Training The Young Athlete

Training a young athlete can be a very rewarding experience, but at the same time has some challenges and there are many factors to consider and a few myths to dispel along the way. I have been lucky enough to have worked with a lot of kids, through my time spent coaching hockey and training. Based on my own experience along with reviewing the relevant research in the area I will make a few recommendations when it comes to training the young athlete.

One of the most important things to consider is the kid’s age and stage of development. There can be a wide variation in physical development amongst the same age group, so to devise the proper training program establishing the individuals stage of development is crucial.

If the athlete is pre-adolescent you have to realize that there is not going to be significant muscle growth from the training as there are not adequate levels of circulating testosterone. But that certainly does not limit you from achieving significant strength gains!

In fact it has been shown that in children the training-induced strength gains are related to neural mechanisms as opposed to actual muscle growth. Some of these neural adaptations to training include; increased motor unit activation, better motor unit coordination, recruitment and firing. It also has been suggested that improvements in motor skill performance and coordination of involved muscle groups play a big role in the strength increase seen with training. The same is true for an adult who is just beginning a resistance training program, you will see an increase in strength by these neural mechanism before any noticeable hypertrophy has occurred.

Common Questions and Concerns by Parents

1. I have heard that lifting weights at a young age can be harmful, and wonder if it will stunt growth, or affect the childs growth plates?

This is one of the myths to dispel right away, have a discussion with the parents and explain that the research just does not support this. The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and fitness has concluded that appropriate strength training programs have no apparent adverse effect on linear growth or the growth plates.

In the 70’s and 80’s the statistics on injuries in youth from resistance training were basically flawed as they were based on emergency room data where the patient reported the injury was “related” to resistance exercise and equipment. These numbers were used to make projections, when in many cases the injuries present were a result of inappropriate training technique, excessive loading, and lack of supervision. It was inappropriate to generalize and say resistance training was causing these injuries.

More recent studies have continuously shown there is a low risk of injury in children and adolescents who are supervised and follow age appropriate training guidelines.

2. So if my child starts resistance training should they only use light weights?

It is a common belief that children or pre adolescents should refrain from lifting heavy weights. This is such a general statement it really has no merit on its own. We need to define what a “lift” consists of and what “heavy” is.

A “lift” consists of lifting weights in a prescribed manner.
Once this prescribed manner is no longer followed then you are at risk of increasing the likelihood of injury. In training children, my definition of “too heavy” is simply a weight that causes the individual to deviate from the prescribed form.

I would certainly agree that a young kid should NOT be attempting any form of heavy resistance training without proper supervision and technique instruction. But in a young athlete that is serious about their sport and is highly coachable, why should you limit their increase in strength by being overly cautious and only using very light weights? If the young athlete achieves proper form and technique, then a progressive increase in load can be utilized to maximize strength gains.

Seriously, watch kids playing outside and see them jumping around and it will give you a perspective on what they can handle. For example, a jump off a typical park bench seat will produce forces of up to 7 times body weight. When you think about this, lifting weights with proper form and supervision seems safe in comparison to what they often do unsupervised on a playground.

3. Are there really any benefits for starting training at such a young age?

This one often comes from parents who are reluctant to believe that their child can benefit from one on one instruction. They tend to think their child can just start working out on their own at home, and they are already “in shape” so would not benefit much by having a trainer.

If the child is ready for participation in sport activities then they are ready for some types of resistance training and there are tons of benefits to starting early!

Studies have actually shown that because weightlifting involves such complex neural activation patterns, childhood may be the ideal time to develop the coordination and skill technique to perform these lifts correctly (3). The same is true of trying to learn a new language, it is a lot easier to do it early during childhood and take advantage of the increased neural plasticity.

The current position paper from the NSCA outlines many benefits and states that a properly designed and supervised resistance training program can (1);

1. Enhance the muscular strength and power of youth.
2. Improve the cardiovascular risk profile of youth.
3. Improve motor skill performance and may contribute to enhanced sports performance of youth.
4. Increase a young athlete’s resistance to sports related injuries.
5. Help improve the psychosocial well-being of youth.
6. Help promote and develop exercise habits during childhood and adolescence.


First of all, I want to address a common problem I see in high level young athletes. That is there are cases where the kids excel at their sport, but are being pushed way too much by their parents. I for one am not interested in recommending a child start training 2-3 times a week, when they are already being burned out and starting to dislike their sport. Lets all remember the whole idea in the beginning with sport is for the kids to have fun. So I would ask that parents talk to their kids and see how motivated they are to go to the next level, or do extra training before pushing them to do so. If the kid looks at training as a chore and is not interested it is unlikely they will receive the maximum benefit.

After saying that, a good trainer will find ways to engage the athlete and make the workouts fun while still achieving the desired results. I would suggest incorporating some challenges within the workout where you test reps completed or time achieved on an endurance exercise, incorporate some balance training (bosu or exercise ball), use some interactive exercises such as medicinal ball throwing, or complete a circuit or sprint for a best time. Although the bulk of the workout should involve working on the basic exercises with good technique, I have found by incorporating some of these methods into the workout you will keep the younger athlete interested and attentive and allow them to have goals they can reach within the workout to help keep them motivated.

The level of focus and motivation of the athlete is also very important. I have had kids that are obviously not interested in training and really do not even want to put in the effort it takes to do things correctly, which can be frustrating. If the kid really is not mentally ready to progress into training properly, the best option may be for them to branch out and play other sports in their off season. Cross training may help to keep things interesting, have them be involved in a team dynamic and build new skills that in most cases will make them a better athlete in their own sport. This is essentially the idea that young athletes should not specialize in a sport too early as it can actually hinder their development.

I have also had a bunch of kids who are highly motivated, and in this case they can’t get enough and are involved in several other sports as well. In this case it is even more important to taper the training volume during the season. During in-season sessions there should be less focus on training volume and conditioning and instead focus on the refinement of technique, proper form, use of rehabilitative or corrective exercises to deal with any injuries sustained, and educate on proper nutrition and rest habits.

Keep the workouts functional, really build a solid foundation in your young athletes and most of all engage the kids and make this a learning experience while at the same time having some fun. As the strength coach you should be helping your athletes develop good training and nutrition habits that will stick with them for the rest of their life. Remember kids are easily influenced at this age and as professionals we should utilize every teaching opportunity we have to make a positive impact on these young athletes.

Dr. Mark Molloy

1. Faigenbaum AD, Kraemer WJ, Blimkie CJ, et al. Youth resistance training: updated position statement paper from the national strength and conditioning association. J Strength Cond Res. Aug 2009;23(5 Suppl):S60-79.

2. McCambridge, Stricker, et al. Strength training by children and adolescents. American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. Pediatrics, 2008 Apr:121(4):835-40.

3. Dimitrov, D. Age to begin with weightlifting training. In: Proceedings of the International Weightlifting Symposium. A. Lukacsfalvi and F. Takacs, eds. Budapest, Hungary: International Weightlifting Federation, 1993. pp. 25–30.


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