Growing Pains

Functional strength training begins as soon as a baby can crawl. But when should you begin weight training with adolescents?

By Vern Gambetta

Vern Gambetta, MA, is the President of Gambetta Sports Training Systems in Sarasota, Fla., and the former Director of Conditioning for the Chicago White Sox. He is a frequent contributor to Training & Conditioning, and can be reached through his Web site at

Training & Conditioning, 12.5, July/August 2002,

Strength training is universally accepted as a proper means of improving athletic performance in adults, but there is still controversy over its role for younger, growing athletes who have not achieved full growth. From my perspective, properly managed strength training is beneficial to growing athletes and it is a mistake for them to avoid it.

Strength training, when implemented with proper progressions, does more than make the growing athlete stronger. It results in improved posture, and helps prevent injuries by strengthening bones, tendons, ligaments, and the rest of the muscular superstructure.

Critics of strength training for growing athletes claim that it can damage developing growth plates and create numerous overuse injuries. Those criticisms only apply if growing athletes limit themselves to training with significant external resistance without using a sensible progression of body-weight and core exercises to develop the needed base of strength.

From my years in the strength and conditioning field, I have concluded that the controversy and mythology (see Sidebar, “Myths,” at the end of this article) surrounding strength training at younger ages results from a misunderstanding of what strength training actually is. To clear up this misunderstanding, we must examine how we look at strength training and how we characterize it.

Strength training is the act of overcoming resistance, whether it comes from a set of barbells, your own body weight, or another athlete pushing against you. Effective strength training means overcoming such resistance using natural and useful movement patterns. Lifting weights is only a small part of strength training.

To illustrate my point, a prime example of effective strength training is a baby learning to crawl. Babies use progressive loading through natural movements to overcome the resistance of their own body weight. In addition, babies use strength training to develop useful and natural body movements.

Many strength and conditioning programs forget the need for natural movement patterns and instead have growing athletes excessively strain to develop isolated muscles. Such a philosophy will only increase the danger of overuse injuries without producing useful movement patterns that develop groups of muscles, bones, ligaments, and tendons.

Therefore, when we talk about growing athletes doing strength training, we must view it from the same perspective as the crawling baby, because strength is a component of many basic motor skills, whether those skills are crawling, walking, running, swinging a tennis racket, throwing a football, or kicking a soccer ball. Ignoring strength development only serves to limit the development of those other key motor skills.

Essentially, strength training should be viewed as part of a progression over the course of the growing athlete’s development. The key is to start growing athletes where they can succeed: with body-weight gravitational loading.

A growing athlete’s strength-training program should be body-weight based, with core strength and stability emphasized first. The athlete’s core, which includes the hips, abdomen, and lower back, is the relay center of the body.

Without a strong and stable core to transfer force produced by the upper extremities, it is virtually impossible to have efficient movement. Therefore, functional core training in standing positions that put the body perpendicular to gravity should be the foundation of the growing athlete’s strength development program. Core training should be a part of every session in which growing athletes participate.

In addition to the core-training emphasis, we must focus the growing athlete’s strength-training regimen on the ability to handle body weight. The growing athlete must be able to effectively handle body weight in a variety of movements and specific exercises before any significant external loading should even be considered.

Basic body weight exercises that I recommend for growing athletes are pull-ups, push-ups, dips, rope climbs, crawls, body-weight squats, lunges, and step-ups. In addition, you can help motivate your athletes by using creativity and imagination to design exercises and routines that incorporate the following fundamental movements: swinging, pulling, pushing, reaching, extending, bending, jumping, hopping, and bounding. Some examples of such creativity would include a tug-of-war for pulling, rocking a medicine ball back-and-forth for swinging, or rope climbing for reaching and pulling.

As your athletes use these exercises to work against gravity with their body weight as resistance, it will strengthen their bones, tendons, ligaments, and muscles in preparation for further external loading work to follow. Think of body-weight training as a small up-front investment for a large back-end return.

Starting with body weight also reinforces the concept of total chain training. Total chain training means treating the body as a kinetic chain with all the links connected to produce efficient motion. Whether it is a 14-year-old football player or a baby learning to crawl, starting strength training with body weight allows the growing athlete to gain awareness of his or her body, and it serves to improve coordination and recruitment. I also believe that it increases self-confidence and generates a positive self-image.

As your growing athletes progress from body-weight exercises to using external resistance, there are several specific recommendations that you should keep in mind when answering questions from athlete’s parents and when designing the strength-training plans:

• Do not base the strength-training programs solely on chronological age, because children mature at different rates. There are people who mature earlier than their peers and others who mature later. Instead, carefully consider the athlete’s biological age, also called the physical maturation level. Generally, the ages of 11 to 13 years for girls and 13 to 15 years for boys are considered the optimum ages to begin formal training with regularly scheduled workouts and the implementation of external resistance. These ages usually coincide with the ages when the production of anabolic and androgenic hormones is considerably increased as part of puberty.

