Strength training and Olympic lifting for youth athletes: Is it safe?

By Chris Rivinius, CSCS

Common questions a parent may ask when determining to enroll their youngster into a formal strength and conditioning program:

  • Is strength training safe for my young athlete?
  • When should an athlete begin resistance training?
  • Can strength training actually stunt my son/daughters growth?
  • Will it make my son or daughter big and slow?

Is Weight Training Safe for Young Athletes?

The injury rate for weight training is .0012 per 100 participant hours. To put that into perspective with other popular sports, youth soccer has 6.2 injuries per 100 participant hours, basketball is around 1.02 per 100 hours, and a traditional physical education class is .018 injuries per 100 hours.

Strength and conditioning specialist, Chris Rivinius, at Sanford POWER in Bismarck, NDResearch proves weight training is relatively safe for youth and young adolescents. Training should be performed in a controlled environment with loads that are monitored and progressively increased over time as the athlete becomes stronger and more proficient in exercise technique. A Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), with certifications in weight training methods and techniques, should always monitor young athletes.

The forces experienced in the weight room will not harm a young athlete, but rather prepare them for competitive sports. This will increase athletic potential while decreasing chance of injury. Aside from all the physical and physiological benefits of training, one could say the most important trait acquired from a training program is CONFIDENCE — which is a crucial for the success of any athlete.

Resistance Training Improves Preparedness for Sports

Epiphyseal growth plate fractures are still a concern for many parents.  Scientific data from many studies over the past few decades debunks these claims. The National Strength and Conditioning Association recently updated their position statement (2009) for youth resistance training. They state that supervised resistance training programs play an important role in the preparedness of young athletes for sports.  The benefits include:

  • Enhanced muscular strength and endurance
  • Bone density
  • Improved body awareness/proprioception (aka inter-muscular coordination)
  • Improved body composition
  • Improved blood lipids
  • And the list goes on

During any given activity, an athlete is putting a great amount of stress on their body.  While a person runs they experience 3-6 times their bodyweight per leg, and jumping can be anywhere from 4-11 times their bodyweight. An athlete weighing only 100 pounds experiences anywhere from 400-1100 pounds of force on a single leg when they jump.  Now imagine this in a setting where an athlete is sprinting, jumping, tackling, and explosively changing direction. This can be a recipe for disaster if an athlete doesn’t have the strength to properly decelerate and absorb the forces experienced in a typical sporting event.

Resistance training, Olympic weight lifting progressions, and proper programming can all be implemented to safely teach an athlete to produce more force (through increased inter-muscular coordination), and to decelerate their body in space against an external load.

When to Begin Training?

The short answer is when they are cognitively ready. All athletes will develop at different ages. Females will develop and mature earlier than males because of an earlier onset of peak height velocity (puberty). Most athletes are ready when they can maintain attention for one hour of instruction.

A young athlete’s biggest windows for speed, skills, stamina, and mobility all occur before the onset of peak height velocity (Reference LTAD Article). This is when the central nervous system is primed to learn and develop. They can develop a greater athletic foundation, correct movements patterns, and have less muscular imbalances from bad habits or poor training techniques.

Big, Bulky, and slow?

Athletes will not get bulky or slow from a resistance program unless that program is specifically tailored for building mass and size. A majority of a young athlete’s strength gains will come from neurological gains and not an increase in muscle fiber size.  This is especially true in males because the production of anabolic hormones (testosterone) peaks in their late teens and into their twenties. Female athletes will not become bulky because of lower testosterone levels than males. Both male and female athletes will increase their relative strength through resistance training, which will result in increased performance and enable them to get closer to their genetic potential by building a bigger athletic foundation at a younger age.

Proper Programs Are Necessary for Athletic Success

A properly programmed and executed resistance training program for youth and young adolescents yields positive results that benefit an athlete from both a health and performance perspective. The development of a greater athletic foundation through resistance training methods can help athletes succeed in their athletic career while also decreasing their chance of injury.  All of this assumes the athlete is monitored by a certified, experienced coach.  Intensity, training loads, and exercise progressions are gradually increased over time.

References: 

  • Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper from the National Strength and Conditioning Association.  NSCA-2009.
  • Misconceptions About training Youth. Long Kilgore, PhD.
  • Strength training for Young Athletes—Benefits, Starting Age, and Lifting Heavy Weights. Elite FTS—Matt Wattles
  • Long Term Athlete Development and the ADM—USA Hockey and USA Weightlifting
  • Relative Safety of Weightlifting Movements for Youth. Mike Nitka MS, CSCS.