Children and Teenagers – is weight training ok?

Resistance/Weight/Strength Training for Children and Teenagers – when is the BEST time to begin? 

Author – Glenn Hansen – Head Coach – Vector Health & Performance
This is a question I get asked on a regular basis.  I think its almost the favourite “opinion piece” when I am at a BBQ, especially with people I do not know and they find out that what I do is coach young athletes in the gym.  The invariable line, “weight training stunts your growth,” (Insert tears here.  I am 6 foot 1 inch tall – weight training did not stunt my growth too much!!).  And then a host of other comments about how bad it is for young people.
Why is this opinion so dominant?  Maybe because what people do not know about, scares them so they take the view that it is bad and do not do it?  If it sound bad, it is bad and therefore will always be bad.  Or, is it that people associate strength training with ridiculous feats of strength born by powerlifters and weightlifters and all they can think of is a maximal effort squat where the lifter’s eyes are nearly popping from one’s skull?
In this article, I want to go over a few key points that relate to the decision when to start resistance training (this is probably the most correct term but also can relate to strength or weight training) for your child or teenager.
  1. What is our role as a coach of a young athlete?
  2. Age is not the key – competency is.
  3. What can you expect from strength training for a child or youth athlete?

What is our role as a coach of a young athlete? 

First and foremost, let’s discus the role of a strength and conditioning coach especially around younger athletes.
We are given a privilege and a massive responsibility of being a part of a young person’s physical, psychological and social development.  This is not something to take lightly.  Our job is more than just teaching a child how to squat. We teach the art of how to train.  How to work hard, but also train smarter, and especially to recover smarter so that they can train day after day without issue.  I look at the longevity of some of our younger athletes in the most positive way, rather than their absolute results.  Our role as strength and conditioning coaches is to develop these training ethics or work ethic early so that we can help children progress through a competency based system, which we will go over in the next part of this article.  This rewards children and youth athletes for demonstrating good technique and the capacity to work.
In short, we want to teach children and teenagers that there is more to strength than just doing weights.  Its learning what goes into a good athlete, to be athletic, not just strong.

Age is not the key – competency is. 

The Australian Strength and Conditioning Association has released a position paper on resistance training for child and youth athletes and it provides some really clear structures and competency based modelling for coaches to follow.
The link to this article and the position statement is here:
If you are coaching at school level, or junior club level, this is something that you should read and know before taking children into any structured strength or resistance training.
An example of where this competency based system works well is: (these are real-life examples from VHAP with some details modified to protect identity).

Example 1:

A 9 year old athlete who has not done resistance training before.  She is already doing well at swimming and her parents would like her to start in the gym.
On initial testing she demonstrates the following:
10 Push ups good form
5 pull ups good form
35 bodyweight squats in a minute
5 single leg squats each leg
60seconds front and side bridge.
She is quite ahead of where we, as coaches would expect of her at this age.  So, the competency based system therefore realises this and talks to us as coaches about how to progress her in a way that will help HER rather than putting into a standard group program where she will get bored and most likely not improve.
We set her some goals around bodyweight resistance under some time pressure rather than increasing external load with many exercises, due to her in-experience training in the gym. We talked to her and her parents about doing this for a whole school term to get her used to being in the gym environment.  She accomplished all the goals set, and has started working with external load at the age of 10 with good success.  Her performance in the pool is still improving and she reports to use she enjoys her training.

Example 2:

A 14 year old boy comes to our gym, with no prior resistance training experience. Plays contact sport.  On initial testing he demonstrates:
0 Push ups (none completed with acceptable technique)
0 pull ups
0 one leg squats
0 bodyweight squats (technique)
15 seconds front bridge – unable to complete side bridge.
The key to the competency based assessment and progression here is the need to go back to the beginning, clearly explain the results to the athlete and what we want from the athlete to enable them to go “into the gym,” where several of his friends were.  He essentially had to prove to us, as coaches and to himself that he could pass the level 1, level 2 and level 3 assessments.  He was exceptionally motivated and in 7 months progressed through 3 levels of competency and is now happily training in the gym with external load at 15 years of age and is one of the strongest athletes we have in our facility for his age and size.
Sometimes, its not strength that prohibits movement quality, it is mobility, or stability of your trunk or certain joints.  The tests that we do test more than strength. They test mobility, core stability and basic coordination of basic movement qualities.  You can tell a lot about an athlete watching them squat as to what might happen in other exercises.
I hope this gives an idea to what the competency based program is about.  Time, and persistence does make young athletes better.  Its not going to happen in 3 days, so as a parent and a sport coach, sometimes we have to be patient.  Everyone is different, everyone’s timeline of development, and maturation is different.

What can you expect from strength training for a child or youth athlete? 

  1. Learn how to train.
  2. Improve mobility and core stability BEFORE worrying about absolute strength.
  3. Improve coordination of movement (Neuromuscular training)
This done well will lead to an athlete becoming stronger!  Not necessarily growing muscles, but using the muscles that exist on their frame already in a more efficient way.
Remember, the BRAIN controls the body.  You have to train the connection from the body to the brain and back to the body.  This is done through repetition of GOOD movements!
Vector Health & Performance has a junior athlete development clinic in the Easter Holidays!  We are going to work with an age range of 8 to 12 years for this clinic as we want to really hone in on the basic movement patterns, whilst having a fun and enjoyable experience!
If you are an interested parent or coach, please feel free to come and watch the sessions so you can understand what we are teaching.  Happy for you to contact me personally on to ask questions about your child, if you are reading this wondering whether you should get your child or teenager involved in any sort of development training.
To find out more, you can call 4927 8190 or email or you can click the link HERE, to the enrolment form for the clinic.


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