Kids don't need to max out in the weight room. And if they are going to push maximum weights, they better earn that right before they do. I've written on this topic before, and while it seems like a hard stance, it's something that goes beyond playing it safe.
Maxing Out Movements
Maxing out movements in the weight room, regardless of the exercise, is something that shouldn't be a priority for middle or high school kids as often as many may think. While the emotional reward to lifting a max weight may be high, the risk and the physical rewards aren't worth it. To understand this sentiment comes down to understanding how muscles function and adapt to weight training.
Adaptation is the foremost reason why anyone should be doing weight training in the first place. If we are not chasing a specific adjustment, then we are likely going to find ourselves wasting time. To chase an adjustment, we must first understand how muscles are organized and how they begin the process of adapting to the stimulus of weight training.
Like any living thing, muscles are composed of cells called muscle fibers that are bound together to perform a specific function: muscle contractions. These contractions are controlled by the nervous system, receiving signals from the brain that stimulate the muscle fibers into doing their job. The more frequently a muscle receives a signal and contracts, it adapts to a needless signal to create the desired action. Over time and the creation of tension, muscle fibers needed to perform a specific movement become less needed. This is the process of creating Intermuscular Coordination (the interaction in between the nervous system and muscle), where the nervous system becomes more efficient and sends signals to create more fluid and efficient movements (i.e., mastering technique with an empty or lightly loaded barbell). As Intermuscular Coordination improves, we add additional weight to movements to increase muscle fiber recruitment (Bompa).
Muscle fiber recruitment is part of the process of Intramuscular Coordination. Intermuscular Coordination is the process of getting muscle fibers to do what you want, but Intramuscular Coordination is the process of getting muscle fibers to do what you want at the same time and with greater force (Bompa). This is where many people tend to go out of order in the weight room with young athletes. There is an immediate push for more weight to be added to the bar and not enough time spent on developing Intermuscular Coordination.
Spending time on developing Intermuscular Coordination is crucial for young athletes, and it allows for greater development in the long run. Nervous system adaptations aren't the only factors at play in this first crucial part of the training process. While the nervous system and muscle fibers adapt to the training stimulus, so do the joints, tendons, and ligaments. They develop greater resilience to load and tension, which results in a reduction in injury risk. Especially with athletes, getting hurt in the weight room results in a decrease in participation in the sport you are trying to improve in, which is the opposite result desired from Strength and Conditioning. By taking time to develop Intermuscular Coordination, you let the entire body prepare itself to be loaded in a manner that is safe and effective.
This also factors into the stability aspect that was mentioned in my last article on this topic. Intermuscular Coordination develops the ability of the stabilizing musculature at each joint to react to the different nervous system signals being sent. And then, when you begin to load, the Intramuscular Coordination that is developed will get these stabilizers firing at the right time to stabilize the joints under those heavier loads. If we load too quickly, we run the risk of those stabilizing muscles not doing their job at the right time and increasing our chances for injury.
This Intermuscular Coordination also transfers to sporting movements very effectively, which is likely why an athlete is lifting weights in the first place! Fluid and powerful movements come through muscles firing in a coordinated way to create locomotion. With more time spent on developing these muscular and neural adaptations, we get a healthier and more coordinated athlete to work with in developing skills.
Now, the beauty of this is that it doesn't take much time if initiated from the beginning of training. If you take time to allow for these adaptations, you build a wider base of training experience that allows for a higher ceiling in the long run. Loading an athlete to a maximum weight without the prerequisite coordination leads to compensations in the system and the formation of bad habits. The longer these compensations go uncorrected, the higher the risk for injury becomes. But, if you take the time to build good habits with proper technique, you build a more resilient and higher performing athlete when it matters.
Bompa, Tudor, Buzzichelli, Carlo A. Periodization Training for Sports. 2015