As puberty progresses, the release of these hormones enables a significant expansion of muscle mass, which makes a post-pubescent athlete capable of lifting heavier weights than athletes who have not completed puberty. Strength coaches can rely on common sense and observation to determine when an athlete reaches puberty.

Can pre-pubescent girls and boys safely lift weights? For athletes who are younger than the optimal ages to begin external resistance, it is okay to do some light weight training that has the goal of teaching proper lifting techniques rather than putting on bulk. For example, it would be all right for a nine-year-old swimmer to do a limited amount of dumbbell presses with three-pound weights, as long as that person had a sound base of core strength, had the capability of safely handling those weights, and the weights were part of a properly supervised, progressive program with a major emphasis on body-weight training.

• Maturation includes emotional as well as physical growth. In other words, the child must have the emotional maturity to accept instruction and follow a program. Athletes’ minds, like their bodies, do not progress evenly according to age. Therefore, it is important to consider motivation, emotional maturity, and cognitive development. These are essential qualities for taking instruction and following directions.

At the optimum ages for beginning weight training (11 for girls and 13 for boys) most athletes are emotionally mature enough to understand and follow your strength-training plan. If they are not mature enough to follow the program, their strength training should be limited to body-weight exercises.

• The strength-training equipment must accommodate size and maturity differences of individual athletes. Whether the athlete is using machines or free weights, an improper fit can be both ineffective and detrimental.

• Never make your athletes excessively strain against weights. A good warning sign of excessive strain is when an athlete cannot perform an exercise with proper form and balance.

• Overhead lifting and the resulting loading of the spine should be progressed parallel with the development of an athlete’s core strength and stability. Key stress areas such as the spine and pelvis are still growing and extreme care should be taken to ensure that they are not injured. It isn’t necessary to eliminate overhead lifts, but just be sure that the athlete has adequately developed his or her core strength and is not excessively straining.

• Qualified adults must supervise the program. Athletes must be taught techniques that are not only safe, but effective. In addition, many growing athletes, particularly males, strength train with an emphasis on appearance rather than functionality. In other words, they skip body-weight training, safe progressions, and core training, and instead try to develop “show” muscles instead of “go” muscles.

• There are definite gender differences in regard to the need, response, and adaptation to strength training. The growing female athlete is physically more mature than the male athlete at the same chronological age. A good rule of thumb is to consider the female two years advanced in physical development over her male counterparts at the same age. Since female athletes mature quicker than males in terms of biological age, female athletes should be introduced to strength training earlier than male athletes (age 11 versus 13).

Another gender-related factor to consider is the percentage of muscle mass. Muscle mass in females is 30 to 35 percent of body weight versus 42 to 47 percent for males. As a result, most male athletes will eventually be able to safely handle more external resistance than their female counterparts. In addition, the lower muscle mass (and significantly lower testosterone levels) in female athletes makes them more susceptible to deconditioning than males. Consequently, for female athletes, it is important that strength training be threaded throughout the training year.

Don’t be mistaken, strength training growing athletes is not easy. It takes time and effort to develop an effective and safe program for them to follow. It can be even more difficult to get them to stay with the program without rushing ahead to more advanced exercises or to heavier resistance. But the rewards, for both the athletes and the strength coaches, are worth the effort.

Recommended Readings:
Drabik, Jozef. Children & Sports Training. (1996) Stadion Publishing Company, Inc., Island Pond, Vt.

Hartmann, Jurgen, and Tunneman, Harold. Fitness and Strength Training. (1989) Sportverlag, Berlin.

Ward, Paul E. and Ward, Robert D. Encyclopedia of Weight Training. Second Edition. (1997) QPT Publications. Laguna Hills, Calif.

SIDEBAR: Myths vs. Reality

Strength training for growing athletes is surrounded by numerous myths and misconceptions. Over the years these myths have grown without any basis in fact. Fortunately, empirical evidence gathered over the years by coaches who work with young, growing athletes refute each of these myths. Here are some of the more common myths followed by the facts:

MYTH: Growing athletes should never use free weights.
FACT: External resistance can be safely introduced after a progression of body weight and core training is completed.

MYTH: Before puberty, the young athlete cannot put on muscle mass or make significant strength gains because of the lack of anabolic hormones.
FACT: People begin strength training as soon as they are able to crawl. While it is true that young, pre-pubescent athletes cannot put on the same amount of muscle mass as adults, they can safely and effectively strength train.

MYTH: In young athletes, strength training stunts growth because of stress on the growth plates.
FACT: Growth plates and other tissue will only be injured through improper strength training, such as using excessive external resistance. However, a sound, progressively applied strength-training regimen will actually strengthen an athlete’s growing bones, ligaments, and muscles.

MYTH: Strength training will limit flexibility and hinder skill development in growing athletes.
FACT: The opposite is true. Strength is a basic component of other motor skills. Cutting a good strength training program out of an athlete’s activities can actually hinder development of other motor skills.