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What Age to Start Weightlifting

by Michael J. Wittmer, D.C.

There is much controversy regarding weight training and the adolescent. Probably the most common myth is that it will stunt growth. After searching the literature, I could not find any research that supports that theory. In fact, the only significant finding was that one must follow an appropriate diet if engaged in heavy physical activity, with the emphasis on caloric intake and adequate protein. After the recent Olympics, it became even more apparent that most elite athletes began their training at a very young age. Also evident, almost all utilize some form of strength training to enhance performance. The purpose of this is not to debate the pros and cons of various forms of exercise and how they may or may not relate to a particular sport. Instead, I will discuss some of the experiences with my own son, how he got started in weight training and eventually competitive weight lifting.

To begin, my own background is in Olympic style weight lifting, in which I competed for fifteen years. Also, as a chiropractor by profession, I have treated and continue to treat many patients that competed in powerlifting and bodybuilding, as well as the weight trainee who is interested in general conditioning.

My son, Jeff, always expressed an interest in sports and early on excelled at both soccer and baseball. As I had played football, I assumed that he would as well. One problem, football started at age seven while soccer started at age six. What the hell, some of his little buddies were playing soccer so I figured that one year would be all right, then he could play football. Another problem, first game, he scores three goals and a soccer player was born. And while I appreciate the talent and skill of a soccer player, I really don’t care for the game. As he progressed to higher levels in both soccer and baseball, we became the proverbial taxi service. His last years involved over seventy games per year in each, with the seasons overlapping. At age eleven, he was serious about both. I have always thought that it is a shame that these kids have to specialize in a sport at such a young age. Unfortunately, at the higher levels, one has to play almost year round to keep up with the others that also play year round. At this point I began to think about getting him on a weight training program. These days, baseball and soccer players all look big and work out with weights. My reasoning was that eventually he would have to do this, all athletes train with weights, and the sooner the better. This way, he would know proper techniques and have a leg up on his competition when he got to high school.

To begin, I thought it most important to stress safety and injury prevention. This comes down to sound training principles and proper form or technique. For the beginner, this means avoiding limit weights and avoiding forcing out reps once fatigue sets in and form begins to suffer. That means constant supervision. I believe the major problem with teenagers and weight training is the lack of proper supervision. Usually, there is one coach supervising the weight room at a school and too many athletes doing their own thing. Or, no knowledgeable adult at all. Most kids will push it, try to do more than their friends, whether it is ten more pounds or an additional rep. This is often the cause of injury. With me being there to watch every rep, and stepping in and stopping the set when needed, this would not be a problem.

The next issue is volume or sets and reps. I thought it best for a beginner to keep the workouts short, no more than forty-five minutes. Two to three training sessions per week is adequate. We went with three. In general, I prefer reps of five or less with the more skilled movements and up to ten or more with the less skilled exercises. For the most part, we used two to four sets per exercise and four or five exercises per workout.

Anyone who lifts weights will have their favorite exercises. For a beginner, I think it best to stick with the basics. I decided on the squat, dead lift, overhead press, bench press, upright row, curl and shrug. The number one goal was developing proper neuromotor pathways and technique. I wanted him to learn how to squat properly and pick up a weight off the floor properly. For the squat, I decided on three sets of ten, three times a week. Again, this is an eleven year old kid. He is not using heavy weights and I didn’t expect him do “bulk up.” The weights were extremely light, 20 pounds at first. I emphasized full range of motion, lowering the bar under control so as to avoid bouncing out of the bottom, and keeping the back straight. He had, and still has, exceptional flexibility, dead bottom squats with the chest up, no forward lean, etc., was easy for him. I thought the ten rep sets would be ideal as I did not want him using the heavier weights and forcing three to five tough reps. At least not at first.

One of the most important aspects of any program, if not the most important, is progress, or results. Weight training is hard enough and if the beginner does not see some results, and fairly quickly, they will usually get discouraged and give up. It may take two or three months for one to even learn the movements and see some increase in strength. In today’s instant gratification society, this is a real challenge. Because of this, I suggest starting very light. Then, early on, you can increase the load since you might be just getting to weights that could have been used as starting weights anyway. Even though you are emphasizing positions and technique, it is fun to see the weights increase. One of the better elements of weight training or weightlifting is that objectivity, there is no debate that 300 is more than 290, no judge to score your performance, no coach to decide that you are not ready or good enough.

With Jeff, it was easy. He started literally for the bottom, using a five pound exercise bar with those old, plastic, exercise weights. After the second week, we were increasing the weight and he enjoyed the idea of trying more than he had before. He could also see that it was getting easier and the weights felt lighter. Of course, this was probably due to the development of neuromotor skills as much as anything else.

