Should young athletes lift weights?

Originally published in Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletters 4.40 and Brian McCormick’s Hard2Guard Player Development Newsletters, Volume 4.

I generally refuse to train 8-year-olds. When parents call about a young player, I encourage the parents to invest in gymnastics or martial arts because of the benefits in terms of general strength and coordination as well as kinesthetic awareness.

The one 8-year-old who I agreed to train participated in a summer camp that I directed. Incidentally, teaching him how to shoot was easier than with any other player with whom I have worked. While he may not have developed many bad habits by that point, I attributed the ease of development to his weightlifting. At 8-years-old, he was working out with weights and doing cleans, snatches, squats and other lifts that conventional wisdom suggests are dangerous for children. At 8, he specialized in basketball. I encouraged him to play other sports because I am not a fan of early specialization. As he reached middle school, he played different sports and excelled in wrestling and football. Again, I attribute at least some of his success to his early weightlifting.

The New York Times featured Dr. Avery Faigenbaum in an article about the myths of youth weight lifting, which highlighted research showing the safety of resistance training, despite the pervasive myths of stunting a child’s growth. The article made two interesting points:

First, Dr. Faigenbaum said that children do not benefit in terms of hypertrophy like adults, but in terms of neurological changes. This makes sense, as the first adaptation that anyone makes when beginning a weight lifting program is neuromuscular. When you lift for the first time and see rapid gains immediately, those gains are not muscular strength; instead, it is the neuromuscular system firing more rapidly and efficiently which allows you to lift more weights.

When the eight-year-old did cleans, the improvements in terms of shooting were not due to muscular strength (at least initially). The resistance training did not make adaptations to shooting easier because he was stronger and therefore could shoot with better form from further distance. Instead, the ease was due to the neuromuscular improvements: he adapted to basketball-specific movements more quickly and easily. He understood the full-body coordination of a jump shot, while most 8-10-year-olds learn through segments and therefore do not exhibit the same full-body coordination.

Most players learn to shoot with a set shot. When they transition to a jump shot, the complexity is learning to coordinate the upper-body movement with the lower-body movement: the full-body coordination affects the transition as the body learns to turn these two movements into one (this is why I spend less and less time on form shooting drills). For the eight-year-old, he already had this movement pattern from the cleans, so his transition was easier.

The second interesting point was the lack of movement in today’s youth. Many people, including me, have written about the perils of overtraining in youth athletes. The important point is that the overtraining effects with young athletes are not necessarily due to the volume of the stress, but the lack of preparation for the physical stress.

“There was a time when children ‘weight trained’ by carrying milk pails and helping around the farm. Now few children, even young athletes, get sufficient activity’ to fully strengthen their muscles, tendons and other tissues. ‘If a kid sits in class or in front of a screen for hours and then you throw them out onto the soccer field or basketball court, they don’t have the tissue strength to withstand the forces involved in their sports. That can contribute to injury,’ said Lyle Micheli, M.D., the director of sports medicine at Children’s Hospital Boston and professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard University.”

The best way to prevent overtraining is not to limit the hours of activity, but to increase the opportunities for physical activity and to incorporate preparatory activities like resistance training even (or maybe especially) with young athletes.

Despite what most people think, weight lifting is highly unlikely to stunt a child’s growth or induce injury, unless the child lifts inappropriately. Like any other sport, weight lifting is a skill that requires instruction and practice to perform with the proper technique. The benefits of weight lifting, however, are many.

By Brian McCormick, PhD
Author, Cross Over: The New Model of Youth Basketball Development
Director of Coaching, Playmakers Basketball Development League

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