They say it’s the ‘off season’ but parents of competitive athletes know that there is no such thing as an off season. Whether you have an athlete that plays multiple sports or an athlete that plays one competitive sport you know it is a continuous process. So what do the athletes do in the “off season”? Well, as the mom of a high school freshman I am learning that this is when weight training begins. These young, often lanky teens begin to enter into a new world of athletics as they work to fit in with the seasoned veterans of the team. But is it safe? This is a question that I have been asked and a question I am revisiting now as a parent. With so much growth during the teen years one must wonder if lifting can cause damage or stunt the growth process of these teens. Can lifting as a teen be safe?
The simple answer to this question is, yes, lifting can be safe if it’s done right. Understanding the terminology is the key to safety. Weight training is popular with athletes during the off season as a way to bond as a team while gaining strength. With proper guidance weight training can help athletes develop muscle strength, increase bone density, strengthen tendons as well as reduce the risk of sports related injuries. Improved sports performance can also be a positive result of weight training.
Weight training vs Weight lifting
Research shows that weight training (also called strength training) can offer many benefits to the teen athlete. Weight training is the process of using weights to increase strength and overall fitness. Weight lifting, body building, or power lifting are competitive sports that involve high intensity training. Weight lifting is not recommended for adolescents as the rapid growth of bones, joints, muscles and tendons can be affected.
Where Should Teens Begin
Participating in a supervised program is the best place to start. The two most common reasons teens are injured in weight training programs are lack of supervision and a poor technique. It’s not unusual to see teens in the weight room trying to show off their power. Roping in the egos and providing teens with a program that demonstrates proper technique with lighter weights will reduce the risk of injury. An adult with experience in weight training should be present to supervise technique.
The program should include all the major muscle groups and should include 8-12 reps per set. Teens who want to achieve improved performance and strength should work up to doing 3 sets for each muscle group. Starting with very low weight burdens and increasing slowly, capping out at relatively low weights overall is important to safeguard teen bones, ligaments, and tendons which are still growing. To be effective, the weight program should be done 2-3 times per week on non-consecutive days.
Take It Slow
Be sure to start off slow just as you would with any new sport. Gradually build up the amount of weight you lift and the number of reps and sets that you perform. Starting out fast is a sure way to end up injuring a joint or pulling a muscle. It is also important that every strength training work out involve some form of warm up. This can be easily accomplished with short jog on the treadmill to increase blood flow to the muscles. Also be sure to cool down and stretch after your work out to help blood flow to the muscles. This helps reduce muscle fatigue and will help the muscles recover faster.
Strength and Bulk are Different
As teens increase their reps and sets, even with low to medium weights (weight training), strength is developed with some small increase in the size of the muscles themselves. Bulk though is achieved by doing a few reps of a huge weight burden (weight lifting). Bench pressing large amounts, for example, will make for big biceps but won’t make you throw the ball that much better if you’re a pitcher. Lots of reps with a smaller weight to build strength and endurance so your muscle doesn’t fatigue during a game will.
To Bulk like Hulk
Hormones in teens, especially boys, can allow for muscle mass to begin developing. With proper weight training the development of this mass will gradually become evident. Teens must not be allowed to “bulk” up though. The ever changing and developing teen body is not prepared to take on the heavy lifting involved in bulking up. The desire to bulk and have chiseled bodies can lead teens to have an unhealthy body image. Many turn to steroids or other supplements to help them gain muscle mass which can cause serious damage. The hormones and skeletal system at this age are not prepared to take on lifting. This type of lifting should not occur until the athlete becomes an adult and puberty is long complete.
Keeping It Healthy
Effective strength training involves more than just lifting weight. Cross training with some form of aerobic exercise each week is important. Running, dancing, swimming, etc. will help enhance muscle development, strength and endurance. A healthy diet is also a must for successful strength training. Fruits, Vegetables, lean proteins and whole grains are essential for providing the fuel needed to build strong bones and muscles. Fad diets and diet supplements should not take the place of eating a healthy diet. Also be sure to drink plenty of water throughout your workout. And as discussed in Pickle Juice and Chocolate Milk, don’t forget a little chocolate milk after training can help with muscle recovery and fatigue!
Parents should take a little time to check out the training room, talk to the trainer, and ask some questions of your athlete when she comes home to make sure that the coach’s goals for the off season will ensure a healthy body and mind.