There’s been a recent uptick in the number of social media videos showcasing high school kids lifting with bad form.
Kids are maxing out on Cleans, Squats and Deadlifts in weight rooms filled with cheering peers twirling their shirts above their heads. While the camaraderie in these videos is admirable, many of the efforts these athletes rally around are far less praiseworthy. Cleans that crush kids into turtle-like postures, Deadlifts that resemble the St. Louis Arch, and Box Squats with so much bounce the athlete looks like they’re enduring an internal earthquake. Although the effort of these athletes is an awesome thing, big numbers executed with ugly form should not be praised.
The blame ultimately must fall on the coach, who’s putting these kids in harm’s way. Who can blame a kid for piling on more weight in a testosterone-laden environment where all their teammates are rooting them on? And if a sloppy rep still “counts” in the eye’s of the coach, they can then go around bragging about their big number. An athlete respecting the max-out process begins with their coach respecting the max-out process, yet many are posting videos of dangerous PRs then bragging about how strong their athletes are.
This isn’t an article meant to bash all high school coaches. This isn’t a cry for changes in legislation that will require certified strength coaches in every high school weight room. It’s a call to common sense. A call to keeping athletes safe and their best interests in mind. To chase quality of movement over likes “on the ‘gram.”
While I know there are great coaches out there who use percentage-based programs and linear periodization based on a 1-Repetition Maximum (1RM), I would venture to say most will agree with the following statement: You must earn your right to max out!
Chasing big weights in the weight room should be treated as a privilege, not a right. To earn the right to max out, athletes need to display movement consistency, stability and self-awareness.
Let’s start with movement consistency, because so many young athletes lack this crucial ability. Due to puberty, young athletes have constantly shifting biomechanics and mobility levels. It is hard to create consistent movement quality when the length of their levers is constantly changing. Especially between the years of 12-15, boys can experience growth spurts upwards of 6 inches per year. Imagine doing a Back Squat once an eight-week program and literally being taller in each workout.
While the rate of growth could vary, it can be enough to cause small but noticeable changes to an athlete’s biomechanics. Young athletes have a hard enough time nailing down a movement without the added complexity of a constantly changing body. Now imagine trying to push a maximum weight on a movement you can’t even execute with consistency? That extra 15 pounds on the bar is great to see on a spreadsheet, but isn’t beneficial to performance if it turns the Squat into a Good Morning and the athlete hurts their back. Athletes should prove they can continue to execute a movement with consistency under increasing loads before they should be allowed to “max out.”
Another piece of the puzzle is stability. One of the more interesting thought leaders I’ve come across on stability and strength is powerlifter and chiropractor Dr. Jordan Shallow. An interesting point Dr. Shallow raises is that since humans are bipedal creatures whose gait cycle is unilateral, training bilaterally isn’t necessarily functional as it pertains to the joints. However, the overall nervous stimulus of training with heavy loads bilaterally can be beneficial for performance. In order to maximize the safety of the joints, one needs to have stability. If an athlete does not have unilateral stability, we shouldn’t expect them to display it bilaterally under heavy loads. Thus, the chance of crummy form and risk of injury increases. As Shallow puts it, “Why squat on two legs when you can’t stand on one?” Again, a lack of stability should reveal itself long before an athlete attempts a 1RM. The only way it would not is if the athlete decided to make a massive jump in weight for their 1RM, which leads us to our next point.
The more self-aware an athlete is, the better-prepared they are to max out. One of my favorite examples of this comes from a video that Travis Mash (@masheliteperformance) posted of his top 15 year-old lifter snatching nearly 300 pounds:
While the snatch itself is quite impressive, at the end of the video is something I consider even more impressive. Morgan, the lifter, gives the “cut if off” gesture to the camera, signaling that he’s stopping there. A heavier lift will not be attempted that day. While the lift was beautiful, he has the experience to know when enough is enough. That self-awareness is only acquired through hours upon hours of consistent training. In my opinion, an athlete needs a baseline of self-awareness to earn the right to max out. Otherwise, they could place themselves at risk by attempting a lift they have no right touching (the coach should also know their athletes well enough to step in if needed, of course.)
If a high school athlete has displayed the requisite consistency, stability and self-awareness to max out, then by all means, give it a go. Nailing a heavy lift with solid form can be a highly rewarding, confidence-building experience for a young athlete. But if not, I suggest finding a safer way to measure progress than a 1RM. This could be a jumping test like a Broad Jump or Vertical Jump, or testing a 3RM or 5RM as opposed to a 1RM. You could even use what I call a “movement quality PR.” This entails the athlete performing a lift with a weight they know they can manage, but the coach using video to show them how their form has improved under that same load over time.
Photo Credit: Kanawa_Studio/iStock