It's Time to Train - Middle School Athletes and Weights
Jeff McCann, M.S. USAW, Owner and Executive Vice President of The Future Elite Academy in Westlake Village, California, lends his 20 years of expertise to help with middle school athletes and weights.
One of the most frequently asked questions I get from parents of young football players is when is the appropriate time to get their child into strength training? I have come to this conclusion, as a certified strength coach for 20 years, that the junior high period is an appropriate time for young athletes to begin to incorporate developmentally appropriate strength training regimens.
The mindset of some in our society is that weight training programs, when implemented prematurely, can ultimately have negative side effects such as stunted growth and or cause debilitating injury. Strength training in any capacity, if done incorrectly, can result in injury—but it needs to be stated that weight training does not negatively impact growth or maturation in adolescents (Malina 2006). That said, once the realization occurs that there is no correlation between weight lifting and stunting the growth of a child we can then address the real question which is—what type of training program should a young athlete participate in? The answer is a developmentally appropriate strength training program where the emphasis is on correcting the natural imbalances and asymmetries of the young athlete, promoting balance and coordination, training multidirectional movement, all with the ultimate objective of creating a balanced foundation from which the athlete can build off of in their high school and college years.
Developing the core of an athlete (stomach musculature, hips, glutes, lower back, adductors, obliques) is the primary objective of a developmentally appropriate training regimen. The thought being that the arms and legs will never truly be strong, let alone work in conjunction with one another efficiently, until the trunk musculature of the body is strong. I often use the analogy of a bridge with my athletes, explaining to them that their undeveloped core is comparable to that of a suspension bridge (the wobbly rope bridges you see from the movies). Through extensive training we want to transform the instability of the suspension bridge into a steel bridge that will be ready to handle heavier strength training loads. I explain to the athletes that I train that their goals of future big bench presses or heavy back squats will never come to fruition without this essential steel bridge foundation. A strong, functional, core can be gained through various methods. I highly value the traditional isometric exercises like planks, side planks, and push-up plank variations, and cable Pallof holds as a starting point with training any athlete—regardless if they are a child or a professional football player that comes to my facility! Once the foundation has been forged though these isometric exercises I then add a dynamic component, rational movement, to the core training. This progression includes exercises like weighted trunk twists, cable chops, lateral medicine ball tosses, medicine ball chops and deceleration movements, and medicine ball wall slams from various positions.
I also recommend incorporating a track hurdle protocol system, paired with any strength training exercise, to help facilitate hip mobility in the young athlete. Fluidity in the hip will help combat the tightness that will naturally accompany any lower body strength-training program. If a trainer focuses attention daily on generating fluidity in the young athlete’s hip joint it will allow the child the ability to run faster, move more efficiently when changing directions, and ultimately detouring the chance of injuring their knee ligaments in the future.
Essentially trainers should refrain from ever putting a barbell on a young kid’s back until the necessary amount of time has been invested in effectively developing a core foundation and improving an athlete’s hip mobility. This foundation of trunk strengthening is developed over a period of months of consistent training and it is vital in preventing future lower back injuries. In addition to staying clear of barbell back squats during this time period an effective and developmentally appropriate strength program will incorporate as many unilateral (single leg) exercises as possible such as lunges and split squats. The most important aspect of lower body strength training is hinging/ hamstring exercises. The hamstrings are the body’s gas pedal and its break system—but they are often the most under trained part of the developing athlete’s body! Implementing a 2:1 posterior to anterior musculature exercise ratio will help correct the natural imbalances that the athlete will experience as well as promote knee stability which can help detour injury. My favorite exercises for training hamstrings are the Nordic Curl (Glute Hamstring Raise) and Single Leg Romanian Deadlifts. Incorporating a high volume of hamstring exercises in a strength-training program will expedite the development of this part of the body and ultimately make a better, healthier athlete.
This will be an unpopular opinion amongst many but the athlete at this age should not be bench pressing with a barbell in the traditional sense. Instead an effective upper body strength foundation program should be used (before ever benching) where an emphasis is placed on shoulder stability, the incorporation of safe horizontal pushing variations, and the use of a 2:1 ratio favoring pulling exercises over the popular pushing/ benching exercises. Shoulder stability can be trained in many ways but I suggest the use of a traditional foot speed ladder that can double as a shoulder stability ladder. A trainer can create various patterns for the athlete to move in who will be on his/her hands and feet (think of moving multi-directionally in the pushup position). One of my favorite “safe” benching variations with this age group is the Floor Press. This allows the young athlete to reap the benefits of upper body horizontal pushing, but keeps them flat on the floor with their shoulders touching the surface preventing them from ever being placed in an awkward position pressing that could result in serious injury. I have always used the approach with my athletes that if they can pull heavy, they can ultimately push more. I also believe that if the posterior musculature is developed it will contribute significantly to strength in the traditional compound exercises that are highly valued for football players in high school and college. My favorite pulling, or back, exercise for my young athletes is the Inclined Row. This requires the athlete to lie flat on the bench (inclined at 45 degrees), face down, and pull the dumbbells to their chest in a neutral position from the ground up. I instruct the athlete to lower the dumbbells at a rate of 2-3 seconds so that the muscles are under the appropriate amount of tension to develop strength, making the movement truly beneficial.
The junior high years are the perfect period of time to introduce a developmentally appropriate strength-training program to a young athlete. When a training program places an emphasis on the development of a strong/ functional core, works extensively on hip mobility, seeks to correct natural imbalances, incorporates balance/ coordination and multidirectional movement, and chooses only safe and developmentally appropriate exercises; the young athlete will establish an amazing foundation that can only have a positive impact on their athletic performance for years to come.
Malina, Robert M. (2006). Experimental training protocols with weights and resistance machines and with supervision and low instructor/participant ratios are relatively safe and do not negatively impact growth and maturation of pre- and early-pubertal youth. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine: 16(6), 478-487.