Should young athletes lift weights?

by | May 12, 2022

With the evolution of fitness more and more children and teenagers are engaging in some sort of weight lifting activities. The old days of calisthenics during gym classes are long gone. With high school sports becoming ever more competitive coaches have their student athletes pushing their young bodies to the limit several times a week. Is this safe and should they be lifting weights because doesn’t lifting weights stunt their growth? The answer may surprise you.

The short answer is that strength training is safe and does NOT stunt growth! There are however safe ways to go about strength training that will lower the risk of injury in our young athletic population. There are basic concepts to follow to prevent injury. Strength training is just one part of a well-balanced youth fitness program. Training should take place about two-to-three days a week with a rest day in between workout sessions. Training should include all major muscle groups making sure to balance between opposing muscle groups. This means if you’re doing bicep curls, you’re also going to perform triceps pulldowns! Resistance training is done through a full range of motion to develop strength while maintain flexibility. So, what should a workout session look like?

A dynamic warm up should be performed for several minutes before any weight lifting occurs. Static stretching can lead to an increase in injury due to the lack of blood flow through the muscle. A light jog, jumping jacks, push-ups, skipping, jump roping, and arm circles are just a few examples of dynamic warmups. From there focus on 6-8 exercises with a 10-15 repetitions per exercise. If an athlete cannot perform 10 repetitions per set, reduce the weight immediately. Once an athlete can perform at least 10 repetitions of a certain exercise in three different sessions, the weight can slightly increase to build strength.

The biggest, most important, factor in weight lifting is form. Most young athletes believe they have great form or saw something on social media so that immediately means they should try it. This is my opinion is how injuries occur. This is not just limited to social media but the coaches as well. Most coaches were former athletes themselves so what they used to do and what they were taught years ago while they were in high school may not apply to today’s young athlete. The one example I still hear today is when you’re squatting pretend like you’re sitting down in a chair. Not only does this flex your lumbar spine but add several hundred pounds to that and that is a back injury waiting to happen.

One other aspect of adolescent weight lifting that goes unnoticed is the growth spurt. When a growth spurt occurs there is usually a lack of coordination, decreased flexibility, and decreased relative strength, which are all potential risk factors for injury. The key is to check flexibility on a growing athlete and the sit-and-reach test is the gold standard. When a growth spurt occurs, the athlete may experience night pains in their knees, increase in appetite, feeling more tired throughout the day, and clothes and shoes don’t fit any longer. I recommend when a child is currently going through a growth spurt that they stop all strength training as to not put an increase pressure on the growth plates but instead transition to more body weight, cardio, and light resistance band workouts until the growth spurt stops.

In conclusion, young athletes are completely safe in performing strength training as long as proper form is strictly followed. I have equipment in my office to assess proper form in athletes and if an athlete cannot demonstrate proper form, they get a functional movement screen to determine where the mobility problem is.

Resources:

Hyde, T. E., & Gengenbach, M. S. (2007). Conservative management of sports injuries. Jones and Bartlett Publishers.

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