Updated: Jan 5
There is a growing number of teenagers participating in strength training programmes in schools, gyms, and training centres to enhance their athletic performance and improve their well-being.
Despite the majority of clinicians considering weightlifting as unsafe and potentially injurious to the young, there is now increasing evidence that strength training is not just effective but also safe for adolescents to perform.
Moreover, it has become a universal acceptance that well-designed and proficiently coached weight lifting programs can be highly beneficial for children and teenagers in improving sports performance as well as reducing susceptibility to injury.
Here are five major reasons why teenagers should start barbell training from an early age on:
1.IMPROVED SPORTS PERFORMANCE
The benefits of strength training for athletic performance are well-known and accepted in the professional sports industry. While such programs have predominantly been carried out on adults, children and teenagers benefit just as much from enhancing their strength as adults do.
Numerous studies have shown that children and teenagers can increase their strength with technique- and progression-driven programs to improve their sports performance.
Increases in strength have shown improvement in various performance measures such as jump height, sprint time, as well as endurance performance – all of which are crucial parameters in many sports.
One major reason for these findings is that strength is the most general adaptation of all. Strength makes all movements 'easier', and there is not a single human on the planet (once they are cognitively mature enough to do so) who would not benefit from a well-designed strength training program.
The earlier a kid can develop their strength in life, the more solid the physical foundation they build, the better-performing they are, and the longer-lasting their career is.
I am aware that prevention does not earn money – much in comparison to treating and fixing. If everyone (or a large part of the population) would follow proven and efficient measures to bullet-proof their body against injury and disease, the world would be a healthier and happier place. This is the reality.
With the ever-increasing demands of better sports performance, young athletes are frequently exposed to high training volumes which place high demands on their physical capability to handle those increasing demands.
Time lost in training and competition due to acute and overuse injuries are common in teenagers. It is a hurtful reality that the time lost away from the practice field can never be made up for again. Once it is gone, it is gone – and depending on how long the absence is, it takes a toll on the athlete’s development and emotional well-being.
In my work with young athletes I have come to understand that when they follow a progressive strength training program, their time away from practice and competition dramatically drops.
Their knees, hips, shoulders, and elbows become stronger and more resilient to stress. Their muscle tissue becomes denser and more resilient to injury. Overall, young athletes become sturdier and better able to handle training loads as a result of training for strength.
Supportingly, an overwhelming body of research in adolescent athletes has shown that strength training contributes to a significant decrease in severity as well as incidence of injuries.
While the concept of prevention is an unattractive prospect, imagine what a missed season would mean.
Children and teenagers WANT to be given responsibility. Very often, as a natural instinct, we try to take this vital skill away from them, mostly as an overcautious reaction of us wanting them to feel “safe”.
When the young are given responsibility in their life, they feel in control of their own destiny. They figure out solutions for themselves. They become more disciplined as the energy they are investing into a process makes them held accountable for their outcomes.
Strength training is a highly effective tool for improving self-image in the young as daily successes through lifting heavier weights builds up their confidence and creates a more positive outlook on life.
The fact that new goals are set each session, new challenges taken up, and lifts successfully performed leads to improved discipline and greater trust in their own abilities.
They see their strength go up, they see their body shape change, they see their mental health improve, and very often – as a plus – these achievements are being shared with their peers during group sessions.
Instead of wasting endless hours with technological gadgets, getting under the bar three times per week for an hour is the perfect replacement for a child to spend their time more productively towards their health.
Kids are developing the skeletal architecture in their young years which serves them for rest of their life. This determines how they are spending their later years in regards to joint health and spinal health.
In order for bones to get stronger, progressive loading of the skeleton is required.
Lifting heavy weights places the neccessary stress required to trigger a response on the skeleton, and as bones store and transmit force, they react by getting thicker and denser.
The stress-recovery-adaption principle is no different to bones than it is to other parts of the body (e.g. muscles and connective tissue) – hence we see astronauts returning with massive drops in muscle mass and bone mineral density after their long missions since they are unable to load their body with high enough weight.
Strong bones developed at an early age can be the difference between an osteoporosis patient and a fully functioning individual, a human suffering from crippling arthritis and an older person moving pain-free, as well as between a care home resident and an independent person who is able to look after themselves.
Bank bone early and reap the rewards for the rest of your life!
We only have ONE body. Taking care of it is not a matter of whether we should or should not – it is a matter of HOW we can take care of it in the best way possible. When we value the importance of a healthy body, we value the responsibility of being at our most productive every day. Our mental and physical performance truly are inseparable.
Strength training lays the foundation in the young for a long, healthy life. They can never start too early with lifting weights as progress slows down with age, and the older we get, the harder things naturally become to accomplish. Any habit we develop early in life is easier to maintain and easier to stick to compared to later in life.
A strong body developed at an early age is a body that is resilient to stress as well as to musculoskeletal disorders and disease. Even in the unfortunate event that we face hardship through illness, we are better able to bounce back from as we are equipped with a stronger body. Greater strength means walking through this world with a better ability of being unfazed by what is thrown at us. We become sturdier and simply “harder to kill”.
A word on safety
Pediatricians, parents, health “professionals”, and the media have been concerned with what would happen if a child lifts weights.
We ought to flip the coin and ask what would happen if the young DO NOT lift weights!
In my entire career I have come across several fitness myths that still persist to date. One of those myths is that lifting weights causes teenagers to have a stunt in their growth, followed by the argument: “Why would kids need to do that anyway?!”
In my twelve years as a strength coach, I have never had a single young athlete who stopped growing in height after (s)he started strength training. All of the athletes I trained kept growing, kept getting stronger, kept improving their sports performance, and kept staying injury-free for large parts of their athletic career.
In fact, there is no evidence to suggest that strength training negatively impacts growth in height during childhood and adolescence as a result of strength training.
The risk of injury to the growth plate is indeed greater when athletes perform jumping and landing activities which naturally produce ground reaction forces up to seven times their body weight.
In comparison, a 13-year old teenager weighing 50kg would have to squat 350kg to match this impact. Are we getting the message here?
The only two reasons why injury to the growth plate (and the body in general) may happen to the young during weightlifting is due to improper technique as well as an exponential increase in the amount of weight lifted. I would ask: doesn't that hold true for ANY lifter anyway?
Both concerns are easily addressed: the coach has to be able to teach proficient form, and the weight has to be increased gradually instead of exponentially over time. Both factors are meticulously taught at our Strong For Life gym.
While it is still a common notion that strength training is not for the young, clinical and scientific evidence show the opposite is true.
Time to replace dogma with data and real-world evidence.
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