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Long-Term Athletic Development and Its Application to Youth Weightlifting

Lloyd, Rhodri S. PhD, CSCS*D1; Oliver, Jon L. PhD2; Meyers, Robert W. MSc2; Moody, Jeremy A. PhD2; Stone, Michael H. PhD, FNSCA3

Strength and Conditioning Journal: August 2012 - Volume 34 - Issue 4 - p 55–66
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e31825ab4bb
Article

SUMMARY CONSIDERABLE CONTROVERSY AND MISGUIDED INFORMATION HAS SURROUNDED THE INCLUSION OF WEIGHTLIFTING WITHIN YOUTH-BASED STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING PROGRAMS TO DEVELOP STRENGTH, POWER, AND SPEED. THIS ARTICLE REVIEWS THE EVIDENCE TO SUPPORT ITS INCLUSION AS A SAFE AND EFFECTIVE MEANS TO ENHANCE ATHLETIC POTENTIAL. GUIDELINES ARE PRESENTED TO PROVIDE COACHES WITH A STRUCTURED AND LOGICAL PROGRESSION MODEL, WHICH IS ASSOCIATED WITH THE THEORETICAL CONCEPTS UNDERPINNING LONG-TERM ATHLETIC DEVELOPMENT. IT IS HOPED THAT THIS REVIEW WILL SERVE AS A USEFUL TOOL TO HELP STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING COACHES INTEGRATE WEIGHTLIFTING EXERCISES WITHIN TRAINING PROGRAMS OF YOUNG ATHLETES IN A SAFE AND EFFECTIVE MANNER.

1Faculty of Applied Sciences, University of Gloucestershire, Gloucester, United Kingdom

2Cardiff School of Sport, Cardiff Metropolitan University, Cardiff, United Kingdom

3Department of Exercise and Sport Science, Center of Excellence for Sport Science and Coach Education, East Tennessee State University, Johnson City, Tennessee

Rhodri S. Lloyd is the Program Director for the Sport Strength and Conditioning degrees at the University of Gloucestershire.

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Jon L. Oliver is a lecturer in Sport and Exercise Physiology at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff.

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Robert W. Meyers is a senior lecturer in Strength and Conditioning, Rehabilitation and Massage at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff.

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Jeremy Moody is Program Director of the Strength and Conditioning, Rehabilitation and Massage degrees at the University of Wales Institute Cardiff.

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Michael H. Stone is the Exercise and Sports Science Laboratory Director in the Department of Kinesiology, Leisure, and Sport Sciences at East Tennessee State University.

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INTRODUCTION

Weightlifting has long been used in athletic training programs to develop strength, power, and speed in recreational and elite level athletes. Weightlifting refers to the official sport (that includes the snatch and clean and jerk) and should not be confused weight lifting, resistance training, or powerlifting (54). Although the training modality is often used within elite level sport (30,52), its inclusion within youth-based training programs has previously been questioned over concerns surrounding the safety and well-being of young athletes (2). However, recent literature suggests that injuries occurring as a direct result from generic resistance training and specific weightlifting activities in youths is relatively low (10,20,21,31,45,50,55). Indeed, it is important for physical educators, sports coaches, and strength and conditioning coaches to appreciate and rationalize the dichotomy that exists between the risk and reward of weightlifting exercises, as they do in many other training modalities and technical preparation strategies. It is suggested by some of the leading sports science authorities, such as the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), Australian Strength and Conditioning Association (ASCA), United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Association (UKSCA), and the British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences (BASES), that in the presence of suitably qualified personnel, resistance training in general is a safe and effective practice for young athletes to participate (4,19,49,55).

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MISCONSTRUED RISKS AND UNDERVALUED REWARDS OF WEIGHTLIFTING MOVEMENTS FOR YOUTHS

A major concern related to weightlifting movements for young athletes has revolved around the potential damage to the epiphyseal growth plate. Although it is true that this structural compound is weaker than the surrounding connective tissue, there is no evidence indicating that weightlifting, and more generally resistance training, is especially injurious to the epiphyses (49) or has a direct correlation with reductions in eventual growth height in young athletes (18,39).