Now the importance of proper supervision becomes evident. The athlete will want to push it, especially if they are in an environment where there are others doing the same. For example, I recall the first time Jeff tried 60 for 10 in the squat. He was doing the reps too quickly and not controlling the decent. He lost his balance with his fifth rep and stumbled forward. To make matters worse, our squat racks were up against a wall in the basement and he was headed for the wall, face first. Splat. Fortunately, I was there and lifted the bar off his back and put it on the rack. While lecturing him on the importance of balance and lowering the bar under control, I began unloading the bar for the next exercise. He freaks. “What are you doing?” “I’m breaking it down for presses.” “But, I want to try it again.” I said no, that was all right and he could go for it next time. But, he insisted. I figured that it wouldn’t hurt. After all, I would be right behind him spotting and the weight was only 60 pounds. I could easily lift it off his back it he broke form again. No way he could get hurt. We reload the 60. As he prepares to take the bar off the rack, he is facing the bar with both hands on it and he starts psyching up! “I can do it, I can do it!” “I’m the man!” Good thing he did because I was laughing so hard I’m not sure I could have helped if he needed it. At that point, I realized that I had created a monster and he was hooked. It reinforced Bill Starr’s famous quote, “Strength is a greedy mistress.”

I mentioned earlier that I thought it important to stick with basic exercises. I also prefer, for athletes, exercises in which the trainee is on his feet. I think squats are the most important. If I could only do one thing, that would probably be it, with the power clean or snatch a close second. My intent was not to teach him the competition lifts, so after the squat we focused on the dead lift. Most beginners, when doing dead lifts or pulls, wind up with what is essentially a stiff leg dead lift with a bent over row mixed in. In other words, they raise their hips and pull with their arms. I wanted to stress learning to lift with your legs. The emphasis is on keeping the hips down and the chest up. The arms are straight. Jeff picked this up easily. I think being a soccer player had something to do with that. Some of his buddies played around with the weights for a while, not for long, and they too picked up the proper technique of the first stage of the pull quickly. I think that since soccer is a leg oriented sport it was easy for soccer players to learn to lift with their legs. The next movement was the upright row. Here, I wanted him to get used to pulling the bar close to the body, using the traps and keeping the elbows up. Later, we put the two together and made it a high pull, which eventually became a power clean. I should mention the some experts feel that the Olympic lifts (snatch and clean) should be taught from the top down. Since this was not my initial intent we did not follow this protocol. I’m not so sure that it matters one way or the other but I do believe that the clean should be broken up into partial movements for the beginner.

That leaves us with the upper body exercises. I decided on the press, bench press, shrug and curl. These were all done for two sets of five to ten reps, dependent on the weight. Usually, we would do the first set to ten and then add weight so that he would have to work to get seven to eight reps with the second set. Technique is not as difficult to master, compared to the squat and dead lift, so I let him push it a little.

After about six to eight weeks of this, he had the power clean down and was doing well with he other movements. We stuck with five reps for the power clean. One workout, he was going for a personal record sixty pounds for five reps. The fourth one was hard but he kept good form. The fifth rep was another story. He was tired and the bar reached only belt high. However, instead of letting it go, he dropped under it and did a perfect squat clean, hips between the ankles, chest and elbows up, head straight ahead. I competed in weightlifting for fifteen years and this kid’s first clean was better than any one that I ever did. I asked him if he knew what he was doing. He said it was too heavy to get all the way up so he just went under it. Dropping under weights is something that some never learn to do. To him, it was natural. I asked him if he thought he could do it again and he said yes. So, I dropped the bar to fifty and he did a few more. From there, we added the snatch and the jerk. He soon asked if he could get into some competitions and a weightlifter was born.

Jeff has been lifting for six years now and at age seventeen and 185 pounds bodyweight, he has best lifts of 281 in the snatch and 352 in the clean and jerk. The squat continues to be his forte as he has bests of 418 for a double in the front squat and 485 in the back squat. He decided to give up soccer and baseball and focus on weightlifting. Many of his ex-teammates gave up other sports and play ninety baseball games or soccer almost year round. I will say that I feel the key to developing strength is starting young. Of course, learning proper technique, discipline and sticking with it are no small factors either.

I hope this gives you some ideas that can be put to use if you are thinking of starting your own son or daughter on the weights. I want to acknowledge that it is every bit as important for the female athlete to train with weights as it is for the male. Our language does not have a word for both sexes so I used him, he, etc., but her or she could be inserted just as well. The are many how to books and videos out there that will be helpful and probably advisable for the serious trainee.

(Jeff has won three junior national championships, three junior Olympic championships and three American schoolage titles. He has set numerous state and local records. He was the best lifter, age 16 and under, at the 2000 junior nationals, 1997 and 2000 junior Olympics and 1999 and 2000 schoolage Americans. He has represented the United States in four international competitions, winning the Junior Louis Cyr twice and getting bronze twice at the junior Pan-Ams.)

About the Author:

Michael Wittmer graduated from Logan College of Chiropractic in 1980. He has been in private practice in the St. Louis ever area since. Mike has been on the faculty of Logan College since 1985. He teaches courses in technique and case management. Dr. Wittmer is also on the post-grad faculty for Logan and he is contributing author for the core text used at the college, Chiropractic Technique and Spinal Biomechanics.

Michael Wittmer played football in college and competed in Olympic weightlifting for 15 years, reaching the national levels in the sport. He is currently a certified USAW coach and also a national referee. Mike competed in a few national level meets including the 1980 Olympic Trials (9th place) and held state and local records with best lifts of 330 in the snatch and 407 in the clean and jerk.
Mike coaches his son Jeff, a three time junior national champion and Justin Thacker, also a junior national champion.