external pressure.
We see this a lot with parents who essentially get the kid into a training program because they play a sport, and the athlete just has no drive to be there. The parent’s intentions are usually good, but sometimes, I hate to say it, but it’s almost a waste of their hard earned money and my time.
Drive is something that cannot be created by anybody but the person themselves. Once we as a team can establish those training goals, then we can tackle what the athlete wants head on. From there, we don’t have to question what our mentality is because we’ve established that sense of purpose. It’s all sunshine and rainbows after that.
All things considered, getting younger athletes into an established training program is one of the best things you can do for their development, both athletically and mentally. It teaches them how to work towards a goal, gets them to practice basic skills, and can show them that hard work is truly one of the keys of life.
Am I anti-weight training for kids? Absolutely not. They just have to be ready for it. In fact, I think more kids across the board need to be involved in programs that teach them those skills.
These days, there is so much pressure to be great at your sport or adopt the latest trend. When creating workouts for kids or younger athletes, sometimes we need to take a step back and realize that they are simply... kids. We need to allow them to grow and learn in a fun atmosphere so they actually enjoy the process. That way, they'll continue to enjoy the sports they love and play them with passion for years to come.