Conversely, adaptations to the connective tissues and skeletal system that can be gained from weightlifting when young athletes are appropriately supervised will better prepare them to tolerate the impact and ground reaction forces that they are likely to experience within a sporting environment. Consequently, instead of thinking of the risks associated with “exposing” young athletes to weightlifting, strength and conditioning coaches, sports coaches, and physical educators should focus on the risks of “not exposing” young athletes to the training mode to better prepare them for competitive sporting situations.

Researchers have identified an additional range of risk factors prevalent to weightlifting (and resistance training in general), including unsafe environment and equipment, excessive load and volume of training, and limited rest intervals (25,49). However, as the authors confirm, these risk factors can be reduced or eliminated with appropriate supervision and instruction from suitably qualified coaches. As a minimum, coaches should have attained a relevant strength and conditioning qualification (e.g., NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, UKSCA Accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach awards, or USA Weightlifting certification).

These qualifications only suggest a suitable level of knowledge or competency, and therefore it is essential that the coach has the relevant pedagogic experience and communication skills to work with young athletes of varying abilities and personalities. This is especially true when considering the planning of weightlifting training sessions, given the acceptance that strength and conditioning programs designed for adults (in terms of loading, frequency, and intensity) should never be superimposed on children owing to clear physiological differences (19,44,46,49).

A growing body of evidence now exists to question the previous concerns surrounding the participation of youths in weightlifting activities (20,24,25). Although minimal recent research examining the safety of youth weightlifting exists, it has been established in retrospective analysis that weightlifting is safer than many other competitive sports and activities (31). Conversely, there seems to be no evidence to prove that when performed correctly under the supervision of appropriately qualified personnel, weightlifting carries a greater risk of injury than other activities that youths regularly participate in (24,31). Importantly, research now shows that young athletes participating in weightlifting activities can demonstrate significant gains in strength with few reports of injury (10,22,50).

Specifically, Pierce et al. (50) highlighted that during a year long period of weightlifting competitions and training sessions, injuries incurred directly from weightlifting resulted in no loss of training days in a sample of 70 boys and girls (aged 7–16 years), who regularly completed maximal and near-maximal lifts in competition. In addition to the increases in loads lifted by the individuals, the lack of reported injuries further informs the potential gains and relatively low risks associated with youth weightlifting. Another study by Byrd et al. (10) monitored weightlifting performance of young athletes (aged 12–15 years) over time and reported significant improvements in absolute and relative load lifted for the snatch and clean and jerk and total load when lifts were combined. Importantly, over the course of 534 competitive lifts and all training sessions, there were no injuries reported that required medical attention or forced the athlete to miss training (10). This provides evidence for the effectiveness of the training mode when coached and supervised by appropriately trained personnel.

It is now recognized that a well-structured weightlifting program can elicit positive training adaptations in young athletes for strength and power (8,9,11). Currently, there is a lack of published research investigating the effectiveness of weightlifting on actual sports performance in adolescent athletes. However, the snatch, clean and jerk, and their derivative lifts, do replicate the kinetic and kinematic patterns inherent to lower limb locomotion, where force application against the ground via triple extension of the ankle, knee, and hip is essential (12,32). The adaptations in strength and power that result from weightlifting (34) would suggest potential transfer to sporting movements such as sprinting, accelerating, decelerating, and jumping.

However, weightlifting should not only be viewed from a performance enhancement perspective but also from an injury prevention standpoint. Previous literature examining the loading during landing activities has shown that the ground reaction forces can be up to 7 times body mass (14,42). When examining the weightlifting exercises in more detail, although the initial lift from the ground to shoulder height (clean) or to above the head (snatch) involves primarily concentric muscle activity, the catch phase of each lift involves dropping underneath the bar to support the load in either a front squat position for the clean or an overhead position for the snatch (Figure 1). During the catch portion of each lift, the primary muscle action of the lower limbs will involve eccentric contraction, synonymous with the muscle actions involved during landing activities. Properly performed catch phases produce a smaller impact force and are more controllable than typical jump landings (29). Given the reduced prelanding neuromuscular efficiency demonstrated by younger children (47), and the high incidence of noncontact anterior cruciate ligament injuries in young women (15), it is speculated that weightlifting could be used as an effective injury prevention strategy by strengthening the movement kinematics inherent to landing, cutting, and deceleration.

