Weekly Wellness: Strength training for teenagers

Sun-Times Media file photo
Sun-Times Media file photo

Our weekly fitness column, “Weekly Wellness,” is back again. This week, Matt Gallagher, from MFC Sports Performance in Darien, discusses when it is appropriate for teenagers to begin strength training, and the answer may surprise you.

The teenage years are perhaps the strangest and most challenging of years for a growing child. In this article, I would like to present my thoughts and ideas regarding strength development for kids in their teens. For example, when is it appropriate for a child to start strength training? What kind of strength training should be utilized? Is it safe or mentally and emotionally healthy for a teenager to begin strength training? All of these concerns are answered in this article.

First off, I would like to address the issue of males and females strength training. As a trainer of kids and teenagers, I can make a strong case that teenage girls desperately need strength training more so than teenage boys. Why do I believe teenage girls need strength training more so than teenage boys? For several reasons:

1.  Teenage girls are more physically mature than teenage boys by the time they reach their teen years, and have greater control of their muscles. 

2.  Teenage girls need more strength training in general than boys because of their body levers – wider hips and narrower shoulders expose their joints to greater sheer stress, especially at the knees. In past articles, I discussed how knee and hip problems arise in teenage girls much more so than in teenage boys, and it is because of the previously mentioned mechanical set up, and sport specialization. 

3.  I fear that the pressures for teenage girls to look a certain way in this superficial society of ours leads them more toward the “skinny” mindset and under-eating and overdoing cardiovascular activity takes place. This only leads to eating disorders and a wrecked metabolism, as previously discussed as well. Teenage girls need to know that strong is the new skinny – a woman should be strong and physically capable to handle herself, not frail and weak. Strength training is perhaps the best way to improve a sensitive teenage girl’s self-image and self-confidence.

As far as teenage boys are concerned, many in their early teen years are not ready to lift heavy barbells. It is of the opinion that heavy deadlifts and heavy back squats can close the growth plates of developing bodies, and while I am not sure if science supports this claim, I think it is wise to err on the side of caution when it comes to spinal-loading exercises like deadlifts and back squats for certain teenagers (girls and boys). 

In general, I have found that 14 years old is probably the youngest that a teenager should begin to lift heavy barbells and dumbbells. This is an approximation, however, and many are not ready until age 15 or age 16. Conversely, a select few may be ready for light barbell work at the age of 12 or 13. The central issue comes down to physical development – has the teen entered puberty yet? There should not be any heavy lifting with barbells before puberty has clearly set in. Light strength training by other means is fine and highly recommended (e.g. light dumbbell work and bodyweight calisthenics like push ups and chin ups, as well as plenty of core training and single-leg training). 

Once it is agreed upon that a teenager is physically mature enough for lifting barbells and dumbbells, it is imperative that proper form be demanded above all else. There is this little thing called the ego that plays a huge role in the high school weight room, and almost all teens will injure themselves at some point in the uncontrolled high school weight room environment because of ego lifting. 

Ego lifting is not hard to understand. An emotionally fragile 14 or 15 year old boy doesn’t want to be shown up by his classmates or called weak, so he loads up the bar to whatever his friends are doing and uses whatever awful form is necessary to make it seem like he actually is strong enough to lift the weight. Combine that with a body that is still establishing mind-muscle connection and coordination, and you have a recipe for disaster. Again, proper form must be taught exclusively from the beginning, and alteration of form may not be allowed at all by the coach.

Lastly, I would like to talk about the mental benefits that strength training can provide for teenage boys as well as teenage girls. Teenage boys and teenage girls are starting to feel the pressure from society to look a certain way. The ideal masculine image is wide shoulders, ripped six-pack abs, and a lean body. Just look at all the muscle magazines that now are equal in number to magazines about female health and beauty, as well as what is seen on YouTube, Facebook and Instagram. 

It is easy to get teenage boys in a very sensitive, insecure frame-of-mind at a time when self-confidence and positive feedback are crucial for a stable mentality. I am not stressing strength training should be about image at all, but rather about all the other positives that come with it  – a stronger, more capable body with a greater mind-muscle establishment for sports, improved confidence, more stability in the joints to help prevent injury, and a healthy outlet for pent up frustrations and failures. It also teaches discipline and hard-work, because if you want any progress with strength training, this is what it requires.

The Takeaway: The take home message is simple: strength training is a powerful confidence builder in teenage boys, and helps establish a healthy self-image in teenage girls. It encourages healthy eating habits, hard work, goal establishment, discipline and self-sacrifice. Of course, all of this should be done modestly and in an attitude of helping others do the same without judgment. This should be taught and coached right along with proper form from the first time a teen touches a barbell and/or dumbbell. 

Matt Gallagher is the Fitness Director at MFC Sports Performance in Darien, which specializes in functional training for both adults and younger athletes. You can reach Matt by emailing him at Matt@MFCSportsPerformance.com

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