Around the time that participation in team sports begins, and especially during the middle and high school years, many young athletes start to wonder if they should start lifting weights.
The key to safe weight lifting, according to Josh Adams, a certified strength and conditioning specialist with Children's Health℠ Andrews Institute Sports Performance powered by EXOS, is working with an experienced professional and starting with the basics.
"Athletes, parents and coaches should shift their focus from weight lifting to a more well-rounded strength-training program," Adams explains. "Athletes also need an experienced, certified professional to help guide them in the weight room to help them safely meet their goals."
What age is it safe to lift weights?
Young athletes can begin a strength training program around the same time they begin to play organized sports, as early as 7 or 8 years old if they express interest and are mature enough to follow directions. At this age or for any beginner, strength training is all about building a foundation, not just weight lifting.
"At whatever age an athlete begins strength training, the emphasis is on the basics," Adams explains. "It's not about getting in the weight room and seeing how much you can lift. It's about learning proper movement and technique so athletes can safely develop the skills, strength and power for their sports."
How to start strength training
Athletes should begin a strength training program by using their own body weight for resistance and strength before moving on to weight. Adams and his team start athletes by reviewing the proper position and techniques for exercises such as lunges, squats, push-ups, pull-ups and planks. They introduce resistance bands, bungee cords and exercise balls.
When athletes get into late middle school or high school (around 14 years old), the focus may begin to shift from technique and movement to building strength with a weight lifting program. To avoid weight lifting injuries, Adams recommends athletes have guidance from strength training professionals who have direct experience and education related to sports training, including:
- Educational background in relevant areas, such as exercise science, sports medicine, kinesiology or exercise physiology
- Experience coaching youth athletes, keeping in mind that youth aren't miniature adults and the need for a trainer who understands youth development and goals.
- High-quality certification such as the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS), or the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) Performance Enhancement Specialist (PES)
What are the benefits of strength training?
When done safely, there are many benefits of strength training for athletes of all ages, including:
- Improving confidence – on and off the field
- Promoting a healthy weight
- Reducing the risk of injury
- Strengthening bones
Another key benefit of strength training is that it promotes body awareness and movements that many children are missing.
"Unstructured playtime – when kids are outside, running, jumping, climbing and swinging – promotes important body strength and movement skills," Adams explains. "If kids are getting most of their physical activity through organized sports, they may miss out on developing general motor skills. Strength training can help build those skills and even offset some of the problems we see in kids when they specialize in just one sport at a young age."
What is a safe weight to lift?
Experts caution athletes and coaches against focusing solely on how much weight an athlete can or should lift. Instead, the primary focus, especially with youth athletes, should be on proper form and technique.
"You want a gradual approach to physical development; it's a marathon – not a sprint," Adams states. "If you are able to complete multiple quality reps with good form, that is much more beneficial to the long-term development of an athlete's body that lifting as much as possible with poor technique."
Can weight lifting stunt a child's growth?
If done correctly, weight lifting does not stunt growth and will not damage cartilage. With a focus on proper form and function, strength training and weight lifting can even strengthen bones and help reduce an athlete's risk of injury on and off the playing field.
A qualified, experienced professional can best help guide young athletes on strength training program to avoid risk of weight lifting injury.
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Children's Health Andrews Institute for Orthopaedics & Sports Medicine is the only institute of its kind in North Texas, with the goal of helping young athletes stay strong no matter the season. Learn more about our programs and services.
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