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LONG-TERM ATHLETE DEVELOPMENT AND WEIGHTLIFTING FOR YOUTHS

Following the emergence of the long-term athlete development (LTAD) model (5) and its acceptance by a range of sporting organizations (3,9,16), strength and conditioning coaches are encouraged to expose young athletes to specific training stimuli at various stages of development, where they are most susceptible to accelerated adaptation (5). The model has been designed to combine successful training methods alongside a greater scientific basis of pediatric exercise science (5). Specifically, the model attempts to accommodate for variations in biological age, by objectively assessing rates of change in stature and body mass (5). Such an approach enables children to be trained in accordance with their biological status as opposed to chronological age, and it is speculated that with exposure to the correct training stimulus during “windows of opportunity,” young athletes can reach a greater physiological ceiling potential (5). These windows are typically pre- and postpubertal for strength, speed, suppleness, stamina, and skill, and exist in relation to the onset of peak height velocity (PHV) (5). PHV refers to the maximum velocity of growth in stature during a growth spurt and has been used to characterize developments in performance relative to the adolescent growth spurt (40).

The prepubertal window is associated with age-related neural developments, whereas the postpubertal window is a result of altered sex hormone concentrations, leading to greater muscle mass and force producing capabilities (27). Despite an overreliance on anecdotal evidence, and a lack of peer-reviewed scientific research to support the existence of windows of opportunity (27), the LTAD model at least offers a structured approach to youth athletic development. Indeed, windows of opportunity may present unique training opportunities to maximize strength, power, and speed gains for young athletes, and thus the LTAD model or variations can serve as an acceptable foundation for training young athletes.

Because of the unique physiological processes associated with the various development stages of childhood and adolescence, and to reflect the different phases of the LTAD model (5), this article will review some of the training considerations inherent to the following key phases: prepubertal, circa pubertal, and postpubertal.

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PREPUBERTAL TRAINING FOCUS—“FUNDAMENTALS” AND “LEARNING TO TRAIN”

Higgs et al. (33) indicate that physical literacy involves the development of competency in fundamental movement skills (FMS; walking, running, and jumping) and fundamental sport skills (catching, hopping, and galloping), which when combined, allows the young athlete to skillfully move in a range of sporting situations. Previous research has stated that between the ages of 6–8 years and 10–12 years, periods of peak brain maturation occurs in children (51), and that children undergo accelerated adaptation of the neuromuscular system (8). It is largely accepted that by this time a number of the neural pathways for FMS will be defined, which would suggest that from a weightlifting perspective, the prepubertal years pose a critical timeframe in which to introduce and reinforce a wide variety of techniques. This is reinforced by previous literature that stated the starting age for weightlifting training in some Eastern European countries is approximately 10 years of age and this approximate age is being used by some coaches in the United States (54). With respect to the LTAD model, this timeframe would encapsulate the FUNdamentals and Learning to Train stages (5). Weightlifting exercises possess a heightened coordinative demand in comparison with more basic resistance training techniques (26), and therefore exposing children to weightlifting techniques when brain and neuromuscular system maturation rates are at their highest, would seem logical. As a consequence of technical development (and the lack of adequate testosterone concentrations to build lean muscle mass), strength and conditioning coaches should expect improvements in strength and power in prepubertal children during these stages owing to more effective and efficient neurological qualities (7).

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CIRCA PUBERTAL TRAINING FOCUS—“TRAINING TO TRAIN”

As children approach PHV, strength and conditioning coaches should be aware of the likely disproportionate growth rates of muscle and skeletal tissue within both males and females. During this period, those responsible for the athletic development of young athletes should be aware of the potential physical discomfort that children may experience during rapid stages of nonlinear growth. Additionally, coaches should be aware of potential breakdowns in motor coordination as a consequence of learning to use longer limbs, a process that is often referred to as “adolescent awkwardness” (48). However, it should be stressed that if external loadings need to be reduced during this phase, an element of focus on technical competency should still be retained within the program. This period of natural development would coincide with the early stages of the “Training to Train” phase of the LTAD model (5).

