Most likely, everyone reading this article has heard or been told the mantra, "You need to be able to control your body weight before you start lifting weights." If you can't control the weight that you carry around all day, how can you safely control an external load? This, while good in concept, does not translate well to everyday life. Most young athletes develop major compensations that could be avoided with appropriate external loading.
4 lifting techniques if learning bodyweight is necessarily the best technique to develop that movement pattern.
Upper Body Push
The push-up is the first exercise most kids will learn. Everyone can do a push upright? I have to disagree. I have never had an athlete come into our program as a freshman and perform a perfect push-up. There are plenty who do them decently well, but they all have developed compensations to get more reps where strength and stability are lacking. Imagine you have a 10-year-old kid who weighs 80 lbs. You would never in your wildest dreams throw that kid on a bench with a pair of 40 lb. Dumbbells, but that is what he is doing when he attempts to do push-ups. It is even worse because we are adding in the required core stability to perform a push-up correctly. Let's imagine that we have the fourth-grader try to bench with a pair of 40 lb. Dumbbells. What do you suppose this kid will do? He will either get crushed by the weight or perform very uncoordinated half or quarter reps. That is the way that nearly every kid learns to develop their push-up. They will do terrible quarter reps with a caved pelvic position for high volume. Are we keeping our kids safe by having them learn this way? Now you may argue that this is just growing pains, and as the kids get stronger, their push-up will get better, but as I said before, I have never had a Freshman in high school come in with a perfect push-up. They have been doing pressing incorrectly for probably 7-8 years with a relatively heavy load. This is going to have long term adverse effects on their shoulder function. No one in their right mind would recommend having a child perform short-range, high volume, heavy loaded exercises with the spine in a compromised position, but that is what occurs when they are "learning to control their body weight."
- DB Bench Press at low weight (5-15 lb dumbbells depending on age) emphasizing control, full range of motion, and proper rotation at the shoulder
- High and low plank to develop core stability
Upper Body Pull
The most common bodyweight upper body pull exercise is the chin-up. The same negatives for the push-up apply for the chin-up. Kids lack the upper body strength to get their chin over the bar without kicking and performing a short range of motion. This is going to affect shoulder function negatively. It would be better for a young athlete to develop strength in the entire range of motion and proper movement at the shoulder.
- Lat Pull-down with a chin-up grip at a low weight. Emphasizing control and a full range of motion.
- Ring row for a better body weight option that is more easily modified. Emphasizing body control, proper motion at the shoulder and core stability.
- Plenty of time playing on the monkey bars to develop grip strength and body control.
Unlike the two upper body exercises, there is nothing less safe about performing a squat body weight. The legs are more than strong enough for a kid to perform a bodyweight squat safely. The only thing that I would argue is that it can be challenging to develop a proper squat without a little external load. I know from watching my children grow that we were all once able to perform a perfect deep squat, but most kids lose that ability by grade school unless there has been some intentional effort to maintain it. For this reason, it is just as much a "new" movement as a push-up or a chin-up. This may sound counter-intuitive, but the squat technique typically improves with a lightweight held like a goblet squat. The reason for this is that the weight acts as a counterbalance. Without the weight usually, athletes have to lean their torso forward to keep themselves from falling back. The weight in front creates a counterbalance to allow the athlete to stay upright without falling back. This will prevent the athlete from compensating with poor positioning and help the athlete to safely and effectively develop their squat.
Goblet squat with a light dumbbell held against their torso. Emphasize full range of motion, heels flat on the ground, knees in line with feet or slightly outside, and torso upright.
The hip hinge is the one movement pattern I would argue is better to learn bodyweight, but it is the least likely to be taught. Typically, the first time an athlete will perform a hip hinge is when they first enter a weight-room. The ability to hinge at the hips is so important for athletic development. It is needed to train the muscles of the posterior chain effectively, but it is needed for countless other exercises in the weight room. It is not as sexy as a push-up or a chin-up, but it will pay huge dividends if when a young athlete enters the weight-room for the first time, they already can hip hinge.