Why It's Better for Young Athletes to Lift 'Too Light' Rather Than 'Too Heavy'

Developing our younger athletes requires us to place them in a position where they learn, grow and acquire skill.

The high school sports landscape has changed dramatically over the last 20 years.

In that time, athletic departments have implemented strength training as both an integral part of developing athleticism and an avenue toward creating a competitive edge. While strength forms the base of the athletic development pyramid, an overemphasis on the amount of weight being moved can have deleterious effects on our athletes, especially the youngest ones. If we leave young athletes to their own devices inside the weight room, their natural competitiveness will take over. That often manifests as lifting too much weight before they're ready, result in poor form, reduced effectiveness, improper movement patterns and an increased risk of injury. So the exact opposite of everything we're looking to accomplish inside the weight room.

By channeling that competitiveness into a properly designed program and helping our athletes understand the importance of building a strong foundation, we position them for sustained success. By utilizing the following three simple principles with your young athletes, we'll develop the athletes we desire, boost on-field performance and reduce injury risk.

1. Build a Foundation

I'd never build a house by starting with the roof.

When a younger athlete (usually an 8th grader or rising 9th grader) enters the weight room for the first time, developing quality movement patterns should be our first priority. If programming three sets of 12 Goblet Squats is a useless endeavor for an older athlete yearning for strength development, then so too is programming five sets of 5 Back Squats for a young athlete who's never touched a barbell.

I prefer to start young athletes with a bodyweight program that challenges them in multiple planes and ranges of motion. During this initial training phase, they'll learn to squat, hip hinge, lunge and perform a push-up correctly before they ever get the chance to touch a weight. The following two workouts include a sampling of bodyweight exercises I like to incorporate with younger athletes to build a strong foundation of movement.

Workout A

  • Squat Jumps: 10 reps
  • Bodyweight Squats: 15 reps
  • Pull-Ups: 10 Reps
  • Single Leg RDLs (unweighted): 10 reps per side
  • Mountain Climbers: 40 reps
  • Side Plank: Hold for 5 deep breaths per side

Workout B

These 12 exercises challenge a young athlete's stabilization, strength and explosiveness through multiple planes and ranges of motion. They can be incorporated into a larger workout or done on their own as a circuit.

As body control and basic strength are mastered, we begin adding resistance. Bodyweight Squats become Kettlebell Goblet Squats. Exercises like Split Stance Dumbbell Rows and Dumbbell Bench Press are introduced. Some will advance faster than others, and that's OK. The goal is to focus on individual improvement, not adhere to arbitrary timelines or suppositions about where the athlete "should be." In time, they'll be confidently squatting and deadlifting a bar with great technique. And when they do start moving larger amounts of weight, they'll be able to get a ton more out of it thanks to the great foundation that's been built.

2. Set a Standard

The strength coach's job is to lead the weight room in a safe, effective manner. To do so, a set of unassailable rules should accompany our strength training programs. Adherence to technique is chief among them. For example, if an athlete cannot maintain good posture during a Deadlift or cannot squat to the appropriate depth, we must either lighten the weight or find them a more suitable exercise.

We also need to quickly identify imbalances and movement patterns that are a precursor to injury. Is there knee valgus during the Squat? Does the athlete appear to shift to one side during a Deadlift? Is the athlete pressing unevenly? In these scenarios, our attention to detail combined with lighter loads and appropriate exercise selection will help prevent our athletes from reinforcing bad positions or making imbalances worse. Establishing and emphasizing these principles with every athlete allows us to create a weight room culture that values quality over quantity. The last thing we want to do is create an environment where the athlete feels like they're failing if they're not moving a certain amount of weight.

You may receive pushback from a sport coach who would like to see the younger athletes lift heavier loads. But if the athletes aren't ready, tactfully hold your ground. In my experience, most younger athletes don't make significant contributions to the varsity team. There's no urgent need for them to lift heavy weights, certainly not before they've earned it and displayed the ability to do so. Take the necessary time to guide your athletes through the process and adjust their programs, up or down, according to their individual needs. Take pride in the foundation you build, knowing it will serve them well for the rest of their athletic career and beyond.

3. Check Your Ego

No one should be surprised that athletes find reasons to compete with one another. I'd be disappointed if they didn't—Iron Sharpens Iron, as the saying goes. But we don't want ego dictating the decisions of our athletes. That's how many young athletes end up going too heavy, too soon, drastically reducing the effectiveness of their training. Appropriate programming is the first step toward tempering the ego of a younger athlete.

Next, provide those younger athletes with a separate area of the weight room. It's easier for them to focus on their workout, work together and take ownership of their space. Note that this also makes things easier for us as coaches. We know exactly what they should be doing, and if they go off-script, we can quickly redirect. If you have the opportunity to work with your younger athletes in an entirely different session, even better.

Incentivizing individual improvement is another great way to encourage each athlete to work within their ability. Yes, the senior who correctly deadlifts 500 pounds is worthy of praise and a t-shirt. Equally worthy is the freshman who struggles daily to master the hip hinge until it eventually clicks. Such perseverance is invaluable—find ways to reward it. By keeping that freshman engaged in the process, he just might turn into your next senior who deadlifts 500 pounds.

Ultimately, strength training is an essential mechanism for enhancing the athletic ability of the athletes we serve. Developing our younger athletes requires us to place them in a position where they learn, grow and acquire skill. By using body weight and lighter loads initially, we proactively emphasize technique and safety, while building a solid foundation for future strength gains.

Photo Credit: Jan-Otto/iStock