As a young athlete I was extremely lucky to fall into good hands. I had a high school wrestling teammate named Kevin Elder who recruited me to be his weight-training partner in preparation for the upcoming season. I knew very little outside the basics at the time. We were fortunate to have his older brother Kurt guiding us, who happened to be an aspiring trainer and bodybuilder. He was both knowledgeable and strict on the fundamentals of form and technique. It wasn’t until years later when I began studying kinesiology and biomechanics that I truly appreciated how well he had taught us.
With most things in life it is much easier to learn the right way the first time. Perhaps nowhere is this more evident than in the gym. It is far easier for me to teach proper form and technique to a new client who has never trained, than someone with lots of experience but lacks proper mechanics. For many young athletes the people providing them their first instruction are far from qualified. While it is recommended that anyone new to training seek the help of a professional, this advice can be especially critical & beneficial for young athletes.
Unfortunately there are many negative myths and stigmas attached to young people working out and weight training that are either false or misunderstood:
- Weight training stunts growth: Hopefully nobody reading this stills believes this outdated myth this has been scientifically disproven repeatedly over decades of research. I find it interesting how a baseless rumor like this gets started. My guess is (similar to gymnastics) it’s because of biomechanical performance advantages in those sports. In other words playing basketball doesn’t make you tall and playing wide receiver doesn’t make you fast.
- Unsafe for youth: Assuming a basic level of form and technique is applied, children are actually less susceptible than adults to injury due to the pliability of their joints and the lack of preexisting conditions. No it will not make kids bulky, gain weight, or lose flexibility. With a proper training program people of any age will gain functional flexibility, or the ability to take a greater load through a greater range of motion and reducing injury potential.
- Not for girls or young boys: The basis of this is the lack of testosterone produced by females and prepubescent males. While it is true that this hormone is helpful in building muscle the majority of strength gains early in a resistance program are due to the bodies ability to recruit and properly activate neuromuscular pathways, not increases in muscle mass.
- Only for elite athletes: An elite athlete will certainly benefit from a targeted sport specific strength program, but I would argue a lesser athlete has even more to gain. Not only would they improve neuromuscular recruitment but also have an increased potential to gain kinesthetic awareness, muscular coordination and physical confidence.
This all leads to the question I’m most often asked by parents, “how old should my kid be to start lifting weights?”. As any parent with more than one child knows, all kids are different and rarely can that simply be defined by age. Most people would think the answer depends on the body maturity, but the more important factor is mental maturity and ability to focus on a task. In short, I say “the kid has to have the want to”. This has nothing to do with the child’s ability level or athletic proficiency and especially not the parents desire.
The best illustration I have of all this came to me as a young trainer working at a private facility. The owner tasked me with training the young children of one of our wealthy clients. The brother was a 12 y.o. competitive hockey player and the sister was 9 y.o. who was “interested in working out”. I was concerned because this appeared to be an expensive baby sitting session. In summary the girl was fantastic! She was attentive, focused, and tried to her best to follow directions while giving her best effort the whole time. The boy was easily distracted, unmotivated, reluctant to take instruction, and a potential danger to himself. After the session I informed the facility owner and their father that I would welcome the girl back anytime, but the boy was not yet ready for that training environment.
As a parent you can provide your child with knowledge, tools, and opportunity but to find joy & success they must have their own desire.