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POSTPUBERTAL TRAINING FOCUS—“TRAINING TO COMPETE” AND “TRAINING TO WIN”

Approximately 12–18 months after PHV, children will normally experience peak weight velocity (PWV) (6), which is a phase of development characterized by rapid increases in muscle mass as a result of increasing sex hormone concentrations (27). These hormonal changes will result in developments in muscle size (increase muscle fiber size) and structure (increased muscle pennation), and consequently an increased muscle cross-sectional area resulting in greater force producing capabilities (38).

Providing that the young athlete can demonstrate correct and consistent weightlifting technique, it is suggested that to further develop athletic potential, greater external loads are introduced to provide a progressively overloading stimulus. In relation to the LTAD model, this stage of development is synonymous with the latter period of the Training to Train phase, and the beginning of the Training to Compete and Training to Win phases (5). By the end of the Training to Compete and Training to Win phases, male and female athletes are older than 18 years and would no longer be classified as adolescent (56). However, it should be noted that LTAD models must be flexible to accommodate for individual differences in physiological maturation rates, and should not be limited by an athlete's chronological age. The 3-time Olympic gold medallist, Naim Suleymanoglu, set his first weightlifting world record at just 15 years old, and had he been limited to specific stages of an LTAD model, his achievements in weightlifting may have been curtailed. Effective strength and conditioning coaches should identify such athletes and allow them to progress more rapidly through the stages of an LTAD model to maximize their athletic potential.

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COACHING WEIGHTLIFTING PROGRESSIONS TO YOUNG ATHLETES

The snatch and clean and jerk are complex multijoint exercises that require an intricate sequence of movements to move the bar from the floor to above the head in 1 (snatch) or 2 (clean and jerk) movements. When teaching these lifts to young athletes, it is imperative that the strength and conditioning coach uses a structured and logical approach. At all times, especially in the infancy of learning the lifts, focus should be placed on technical competency, as opposed to load lifted. This is underlined by the suggestion that young athletes should always start by performing the lifts with a wooden dowel or a long piece of PVC piping instead of a weightlifting bar (26).

Once technical proficiency can be demonstrated, only then is it recommended that the young athlete uses a youth-sized weightlifting bar, which typically weighs 5-10 kg. Coach expertise and experience should then be used to decide on when the athlete is ready to use a full-size weightlifting bar. Figure 2 shows the progression from technique work with a dowel to lifting with a full-size weightlifting bar.

Figure 2

Figure 2

For the purposes of this article, it was deemed pertinent to formalize a comprehensive progression model (Figure 3) that corresponded with the developmental stages aligned with the LTAD model (5). It is the intention that this model will provide coaches with a strategic approach to developing weightlifting technique in young athletes. It should be noted that if a strength and conditioning coach begins to work with an athlete who has not completed the earlier stages (e.g., a 15-year-old who has not been exposed to the Fundamental Weightlifting Skills or Learning Weightlifting stages), the athlete should enter the model at the earliest stage as opposed to beginning at the stage that corresponds to their chronological age.

Figure 3

Figure 3

Because of the age-related neural developments, it is speculated that these athletes might transition between the stages of the model more quickly, progressing through to the stage of the model that is more aligned with their chronological age. In accordance with previous work that has proposed a progression schematic for plyometric training (36), the model contains approximated age ranges for each phase reflecting the differential rates of maturation for males and females. Regardless of age or gender, a young athlete must demonstrate technical proficiency of fundamental weightlifting skills before attempting more complex movements.

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STAGE 1: FUNDAMENTAL WEIGHTLIFTING SKILLS (MALES 6–9 YEARS, FEMALES 6–8 YEARS)

