The Importance of Weight Training for Young Athletes
Every high performance coach across every sport has a unique approach to the developmental web, and how they prioritize its various elements. Everyone has a favorite technique, their own ideas on how to develop new techniques, gripping strategies, match game plans, and a timeline for when to focus on each element. Perhaps no element of training has been more unjustly demonized in coaching and sport in general than weights for strength and conditioning for the young athlete.
For a long time, there was a stigma against athletes lifting weights too young. The prevailing wisdom was that there was an increased risk of injury with weight training, and even a suspicion that early weight training could stunt an athlete’s growth. The judo-specific caution was frequently, “it isn’t about strength, it’s all about technique, you shouldn’t have to muscle through it”.
Being a high performance athlete means that you have to be a great athlete, which necessarily includes being strong and fit. I myself never listened much to the idea of only focusing on technique in my younger years, however, some of what is being said around you does become internalized on some level.
The main scare tactic employed by coaches when I was in training suggested that having athletes lift weights too young could cause long term problems. Like it or not, I carried these ideas with me as I crossed from life as an athlete into life as a coach. I would never sacrifice an athlete’s long term career for a boost in the short term, so I began my work as a coach with a certain wariness with regards to weight training.
To satisfy my curiosity, and to quell my trepidation on the topic of weight training for young athletes, I began to read and research. The science on weights is in fact the opposite of what was, and largely still is, being said among judo coaches. After listening to multiple strength and conditioning coaches of national sporting programs, I learned that they regularly have athletes lifting weights at 12 years of age, with no ill effect. This information blew me away, and called into question my past notions of when athletes should start lifting.
In fact research shows that resistance training, or weight lifting, provides many advantages including but not limited to: increased bone strength index (BSI), decreased incidents of fractures, improved self-esteem and greater interest in health and fitness. Far from being a risk to young athletes, weight training provides them with many benefits with little to no risk when performed in a safe and supervised environment.
With this knowledge in hand I have made strength training an integral part of my judo program for my young developing athletes.
I also learned that with very young athletes, coaches frequently rely heavily on lifting technique rather than how much weight athletes are lifting. They often use a broom handle, for example, instead of an olympic bar to practice squats. What benefit is there to having athletes go through the motions, without any weight at all in this way, one may ask. One obvious benefit is getting the young athlete into a routine, and acknowledging the importance of training that must be done outside of their sport on a regular basis. Of course, when working with athletes in a gym at this age you must always make sure they’re doing everything safely, much in the way we make sure we carefully watch judoka of this age when they’re performing a choke.
Another indicator of the importance of strength training early was a statistic that I saw that is truly game-changing: STRENGTH TRAINING REDUCES THE RISK OF INJURY IN SPORT BY 69%!!! That is a truly stunning number, and the more that you think about it, the more obvious it seems.
Sport, by its very nature, creates obvious imbalances in the body. Specific muscle groups are worked very hard and overdevelop, while others are utilized much less. Think of a pitcher in baseball: 90% of his job is only to throw the ball, not to field it, not to run the bases, nor to swing the bat. This kind of hyper-specialization creates great imbalances in the body. When one part of the body does not do its job, another body part tries to make up for it, allowing injuries to occur. For instance, lacking good hip mobility, the lower back tries to compensate, creating the perfect environment for injury.
A world-renowned strength coach, Eric Cressey, talks about the importance of IMBALANCED STRENGTH TRAINING. Instead of lifting weights equally, ie, for every push exercise you try to match with a pull, he targets weaknesses in the body. If your chest is stronger than your back, the only way to balance the body is to do more conditioning of the back to catch up to the development of your chest. By working in this manner he is able to get the body more balanced in a much shorter window of time. Once you have made up the ground on weaker areas, you target other areas of need.
HOW CAN ATHLETE ANALYZER HELP COACHES STAY ON TOP OF THEIR ATHLETES’ STRENGTH TRAINING?
While the first function of ATHLETE ANALYZER was to help with the sport specific review of athlete performance as well as video review, it has evolved to be an all-encompassing platform. With Athlete Analyzer, you can send your athletes their training program right to their phones. Your athletes can check in and show that they performed their workouts that day, and you can track workload, to ensure that they are peaking at the right time and avoid unnecessary injuries due to over training.