BIGGER, Stronger, Younger
Bill StarrStrength Training and the Young Athlete, Part 2
Most parents seem to worry very little about their sons participating in high-contact sports like hockey, football, lacrosse or soccer—they even encourage them to skateboard. Yet when asked if they’d like their children to start some type of strengthening program, they throw up their hands in horror. “Lifting will stunt his growth!” they exclaim. I’ve heard it all my life, but where’s the evidence that it’s a fact? There isn’t any. In truth, a well-administered strength routine can promote overall growth.
I do, however, understand the concern: At what age can youngsters start lifting weights safely? Should they handle only very light weights, or is it all right to attempt heavy lifts? How often should they train? Sets and reps? How long should the workouts be? Valid questions.
To reiterate what I stated last month on the subject: Safety is the number-one factor when dealing with youngsters, which means that each and every workout must be closely supervised. Allowing youngsters to train themselves or lift alone is an invitation to disaster—might as well open the gun locker and let them play with a pistol or shotgun. Well, it might not be that serious, but you get my point. An adult must be present to make sure they’re using correct technique and not trying to lift a weight they’re not yet ready for.
How young can they start? It depends—not so much on age as on mental maturity. Are they able to take instruction and focus on what they’re doing? In many cases very young children take to lifting simply because a parent or older sibling has embraced the activity. It’s only natural for a youngster to want to emulate his big brother. Keep in mind that gymnasts and figure skaters frequently start training when they’re five or six years old, and a huge number of children no older than six take part in many competitive sports: baseball, football, soccer and hockey.
The Europeans, from whom we’ve gained nearly all the information available on training youngsters, have no problem putting very young boys and girls on some type of strength routine. We also have examples in our own country. Two of our top prospects in the sport of Olympic lifting began training before they turned 10: Casey Burgener and James Moser. Their fathers, Mike and Jim, were outstanding Olympic lifters and taught their children the fundamentals of lifting as soon as they displayed an interest in learning them. James’ younger brother Willy began playing with a broomstick when he was only four, trying to mimic what his big brother was doing. Casey’s sister Sage also made lifting a part of her play when she was four and is now competing on the international level.
None of the youngsters were pushed into the activity, which is most important. They have to want to do it; it has to be self-motivated. Push, and they’re sure to rebel. Tell them they can’t do it, and they’ll soon be begging to give it a try. While I think it’s a mistake to rush youngsters into lifting, I also believe they shouldn’t be kept from training if they have a genuine desire to do so. That will only prompt them to do it on their own, which can lead to all kinds of trouble.
What is essential when dealing with young athletes is to make weight training fun and enjoyable, It’s way too early to instill a note of seriousness into the activity. I’ve seen quite a few fathers drive their sons in the weight room as if their lives depended on making a certain number on some exercise. The boys all grew to dislike lifting and as soon as they could dropped it entirely. When lifting is merely a part of an overall fitness program, though, they embrace the activity enthusiastically and use the discipline the rest of their lives.
While training sessions need a certain amount of regimentation at the beginning, it should be very light. The emphasis should be on perfecting the form on every exercise in the program. Don’t be concerned about numbers, just technique. Master the technique, and the numbers climb automatically. At the same time encourage youngsters to participate in other athletic activities—especially those that require a good deal of coordination, balance, quickness and foot speed with a minimum of the kinds of head-on collisions that occur in hockey and football. Wrestling, gymnastics and the martial arts fit into the scheme nicely. Coupled with strength training, they help develop a youngster into a finer athlete, which is the bottom line on everything.