This stage is relevant for children who demonstrate the emotional maturity to listen to and follow instructions (36). Emphasis within this stage should be placed on developing movement proficiency and fundamental weightlifting skills (FWS) within an environment that develops agility, balance, coordination, and kinaesthetic and spatial awareness. A recent review has highlighted the importance of FMS development for children and adolescents (37), and it is generally accepted that FMS mastery is important for physical, social, and cognitive development (37). It is suggested that the strength and conditioning coach should not view every exercise within this stage as having to be specific to weightlifting. Conversely, for young children, learning to manage body weight through fun-based activities such as gymnastics, climbing, and crawling activities (Figure 4) will all help condition the child for later technical specificity. In addition to developing general strength, strength endurance, metabolic conditioning, flexibility, and mobility should all be targeted within the young athlete's training program (54). With appropriate exercise selection, the strength and conditioning coach should be able to expose the child to such key movement competencies, such as lower limb triple extension, scapula stabilization, thoracic extension, and core strength development, in a relatively unstructured manner. Although the array of exercises appropriate for children at this stage is vast, Table 1 provides an overview of the possible exercises that can be integrated within a training program aiming to develop a range of key physical competencies linked to the weightlifting movements. It should be noted that although the table has been separated according to body parts for clarity, many of the exercises would place multiple demands upon the young athlete, thereby developing a broader range of physical literacy. Furthermore, training sessions within this phase should take a less structured approach, with the use of innovative games, to incorporate the desired movement patterns without the expense of a fun and motivating environment for the young athlete. It is possible to coach effectively and make significant progressions in posture and control even in such unstructured environments.

Table 1

Table 1

Figure 4

Figure 4

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STAGE 2: LEARNING WEIGHTLIFTING (MALES 9–12 YEARS, FEMALES 8–11 YEARS)

As the young athlete matures and approaches an age where more structured training is appropriate, the focus of training sessions can become more specific to weightlifting movements. During this stage, the athlete should be introduced progressively to the different phases of each lift (Table 2), with technical competency serving as the primary goal at all times. In the authors' experience, children naturally learn quickly during this stage and can develop these skills at a fast rate; however, it must be stressed that the strength and conditioning coach should not treat young athletes like miniature adults and should not progress the child to lift heavier external loads at the expense of technical proficiency, thus increasing the injury potential for the child.

Table 2

Table 2

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STAGE 3: TRAINING WEIGHTLIFTING (MALES 12–16 YEARS, FEMALES 11–15 YEARS)

The Training Weightlifting stage is a developmental stage, whereby strength and conditioning coaches must pay attention to key growth and maturational processes. During this stage, it is expected that young athletes will experience rapid growth in limb lengths, which may cause discomfort and/or momentary loss in motor coordination (48). Consequently, it is imperative that during this phase, coaches monitor growth rates and are sensitive to sudden interruptions in technical competency.

Coaches may wish to use a maturity offset estimate to monitor the development of their athletes that will indicate physical maturity in relation to the onset of PHV (43). The maturity-offset estimate predicts the biological age of an individual in years from PHV and can be calculated by using chronological age, standing height, sitting height, and leg length within regression analyses (43). The benefit of such an approach is that it involves simple and noninvasive procedures, which should be available to all coaches. However, caution is warranted when implementing the maturity offset, owing to the measurement error associated with the measure of ±1 year 95% of the time (43).

Alternatively, if working with the same athletes over a prolonged period of time, coaches in cooperation with a physician may simply monitor growth rates of the stature, limbs, and trunk to identify when a growth spurt is beginning, is at its peak, and is coming toward an end. During this stage, program content may fluctuate between technical competency and external loading; however, the safety of the athlete must be paramount at all times. As children approach the end of this stage, it is likely that they will have experienced PHV and will be undergoing PWV, which refers to the maximal rate of change in body mass during a growth spurt, typically owing to increased muscle mass (40). As such, the athlete can be exposed to heavier external loads, as PWV naturally leads to lean muscle mass development owing to increases in muscle-building hormonal concentrations (40). It is important to minimize the potential of long-term dysfunction by coaching the athlete, and not being misled by exceptional sports performances produced by athletes within this age group.

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STAGE 4: PERFORMANCE WEIGHTLIFTING (MALES 16+ YEARS, FEMALES 15+ YEARS)

The final stage represents the period whereby the young athlete can be exposed to more advanced training program design, focused on both technical expertise and external loading. It should be noted that although earlier stages are more technique focused, training during these times should still be structured and follow a periodized plan. During the Performance Weightlifting phase, and to ensure that the movement velocity is appropriate to the desired training goal (i.e., speed-strength or strength-speed), motion capture devices and accelerometers may be used to monitor bar velocity and power outputs (35) to ensure the maintenance of repetition velocity and rate of force development. Additionally, the use of video analysis is encouraged to monitor technique as technical inconsistencies become less obvious.

