Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Youth Sports: At What Age is it OK to Start Strength Training?

At age 10, my son experienced some arm problems playing baseball. It started when he broke the growth plate in his right arm throwing a fastball on a cold day early his U10 season. 

Luckily growth plate injuries heal quickly. What did not heal quickly was the mental side of coming back. My son was so afraid of hurting his arm again that he babied it. Next thing we know he had a shoulder problem. His shoulder got weak and he struggled through the next entire baseball season with shoulder discomfort. 

Last year, we started strength training including weights before the season and he had his first injury free baseball season in 3 years. We were thrilled with the outcome, but I have to say that quite a few people questioned me on whether weight training for a kid who has not gone through puberty is a good idea. People asked me if I was worried about stunting his growth. 

Of course I did the research on the internet and talked to his doctor and physical therapist before we began the program. But to end the myths about strength training for prepubescent kids, I consulted strength and endurance coach Alan Stein for his opinion on this topic. 

Here is his response.

Proper strength training does not stunt growth! In fact, you can actually begin a safe, age appropriate training program as young as 8 or 9 years old.

My counsel to all 13 and 14 year olds who ask me when they should start strength training…the answer is…today. 

The most important concept to understand is that a child’s chronological age and their physical and mental maturity are not always congruent. Children mature and progress at different rates across physical and mental spectrums. This includes their muscular and Central Nervous System maturity (coordination, body awareness, etc.) as well as their mental maturity (attention span, ability to process and follow instructions, etc.). Some 10 year olds look and act 16 and some 16 year olds look and act 10.

Important note: Due to the varying situations, you should get approval from a qualified professional prior to implementing a training program.

However, as a general rule of thumb, young athletes (ages 8-12) can and really should participate in a structured, supervised, age appropriate training program.

There is a difference between “lifting weights” and “strength training.”  I strongly prefer to use the term strength training.  You can improve strength without weights. My goal is not to produce better “weight lifters”, but rather to use appropriate training methods to produce stronger, more coordinated, and more confident players.  A truly comprehensive program utilizes more than just weights.  In fact, some of the most intense and difficult strength workouts we have our players do don’t even use weights!

A proper youth training program should involve dynamic flexibility, movement preparation, footwork, strength training, and agility drills. The program should be done two times per week, for 30-45 minutes per workout, and focus on multi-joint movements such as skipping, hopping, jumping, lunging, squatting, pushing, pulling, throwing, and twisting. The workouts should be challenging, yet fun and engaging with the goal of building great training habits and a solid foundation of efficient movement.

It is important for younger players to regularly experience a variety of motor skills in order to promote future athletic success and injury prevention.  Developing this basic coordination through a wide variety of movements, drills, and exercises is integral… with the eventual goal of developing basketball, soccer, football, track, etc specific coordination in their teenage years.  In other words, children need to learn how to run and jump properly, how to control their body in space and how to move efficiently before they learn how to dribble, shoot, and pass a basketball or a soccer ball. 

For the record, I am not saying that children under the age of 10 to 12 shouldn’t be playing basketball or soccer or other… of course they should.  But they should also be learning how to master their general motor skills (particularly running and jumping).

Research has shown that coordination is best developed between the ages of 10 to 12 years old.  There are several components to coordination, such as balance, rhythm, body awareness in space, and reaction. Younger players that master these components, and improve their coordination through appropriate training, tend to have better athletic success at later ages. Of course, one’s absolute athletic potential is somewhat pre-determined based on genetic predispositions.  However, regardless of their absolute athletic potential, every young player can make progress. This is why introducing a proper youth training program is so important.

Here are 4 guidelines to a quality youth training program:

Safe: young players must use proper form and appropriate resistances (if applicable).

Fun: young players should be engaged and enjoy training!

Fundamental: young players should master a variety of general motor skills (skipping, hopping, jumping, lunging, squatting, pushing, pulling, throwing, and twisting) before trying to master sport-specific skills (ball handling, shooting, etc.).

Challenging: young players learn quickly, so challenge them physically and mentally with a variety of new movements, exercises, and drills.

In this video, Alan does strength training with his toddlers - not really.

You can follow Alan at the following: 

The Main Point

Thanks Alan. An age appropriate strength training program will not harm a child’s growth, but will actually help strengthen their skeletal and muscular system as well as their connective tissue.  A proper training program will also help facilitate an improvement in their coordination and body awareness and possibly prevent injuries.

Alan specializes in Basketball strength and endurance training. Check out the 8-Week Youth Training Program that parent or coach can download:




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