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Those heavy weights in the gym aren’t for kids… are they? Despite what you’ve heard, strength training can have huge health benefits for teenagers
I’M SEEING MORE AND MORE YOUNG, TEENAGED GUYS hitting the gym, in search of more muscle and a chiselled six-pack. There’s pressure on them to bulk up, either to make the first team or just to look good.
But it doesn’t take long before they – not to mention their parents – start asking questions. When is it safe for a teenager to start strength training? Will lifting weights at that age stunt his growth? What exercises should a young guy be doing?
How many times a week should he train? And what about supplements? As a strength and conditioning coach, I do a lot of work with schoolboy rugby players, and I hear those questions all the time. I also see a lot of young guys making mistakes in the gym, putting themselves at serious risk of injury.
There’s a ton of information out there – and not all of it’s useful. Whether you’re a young guy who wants to start training or the parent of a teen who’s started lifting weights, here are 10 important training truths to get you started on the right track.
Strength Training Is Safe… If You Do It Right
It’s the question I get asked most often by teenagers and their parents. “Surely strength training is dangerous and will damage his growth plates?” To answer this, you have to first understand what strength training is, and what it isn’t. Strength training is a specialised form of conditioning that uses the principle of progressive overload to force your body (muscle, bones, tendons, etc) to adapt to be able to produce and/or resist larger forces.
Strength training is not power lifting, it’s not bodybuilding and it’s not about trying to lift the most weight you can. There’s no science to support the myth that strength training is dangerous and has a negative effect on a young person’s growth.
If anything, it has positive effects on bone health and growth. In your growing years, all bone growth occurs at a region of cartilage near the ends of the bone. This region is weaker than mature bone, and may be at a greater risk for injury. If the growth plate is damaged, there is a chance that growth in the bone will be stunted. But no growth plate fractures have been documented in guys who engage in a resistance-training programme that includes an appropriately prescribed training regimen and, importantly, competent instruction.
The risk of injury to growth plates can be further minimised by not performing maximum effort lifts – in other words, performing one-rep lifts of as much weight as you can. A good rule of thumb for younger guys is to only exercise with weights that you can lift at least eight times or more. Although growth plate injuries should be taken seriously, because they can happen, if you take proper care your risk can be virtually eliminated.
Yes, Strength Training Is Good for Teens
The benefits of starting a correctly designed, properly supervised and implemented strength training programme far outweigh the possible injury risks. There’s no doubt about it.
In fact, as a youngster you have far more to lose than to gain by not doing strength training. Over and above the obvious goal of getting you stronger, strength training also improves your overall sports performance, while helping you prevent (or rehabilitate) injuries and enhancing your long-term health.
As with other physical activity, strength training has been shown to have a beneficial effect on your cardiovascular fitness, body composition, bone mineral density, blood lipid profiles and mental health.
Guys – of any age – who lift weights also see a decreased risk in sports-related injuries to their musculoskeletal system, and an improvement in physical performance, self-image and self-confidence.
No Two Teens Are Ever Alike
Before you start a strength training programme, get screened by your doctor in case there are any medical complications or other conditions that need to be addressed.
Because of the large variances in development levels that can exist in young teenage boys, I’d also strongly recommend that young guys get professionally assessed, and have their first training programmes individualised for them.
Here’s why I say that: teens who are the same age chronologically aren’t necessarily the same
Injuries Are Avoidable
Right, so we’ve established that strength training won’t stunt your growth. But, as with any activity, that doesn’t mean you might not get injured during a strength training programme. During your early teen years, your bones, joints, muscles and tendons are still in the process of growing – and that means they may be more susceptible to injury.
But you can substantially reduce your risk of injury by following a few simple guidelines:
AVOID MAXIMUM-WEIGHT LIFTS
That’s a body-builder routine, where you try to maximise how the amount of weight you can lift at a time. Also, don’t do high intensity or high volume programmes, and avoid explosive weightlifting.
You’ll only struggle to maintain the technique, and your body tissues could get stressed too abruptly.
“NO PAIN, NO GAIN” IS A LIE
…and it’ll guarantee you’ll end up injured. If an exercise is painful or uncomfortable, stop immediately.
Always maintain strict form and technique. Only increase the volume and intensity of the training that your body can cope with. Push progression, but at an appropriate pace, leaving a little bit left over at the end of each set.
So, for example, end a set two reps before you might fail. age biologically. In fact, that biological difference – or the difference in physical development – could be as much as two years.
This would significantly affect the nature and design of a strength training programme. So get the right kind of supervision – from a qualified, competent professional – and you’ll be on the right trackmfrom day one.
GET A COMPETENT COACH
A personal trainer will ensure you’re taught the correct technique. Appropriate training and competent instruction and supervision are the two keys to minimising injuries.
If you have a badly designed, unbalanced programme that focuses on your mirror muscles, and if you train with substandard technique, pushing yourself to failure, working under supervision from someone who doesn’t know what they’re doing, while following a poor diet and not sleeping properly… you’re guaranteed to end up with problems.
Weights Can Wait
The initial goal of any programme should be to build muscular endurance and prepare your muscles, ligaments and tendons for increased loading. Sure, you’re excited to go hit the weights – but rather begin by mastering basic body-weight exercises. If you can’t even do a few sets of push-ups or body weight squats correctly, then that’s a clear sign that you don’t yet have the core strength you need for weight-loaded resistance work.
Try simple exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, plank variations, back extensions, bodyweight lunges, squats, stepups and dips. These exercises include all your muscle groups, including your core muscles, and should be performed through the full range of motion at each joint.
