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Q: At what age should a young boy start weight lifting to build strength?
-- Alan Savitz, Coral Gables, Fla.
A: One of our High Performance coaches recently asked if we could help develop a “weight learning” program for one of the young players he was working with. What an appropriate term, “weight learning” – especially since strength training at young ages should focus primarily on proper technique and learning how to train against resistance.
With that said, there are things that an athlete as young as 8-10 years old can do to build strength and coordination. However, there are certain pre-requisites a player should meet before starting a resistance training program.
According to Mike Nishihara, the USTA Strength and Conditioning Specialist, these pre-requisites are more mental than physical. The young player must have mental maturity and focus to be able to concentrate on the exercises being performed and maintain correct technique.
So there will be some players who are ready to engage in a basic strength training program at the age of 7 or 8, while others may not be ready until they are 10 or 12. When a player starts a strength training program it is important that the focus be on endurance and technique, and not lifting maximal loads.
Nishihara recommends using levels of resistance that allow player to perform several sets of 15 repetitions. In many instances body weight exercises like, push ups, sit ups, body weight squats are appropriate. However, even body weight may be too “heavy” when performing some exercises. For these, the young player can use low levels of resistance (light weights or stretch tubing) to build muscular endurance.
Young players can also safely perform exercises that train the “core muscles” and other stabilizers of the body. In addition, young athletes should perform “pre-habilitation” exercises for the rotator cuff, shoulder and upper back to prevent strength imbalances and prevent injury.
There are also some simple guidelines a coach or parent should be aware of when taking a child through a strength program:
- Make sure each training session is properly supervised.
- Insist on proper technique on every repetition of every exercise to prevent injury.
- Avoid performing overhead lifts.
- Build muscular endurance (sets of 10-25 repetitions). Wait until the athlete goes through puberty before lifting heavy weights.
- Make sure that any equipment that is used is appropriately sized for young athletes.
As long as these criteria are met, a young tennis player should be able to get some benefit from starting a strength training program.
Additional information on youth strength straining can be found in the High Performance Coaching Newsletter, 6(1), 2004.