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There’s a lot of confusion and misinformation about when young athletes can begin to train. Some people throw out a random age that they feel is appropriate and claim that lifting weights before then will stunt growth—something no athlete wants.
It's true that if a young athlete with no training experience tries to perform advanced exercises [e.g., Back Squat or Bench Press] with heavy loads, he or she runs a higher risk of injury. However, the same applies to mature adults—or anyone using improper training methods.
To progress to a full strength and power training program, follow the guidelines below, which are based on the Canadian Long-Term Athletic Development progression for young athletes.
Learning to Train [males 9-12, females 8-11]
Young athletes can begin training at any age, but their program should be appropriate for their physical maturity, training experience and athleticism. They should focus first on developing movement skills and coordination, then move on to athletic skills through practicing their sport and performing skill drills. Athletes should be able to perform sports skills with ease before allocating time to strength training.
Youth training programs should be designed to gradually increase strength through bodyweight and functional exercises, like Push-Ups, Lunges and Squat Jumps. It’s important to strengthen the entire core with exercises like Leg Raises, Supermans and Russian Twists. This prepares the body to cope with the stress of weightlifting and teaches the movement coordination required for more advanced exercises.
Training to Train [males 12-16, females 11-15]
This is a critical period for young athletes, during which they continue to develop their skills while also improving their conditioning. If strength and speed cannot be maintained during a training session or game, training will be less effective and in-game performance will suffer.
As strength and coordination gains are made, athletes can begin weight training. Begin with weights that are light enough to handle easily while performing three sets of 12 reps. This improves neuromuscular pathways, increases muscle activation and size, and familiarizes the body with weight training movements before embarking on a heavier strength and power program.
Training to Compete [males 16-23, females 15-21]
Once their bodies can handle higher intensity exercise, athletes should begin a strength and power program. This incorporates lower reps with heavy loads to induce maximal strength and power gains. Below are the guidelines from the National Strength and Conditioning Association for strength and power training:
- Strength – 85 percent max; <7 reps; 2 to 6 sets
- Power – 75 to 95 percent max, 3 to 5 reps, 3 to 5 sets
Finally, athletes should follow the fundamentals of strength training to ensure rapid strength gains and avoid performance sabotaging overtraining and injuries.