Start slowly, doing a circuit of one to two sets of 8 to 15 repetitions. As you develop and improve, increase this to three sets of each exercise, doing six to 15 reps each, three times a week on non-consecutive days as part of a regular programme.
There are a few advantages to beginning with body weight exercises. The resistance will improve your co-ordination and will allow your musculoskeletal system to adapt to the stress of lifting.
Secondly, you’ll strengthen your core muscles, which that help to stabilise your body. It’s important that you develop a solid strength base in these muscles before you progress to advanced exercises.
Once you’ve adapted physically and can complete the body weight exercises competently, then start to introduce more complex resistance weight training exercises, like multi-joint lifts, free weights, low intensity plyometrics as examples. A full-body freeweight training programme should include all the basic lifts, including squats (legs), deadlifts (back/legs), bench press (chest), barbell rows (back), chins (back), military press (shoulders), close-grip bench/dips (triceps) and barbell curls (biceps).
Once you have perfected the form and technique of the exercises, then slowly start to increase the weight. Full-body workouts should be at least 20 to 30 minutes long, up to a max of 45 minutes to an hour. They should take place two or three times a week on non-consecutive days, and you should continue to add weight or repetitions as your strength improves.
I’d also suggest proper 10-minute warm-up and cooldown periods, with appropriatestretching techniques.
Don’t Sabotage Yourself by Overtraining
This is one of the biggest mistakes I see young guys make: they’ll hit the gym every day, thinking, the more I train, the bigger I’ll get. That’s a completely flawed logic, because it’s not how the muscle gain process works.
Strength training in the gym actually makes you weaker.
When you lift weights, you apply stress to your muscles,
You Can’t Out- Train a Bad Diet
Teenagers often grab their meals and eat on the go. That’s a problem. If young teens don’t have a good, nutritional diet, they’ll fill themselves with junk food, fast food and other unhealthy foods that don’t have much nutritional value. Avoid rubbish like artificial sweeteners, excess sugar, processed foods and preservatives.
It’s okay to get fast food meal every once in a while, just don’t make it a habit. Rather reach for something nutritious – like an apple, Greek yoghurt, a bag of baby carrots or biltong – when you’re feeling the urge to snack.
Remember Your Legs
I often see young guys who either don’t train their legs properly, or don’t train their legs at all. They’ll do their chest and biceps all day, but neglect their legs. But your legs are the foundation of your body. They’re where you get all your power when you participate in any sport. When trained correctly, your legs are your biggest, strongest muscle group.
So why don’t young guys do their leg work? Two reasons: it’s tough, and they’re not sure how to do it properly. Learning to squat properly from a young age, and progressively improving your squat strength, will be one of the best strength investments you can make. Also, you have the added benefit of being able to use the most weight when you train your legs – and that results in your body releasing GH, IGF-1 and testosterone, hormones that will benefit your legs and your other muscle groups.
Young Guys Are Impatient… So Be Consistent
Young guys often get excited by quick, positive early gains. But the gains slow down, they tend to lose interest and quit… and that’s when consistency becomes more of an issue.
To make progress, you have to be consistent in several areas. If you don’t give focused attention to your training programme, recovery time or eating plan, your strength and muscle gains will suffer.
When you start to slack in any (or all) of those areas, you won’t see the gains that you could.
Remember, your body will only get bigger and stronger if it needs to. If you give it time to relax (say, by missing workouts and skipping meals), it will regress to its original size. Breaking them down and often causing microtears in the muscle fibres (that’s the soreness you often feel after a hard session).
If your programme is structured correctly and you allow sufficient time for your muscles to recover – by means of regular rest days, lots of sleep and correct nutrition – they will adapt and repair, and the fibres will grow thicker and stronger.
This is why full-body sessions need to be done on non-consecutive days at least – and, in some case, you may even need as many as 48 hours’ rest between sessions to allow for enough recovery, repair and growth.
And get some sleep. Sleep is the time your body uses to repair the damage done by weight training, building stronger bones and muscles.
Your growth hormones (GHs) and testosterone (a major contributor to muscle growth) are at their highest levels when you’re asleep.
If you happen to stay out late for some reason, be sure to catch up on sleep the next day by going to bed early or taking a nap. And – I say this all the time to guys in high school – keep your partying to a minimum.
Be Smart About Supplements
Many young guys think that supplements are the key to getting results – and some even fall into the dangerous pit of steroids, which can have devastating results down the road. Supplements will only assist you if you already have a sound workout and nutrition programme in place. There are no supplements – legal or illegal – that will ever replace a sound nutrition programme.
The clue is in the same: supplements are supplementary, so they won’t work on their own.
As a teenager starting out, you should have no need for any supplementation, unless you have a specific condition that has been assessed, diagnosed and professionally subscribed.
Eat clean, healthy foods in every meal. Strength training works by breaking down muscle tissue; without the proper nutrients at the proper time, your body cannot recover and you won’t see the results you should be seeing.
When you start training, it’s not necessary to count calories. Your basic diet should include foods like meat, eggs, fruit, lots of vegetables and grains. You should also be drinking milk, fresh juice and lots of water. If you want to decrease body fat, eat fewer grains and drink less milk. If you want to build muscle mass, eat more grains, drink more milk and increase your protein intake.
• Steve McIntyre is a strength and condititioning coach at RugbyIQ, who works with Super Rugby teams and schoolboy rugby players. He was the Springboks’ strength and conditioning coach when they won the Rugby World Cup in 2007.