by Moritz Klatten, Champ Performance, Hamburg, Germany
The benefits and risks of having young football players lift weights
There is no question that weight training will make football players better. It will enable them to run faster, jump higher, and kick harder. It will also help reduce the risk of injuries and get football players back on the field faster should an injury occur. One question that is not so easily answered is what is the right age to start lifting?
Safety must always be a primary concern in the weight room, especially with young athletes. Proper supervision is a must for beginners because they don’t know how to use much of the equipment. They are unaware of the dangers of performing exercises with poor technique. If that weren’t concerning enough, there are several common misconceptions about weight training for young athletes that may make parents and coaches delay such training until the young people are more mature. We’ll take a look at these concerns now.
Misconception #1: Weight training damages growth plates
Although this opinion is not as prevalent today as it was in the 1970s and ’80s, many orthopedic experts contend that weight training will damage the growth plates (epiphyseal plates) in young athletes’ knees. In theory, if plate damage occurs, weight training could stunt an athlete’s growth. For female athletes, the concern is even more relevant. Women football players are, in fact, up to five times more likely to suffer an ACL injury than male players are. Clearly, any type of activity that can injure the knees is of particular concern for them in this sport.
So what is the truth about the potential for growth-plate damage? One sports scientist who wrote extensively on this topic was the late Mel Siff, Ph.D. He did his doctoral thesis on the biomechanics of soft tissues. Siff said he had never seen any convincing scientific research to support the hypothesis that weight training will damage the epiphyseal plates. In fact, in his book Facts and Fallacies of Fitness, Siff said:
“simple daily activities such as running, jumping, striking or catching can impose far greater forces on the musculoskeletal system than very heavy weight training.”
Misconception #2: Athletes should never lift heavy weights until they are physically mature
One of the most compelling arguments for delaying weight training for young athletes came in the form of a paper published by the American Academy of Pediatrics. The authors of this paper warned:
“Preadolescents and adolescents should avoid power lifting, body building, and maximal lifts until they reach physical and skeletal maturity.”
At first glance this statement seems like a sound recommendation, except it does not address the fact that physical and skeletal maturity is generally around age 16 for females and age 18 for males. As such, the authors are suggesting some football players, especially males, should wait until after they graduate from high school before they can lift heavy weights to improve athletic performance.
Another problem with this paper is that some of the authors’ conclusions conflict with the references they cite. For example, early in the paper the researchers say that not only is weight training a good way to increase bone density, but also, “Appropriate strength-training programs have no apparent adverse effect on linear growth, growth plates, or the cardiovascular system….” Nevertheless, the authors still conclude that the majority of athletes and football players in particular should start lifting weights only after their years in organized sports are over!
Misconception #3: Full squats permanently damage the spine
In 2011 the North American Spine Society distributed a press release with the title “New Spine Research Urges Teens to Skip Squat Lifts in Weight Training.” This teaser was associated with a presentation made at the society’s 2011 annual meeting.
The basis of that presentation is a research study that used radiographic imaging to examine the alignment of the pelvis and lumbar spine during the squat. Twenty subjects participated. The researchers were looking for evidence that squats could place a young athlete at risk of a pars interarticularis fracture, which could be described as a fracture of the bony structures between the facet joints of the spine. In one interview, the lead researcher commented that with the young athletes he had seen with this type of injury, “… often they remember hurting themselves doing squats.”
The problem with such a conclusion in a research paper is that there is no before-and-after methodology – the opinions are anecdotal. Further, the authors of the paper neglect to consider that an injury that occurs during the squat could be due to poor technique and that the body could adapt to the stresses associated with the squat. No one wants young people to be injured playing sports or at any other time, but does this mean we should condemn activities because of presumed increased risk of injury?
It’s a question that every parent faces even before their kids take their first step. But as Siff says, “Many school sports place the bodies of youngsters in danger – it is the nature of sport and, if one is going to take part in any physical activities, no matter how well controlled, there is going to be a greater risk of injury than if the kids sat in front of the TV.”
Misconception #4: Youngsters should use light weights for high reps because they are safer
Using lighter weights for high reps (such as 15 or more reps) is often recommended by many fitness experts, including in a position paper published by the prestigious National Strength and Conditioning Association. However, high-rep training protocols can turn out to be more stressful than lifting maximal weights for low reps because the weights can be moved faster and can cause deviations from optimal technique. Says Siff, “We must not fall for the fallacy that training with heavy weights necessarily imposes greater forces and torques on the body. This simply is not true.”
