Mike Nitka, MS, CSCS*D
ARE WEIGHTLIFTING MOVEMENTS SAFE FOR YOUTH?
Unlike traditional strength-building exercises, such as the biceps curl or leg press, which are performed at a controlled movement speed and are relatively easy to learn, lifts such as the snatch and the clean and jerk are explosive but highly controlled movements that require a high degree of technical skill. In the snatch lift, the barbell is lifted from the platform to arms' length overhead in a single continuous movement, and in the clean and jerk, the barbell is lifted from the platform to the shoulders and then to the overhead position to complete the 2-part lift. Although these lifts involve more complex neural activations patterns than other resistance exercises, the belief that properly performed weightlifting movements are riskier than other sports and activities is not consistent with research findings (2,10).
With qualified instruction and safety measures in place (such as a safe lifting environment, appropriate loads), data indicate that risk of injury during the performance of a weightlifting movement during training or competition is relatively low (1,6,8). For example, Hamill (6) evaluated injury rates in adolescents who participated in a variety of sports and concluded that weightlifting was markedly safer than other sports including soccer and rugby. In support of these findings, Byrd et al. (1) and Pierce et al. (8) evaluated the incidence of injury in young lifters and concluded that competitive weightlifting is safer than generally thought provided that age-appropriate training guidelines are followed and competent coaching is available. To date, no scientific evidence indicates that properly performed and sensibly progressed weightlifting movements performed during practice or competition are riskier than other sports and activities in which youth regularly participate.
Although these findings may be surprising to some observers, it is important to emphasize that the coordination and skill technique needed to learn these lifts correctly requires a light weight barbell or a wooden dowel. Unlike an exercise such as the bench press, whereby a beginner may attempt to perform this lift with a moderate-to-heavy load, weightlifting movements such as the snatch can only be learned with a light load. Once a youth develops the skill, technique, and confidence to perform these lifts correctly, the training intensity and volume can be gradually increased. With qualified instruction and a stepwise progression of the training program, researchers have reported significant gains in muscle strength when weightlifting movements were sensibly incorporated into a youth resistance training program (5,9).
Program Design Considerations
Weightlifting movements do not need to be incorporated into all youth resistance-training programs. However, boys and girls who want to learn these lifts under the supervision of a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist or United States Weightlifting Federation Club Coach may benefit from this type of training provided the focus remains on learning proper exercise technique with appropriate loads. Coaches should be aware of the considerable amount of time it takes to teach these lifts and should be knowledgeable of the progression from basic exercises (e.g., front squat) to skill transfer exercises (e.g., overhead squat) and finally to the competitive lifts (e.g., snatch). Although there is no minimum age requirement for performing weightlifting movements, participants should have the emotional maturity to accept and follow directions and should be aware that they could get hurt if they do not follow coaching instructions.
All youth resistance-training programs should include proper instruction, qualified supervision, correct exercise technique, a safe training environment, and a gradual advancement from education, to progression to function. If age-specific training guidelines are followed and if coaches are viewed as knowledgeable and enthusiastic, the performance of weightlifting movements can be a safe, enjoyable and beneficial experience for children and adolescents. Our 3-phase approach for teaching weightlifting to children and adolescents is outlined below:
Phase 1: Education
The purpose of phase 1 is to introduce all students to proper exercise technique, general resistance-training guidelines, and safety procedures. For example, during this time, we focus on developing proper exercise technique with a wooden dowel or lightweight medicine ball (1-2kg), and we teach proper safety procedures, which include practicing how to “miss” a lift. Movements performed during this phase may include the snatch balance, clean pull, back squat, front squat, overhead squat, push press, and push jerk. Participants typically perform 1-2 sets of 3-5 repetitions of 2-3 exercises each session. Basic movement patterns are typically established within 3-4 weeks.
Phase 2: Progression
As youth gain confidence and competence in their abilities to perform weightlifting movements, participants progress from a wooden dowel or medicine ball to an aluminum barbell (7kg) and then to an aluminum barbell with plastic training plates (Figure 1). Once movement competency is established, basic weightlifting movements can be incorporated into a periodized training program, which includes the snatch and the clean and jerk. In addition to reviewing procedures on how to “miss” a lift properly, we regularly provide instruction on how to correctly return the bar to the hang or floor position so that participants become automatic in their response to an undesirable bar position. After movement preparation activities with a lightweight medicine ball, participants typically perform 4-5 sets of 3-5 repetitions at a training intensity of less than 70% of their estimated maximum. Because fatigue can influence the performance of explosive movements and possibly increase the risk of injury, we focus on movement speed and efficiency and allow for adequate recovery between sets.
Phase 3: Function
During phase 3, program variables such as exercises, sets, repetitions, and rest periods are individually prescribed to keep the program safe, challenging, and effective. For example, high school basketball players with 3 months of resistance-training experience will perform a different program than young competitive weightlifters who have been training for several years. Nevertheless, all participants perform joint and postural strengthening exercises to enhance performance and reduce the likelihood of injury. As the program is progressed with heavier loads (e.g., 70-80% of an estimated maximum), coaches should not overlook the value of reinforcing proper exercise technique with less-intense training cycles, which are needed during long-term athletic training programs. In addition, youth coaches can minimize the risk of injury by ensuring a safe training environment, limiting the number of heavy lifts during a workout, and allowing for adequate recovery between training sessions.
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