Should athletes lift weights in high school, or is it too early? High school football coaches, for example, tend to want their athletes in the weight room, and for good reason. But what are the long term effects of teenagers lifting heavy weights?
Age and speed of muscle recovery
It is no secret that younger people recover faster. Muscle growth, as most of us know, is the result of hard work (say, in the weight room) that tears down muscle fibers. When those fibers heal, they tend to come back larger and stronger. This recovery may take days or weeks for adults, but could be a matter of hours for a 15 year old freshman in high school. Recovery time is critical, because we can only improve as fast as we can recover.
People talk about steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, as if they directly make you stronger, faster, etc. In reality, their benefit is primarily found in recovery. Steroids help muscles recover better and faster. You still have to put in the work. Obviously we do not condone the use of any performance-enhancing drugs, as they are rightfully banned from athletics, and potentially harmful. We are only referencing steroids as an example of the importance of recovery.
So let’s get back to the question, should high school athletes lift weights?
Bone Growth Plates
You may have heard the term “stunted growth” or something like it. This phrase refers to people who do things to themselves in their youth that prevent them from growing to their full potential. Some of these claims are nutritional, like “coffee will stunt your growth” or “eat your vegetables or you’ll stunt your growth.” We’ll let doctors debate those kinds of claims.
With premature weight lifting, however, there is quite a bit of evidence that bad form, overloading and injuries to growth plates can stunt growth. That being said, proper form with appropriate weight should not stunt growth, according to this source.
The risk is not that weight lifting and building muscle will stunt growth, it’s that young people are injury prone due to inexperience. With proper coaching and monitoring of technique, weight lifting in high school can be a great thing. Athletes can build lean muscle quickly and boost performance far more rapidly than someone, say, in their 30’s.
Appropriate weight lifting exercises
In our experience, some of the best athletes coming out of high school do not actually have to lift heavy weights to be strong and agile. They focus on mobility and speed. Mobility movements are about range of motion, flexibility and stability. Core exercises and body weight movements involving kettlebells, BOSU balls, stretch bands and medicine balls are some of the best workouts for high schoolers. Speed movements deal with power output and explosiveness. Box jumps, broad jumps, sprints, lunges and plyometrics are great for this.
Heavy weight lifting may come into play in college, under direct supervision of a professional trainer and coach. Until that point, focus on training your body to be the best it can be, even if you’re only using light weights and gravity itself. It’s less risk of injury and there is a direct relationship between flexibility and speed. Keep that in mind, and good luck.