What age should youth athletes start weight training?

As a Youth Athlete Development specialist, I thought it was time to address this question. Firstly, lets talk about some myths and misconceptions.

Lifting too young stunts growth

This myth is commonly sited as a reason that parents dont want their kids to begin training in the gym. I honestly dont know where this originated from or how it is still so common.

To clear this up, there is absolutely no.. I repeat NO scientific evidence to support this claim. Lifting weights can result in greater bone density, more muscle tone, more strength and speed however. A huge number of American athletes begin lifting weights from the time they are 12 (or younger) and finish up playing NFL or NHL at well above average height. We are starting to see this become more common in Australian sport with some young athletes beginning their strength training journey very early on and still finishing up playing AFL, Rugby League or Rugby Union.

Starting too young will result in injury

While this is a legitimate concern, with proper coaching and a focus on technique this risk is greatly reduced. Almost all competitive sports played by Aussie kids carries a greater injury risk than lifting weights in the gym. I for example, broke my neck, my right leg (twice) my wrist, a rib, my nose and dislocated my finger (not to mention the cuts and bruises) playing Rugby League and yet while lifting weight have not sustained a major injury.

I feel that because lifting for performance is a relatively new concept in Australian sport, we feel it is more unsafe than it actually is. A study in 2020 compared the injury rates of each sport for the 2016-17 period. During this period there were 58,500 injuries requiring hospitalization. Combined, all football codes contributed 31.6% of these injuries, yet Gym and Fitness contributed just 1.3%.

While this is not age range specific, it does highlight the greater risk in playing a contact sport compared with lifting in the gym. And yet, as a society, we still believe that it is an acceptable risk to play football but not to go to the gym to try to reduce the risk of injury on the field. While this article is aimed at weight training, it is also important to remember that weights can be bodyweight, bands and sandbags, not just barbells. The ability to use these different modalities of training allows a good coach to greatly minimize the injury risk to the athlete.

Ok, so now that these myths have hopefully been debunked, lets talk about the positive reasons our youth athletes should be utilizing the gym.

Improved performance

This one is pretty easy. As our youth athletes learn to lift with good technique, they develop better motor control and more muscle.

Greater motor control means that they will be able to move their body more efficiently. This will result in better agility, speed and some believe slightly better fitness! More muscle means being stronger in contact, better agility, better speed and some believe slightly better fitness!

There are tons of benefits to performance, but I have chosen the highlight a couple of key ones.

– Improved Motor Control

To put it simply, the better an athlete can control their body, the better the move on the field and at training. This will not only reduce their risk of soft tissue injury, it will help them run faster and be more skillful as well. Learning how to control your body in a controlled environment like the gym, set you up to be able to control it in a more chaotic situation (like a game).

– More Muscle

Why do we want more muscle on our athletes? Athletes who have more muscle are invariably stronger. In almost all sports and certainly all field sports, being stronger is a huge advantage. If you carry a ball into contact you will be able to absorb the force better than if you are smaller. You will be able to apply more force into the ground and therefore propel yourself further and faster with each stride. These things are commonly recognized as benefits of strength training. What isn’t so widely recognized is the benefit more strength can provide to your agility. By being stronger of each single leg, it allows an athlete to cut and change direction with better balance and less speed loss, thereby arriving at the destination (bouncing ball or hole in the defensive line) earlier than they normally would.

Reduced Injury Risk

The last benefit of weight training for youth athletes that I want to address is a reduction in the risk of on-field injury. It is understood that stronger and more pliable muscles are less likely to tear. Correctly programmed and coached weight training will give a youth athlete a better chance of gaining size and strength while maintaining or improving their flexibility.

Weight training is also shown to increase bone density. In any athlete, but particularly contact sport athletes, this is advantageous. We all accept the risk that broken bones can occur in a contact sport, however training with weight actually helps reduce that risk.

Obviously, I am biased in favor of starting Youth Athletes training with weights early, but I hope a few of these points have at least given you something to think about even if you don’t agree with me completely. While I don’t have an exact answer to the question, I think youth athletes should be training with weights from around 12 or 13. I am available to discuss these points in more detail should you feel the need.

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