Encouraging youths to start lifting weights offers a number of different benefits, from learning safe lifting technique early on to proper use of different gym equipment. It also acts as a great injury prevention strategy. Having a good instructor or coach early on can help promote safe lifting and proper progression of technique that can prove useful as the athlete grows and decides to pursue sports (barbell, team, or individual) more seriously. Lifting at an early age in addition to regular physical activity in school can also offer more movement variability that can culminate in a more potent physical development as the body is exposed to more varied stimulus. Mentally, the right coach can also teach a healthy mindset towards training, competition, and coping strategies for different challenges. This positive efficacious attitude carries over beyond sports and can greatly assist youth development. With all these positives there are some major considerations when working with youth athletes. These athletes are still very much growing with constantly changing bodies and it is important that coaches understand how to work appropriately with these changes or make the right adjustments to their current program to best serve the athlete. In this article I’ll be strictly be referring to youth between the ages of 8 and 15 as younger children are probably not suitable for any kind of structured training.
For youth athletes it can’t be stressed enough that coaches should not try and specialize when they are so young. Many longitudinal studies have linked high instances of injury with early specialization. It’s not until children go through puberty where a specialized weightlifting program can be considered. Very young athletes, especially those closer to 8 years old are still growing and don’t have fully developed muscles/bones that would allow them to lift significant amounts of weight. Trying to push too heavy too soon can actually permanently damage growth plates preventing proper growth of bones. Mentally, younger athletes may also not be ready to commit to a full Olympic Weightlifting session or program. A specific program is inherently very monotonous and might actually cause athlete burnout in the long run or create negative connotations associated with physical activity. For youth athletes on the younger side it would be more beneficial to do some light lifts with the technique bar for no longer than 20 min/60 min training session and structure the rest of the program as either bodybuilding or small sports games. Small sports games that train visual tracking, reaction speed, motor coordination, balance, change of direction, along with basic gymnastics moves help to provide a variety of physical stimulus to the youth that will aid in the physical development of the athlete. Balancing enough variety and consistency for skill development across multiple different tasks can aid in exposing the body to different angles and stimulate different muscles to grow in a way that normal weight training cannot.
Another benefit of choosing to use small sports games rather than just adding more different exercises is that it helps develop some motor qualities like speed and agility that youth are more sensitive to than older teenagers. Youth athletes between the ages of 9-13 years are at a critical period of speed development meaning that the coach can expect large improvements in sprints, jumps, and throwing during this time. Speed can also be emphasized during technique lifting along with promoting stability. Biasing the training to utilize more of these qualities is probably the best option, while the athlete matures physically to be able to handle heavier loading. Jumps and sprints need to be monitored tightly as this is also a large impact on the skeletal and muscular structures. Too much in one session can have the same negative effects as going too heavy too quickly. The movement variability across different planes of motion also acts as a mobility buffer later on in life. The best posture is one that is constantly changing as static poses whether sitting or raising a barbell overhead every day promotes development of force along only one axis across the body. This creates openings for injury should the athlete be caught outside of this axis and it also places too much stress along one part of the body which eventually can cause degenerative changes or structural failure. Having complete development of the shoulder, hips, lower back, and ankles helps to distribute the forces more evenly across these structures, so a specific region of the skeleton or group of muscles is not overactive during weightlifting.
In general, youth athletes should only do weightlifting movements 2-3 times per week with a main focus on technique. Younger athletes closer to 8 should probably only do 2 session a week where one session consists of snatch + jerk/other overhead work and the other session working on cleans + jerk. Older athletes closer to 15 can do up to 3 sessions a week giving each lift a separate day along with their associated assistance work. These weightlifting sessions can be supplemented with less formal training like bodybuilding, track and field, gymnastics, and other small sports games as mentioned in previous paragraphs. For the formation of proper skill and technique, it’s important to separate the lifts to help the athlete focus on accomplishing one task at a time. Snatches and cleans are different pulling patterns that have their own respective rhythm. To best promote the learning of the proper timing of what muscles push during which phase of the movement, it is best to keep them on separate training days. Jerks are an entirely different skill and so can be paired with either the snatch or the clean on the same training day. Early sessions must not focus on using too much weight and instead should be devoted to exhibiting exemplary technique. Pauses in the receiving position and performing partial lifts to emphasize certain phases of the movement should be the main programming method of choice. This serves to minimize the amplitude of the movement to help focus on performing only one task to the highest level and promote stability throughout the movement. For the early parts no more than 2-3 weightlifting movements and their variations (including squats, different pulls, and bench press) should be included in one session. The rest of the session should be devoted to more varied movements and muscular work. This introductory period with this layout of programming should be done until the negative effects of fatigue start to impede training of one session to the next, from which a more complicated system will have to be utilized to manage the athlete’s growing fitness.
Recommended types of Activity
-Learning of basic movements using a broomstick or PVC
-Isometric holds in different positions can be useful
-Sports games and gymnastics
-Introductory to weight training, light weights and hold different weightlifting postures
-Different kinds of Jumping, speed, and agility drills can be introduced with focus on proper execution
-Development of small muscles in hips, shoulders, lower back, and ankles to create favorable conditions for proper execution of lifting technique and track/field drills
-More formal Olympic Weightlifting training
-Continuation of muscular development with consideration for more specific muscular work
-Introduction or consideration for competition for healthy exposure to competitive environment
*It’s important to note that females mature much earlier in childhood than males where they may have more physical/mental maturity. Sometimes females can be up to 3 years ahead of males in terms of development. They can start a more serious program at the age of 12 versus 15.
Jason Li, Exercise Science BS, USAW LVL2, Catalyst Athletics LVL1, NSCA-CPT