One of the benefits of using heavy weights, especially with such exercises as squats and deadlifts, is that it develops the core muscles better than performing single-joint movements with light weights does. Also, with a heavy squat, the athlete must fight hard the forces that occur during this exercise that affect stability. Just as football players learn how to stop suddenly or change directions rapidly, heavy weight training develops this ability to deal with the disruptive forces that are at work and that threaten to throw him or her off balance. Further, many multijoint exercises, especially Olympic lifting movements, improve overall body coordination and flexibility.
Misconception #5: Weight training is dangerous
The immediate response to this statement is, “Compared to what?” To address the argument that weight training is associated with a high risk of injury, you have to look at studies that compare weight training to other forms of training. For example, in a review paper on resistance training for prepubescent and adolescents published this year in Strength and Conditioning Coach (Vol. 9, No. 3), author Mark Shillington screened sports-related injuries in school-age children. He found that resistance training was the nominated cause of 0.7 percent (or 1,576 injuries) compared to 19 percent for football and 15 percent for baseball.
A study by Brian P. Hamill from the United Kingdom showed that of the 22 sports studied, football had the highest injury rate. It rated 6.2 injuries per 100 hours of exposures (6.2 percent). Next was rugby with 1.92 injuries per 100 hours of exposure (1.92 percent). The sport with the lowest injury rate was Olympic-style weightlifting, with a 0.017 rate (0.17 percent). Further, the authors found that in looking at the results of British weightlifting championships over 18 years, the injury rate was remarkably low. With approximately 54,600 competition lifts performed in this competition, only a concussion and a bruise were reported!
In his book Science and Practice of Strength Training, Russian sport scientist Vladimir Zatsiorsky said: “The simple truth is that weight training and the competitive lifting sports are among the safest activities an athlete can participate in, and this fact is known worldwide.” “More specifically, he said the risk of injury from strength training was about one per 10,000 athlete-exposures.” [with an athlete-exposure defined as a single athlete taking part in a single training session or competition].
A better question to ask may be this: Is there a specific age that it is safe to lift maximum weights?
Several years ago in a weightlifting seminar, famous Bulgarian weightlifting Coach Ivan Abadjiev was asked at what age is it considered safe for a young athlete to lift maximum weights. His reply, “Age 8.” This age may seem very young, but in any case it is only one opinion, and not the prevailing one by any means. I believe you have to look at the individual athlete to determine when he or she is ready to advance into heavy weight training.
I say this because athletes often mature at different rates. Thus, a 15-year-old boy may have the physical maturity of a 17-year-old girl, whereas another 15-year-old boy may have the physical maturity of a 13-year-old boy. Also, you have to look at the emotional maturity of the athlete. The weight room can be a dangerous environment for a young athlete who does not take this type of training seriously.
While the ideal age at which to begin weight training remains an individual consideration, the fact is football players do need to pump iron to reach the highest levels of athletic performance. To do so safely, they absolutely require proper supervision by a competent strength coach.
About that, there is no question.
Coach Moritz Klatten’s knowledge and experience as a football strength coach has enabled him to attract an international clientele that includes numerous national team players. Among his success stories are Zlatko Junuzovic, Werder Bremen; Tolgay Arslan, Besiktas; Piotr Trochowsk, Augsburg; Cleber Reis, HSV; Levin Ötztunali, Leverkusen; Assani Lukimya, Werder Bremen; Patrick Owomoyela, BVB; Oliver Hüsing, Werder Bremen; Tomás Rincón, FC Genua; , Raphael Wolf, Werder Bremen; Robert Tesche, Nottingham Forest; Izet Hajrovic, Werder Bremen; Mattia Maggio, HSV; and Michael Gregoritsch, HSV. Coach Klatten is also an accomplished strength coach for boxing. In that sport he has trained four professional world champions, including Juan Carlos Gomez, Yuriorkis Gamboa and Jack Culcay, and three Olympic champions.
Coach Klatten works primarily out of Champ Performance, his own gym in Hamburg, Germany, where he offers strength coaching internships and operates a satellite training service to work with athletes worldwide.His book about strength and conditioning for fighters, The Klatten Power Boxing System,is available at amazon.co.uk. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org