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WEIGHTLIFTING PROGRAM DESIGN FOR YOUNG ATHLETES

When designing weightlifting programs for young athletes, the variables of volume, intensity, repetition velocity, frequency, and recovery must be considered to ensure optimal athletic development, and minimize injury risk. The authors wish to stress that the following recommendations should be applied within the context of the individual needs of the athlete, and that the following training variables should at all times be individualized within a training program. See Table 3 for a summary of suggested training prescription guidelines.

Table 3

Table 3

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VOLUME

For young athletes entering the FWS stage, the volume of exercises would commonly be higher in comparison with the later stages owing to the relatively lower impact forces and joint loadings experienced during basic bodyweight movements. The purpose of the FWS stage is to provide children with a wide range of movement stimuli, and therefore for a given exercise, coaches are advised to prescribe approximately 2–4 sets of 6–12 repetitions. This should provide the child with sufficient exposure to aid motor control development while serving as a suitable volume for physical conditioning.

For the purposes of concentration retention and physical literacy development, it is suggested that a range of exercises should be given within a single session (6–10). However, it should be noted that if children are exposed to very basic introductory weightlifting exercises within this stage (i.e., an overhead squat with wooden dowel), then multiple repetitions might be counterproductive for motor control development. Instead, it is recommended that children perform single repetitions and are provided with real-time feedback to ensure safe and correct movement development.

When prescribing training volume for the Learning Weightlifting stage, the current article proposes performing multiple sets of 3–5 repetitions, volumes that have previously been suggested as most effective for young athletes to learn the snatch and clean and jerk (26). However, within each set, individual repetitions should be interspersed with feedback because incorrect form within the first repetition of a set will typically lead to poor technique for the remainder of the set. Table 3 shows that with an increase in training age as children move from Learning Weightlifting through to Performance Weightlifting, total volume for a given exercise and total number of exercises within a single session both reduce; however, these are in accordance with a concomitant increase in training intensity.

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INTENSITY

For children entering the progression schematic, body weight will serve as the prescribed training intensity. This is to ensure that young athletes do not attempt loaded exercises before movement competency can be demonstrated. However, it is suggested that some loading may be necessary to “feel” the bar, even in children, when considering learning proficient weightlifting technique. On entering the Learning Weightlifting phase, it is suggested that the intensity of training sessions should be based upon percentages of the athlete's 1 repetition maximum (1RM).

Despite previous concerns, maximal strength testing in children (albeit using fixed-resistance training machines) has been proven to be safe and reliable, provided appropriate protocols are implemented (23). Alternative means to predict resistance may include the Daily Adjusted Progressive Resistance Exercise or the Oddvar Holten Diagram Curve; however, the 1RM method is most commonly used. It should be acknowledged that methods of predicting 1RM values from higher repetition ranges possess less accuracy, in particular when repetition ranges exceed 10 (23). The decision on which method to use should be based on the training age, ability, and experience of the young athlete; however, coaches and young athletes should at all times ensure that safety is paramount. Using percentages of 1RM loads is deemed preferable as opposed to an athlete lifting the most weight they can for a given set of repetitions (e.g., 10RM), to avoid constantly training the athlete to failure. Previous reviews have highlighted that such an approach runs the risk of decreasing resting levels of testosterone and increasing resting cortisol concentrations (albeit for adult populations), which are counterproductive for strength and power gains (53,57). Especially when working with young athletes, it is recommended that intensity is never increased at the expense of technical competency. Table 3 shows that training intensity increases in accordance with increasing training age, with athletes in the Performance Weightlifting category regularly lifting loads of 85–100% 1RM.

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REPETITION VELOCITY

Due to rate of force development being integral to explosive weightlifting performance (34,54), it is imperative that high repetition velocity is maintained. For this reason, it is suggested that coaches should integrate fast velocity movements within every stage of the progression model. Although certain exercises within the FWS phase may require slow, controlled movements, an element of high-velocity movements should still exist with basic vertical jumps serving as a suitable example. As athletes progress through the progression model, and enter the Training Weightlifting and Performance Weightlifting phases, the coach should expose the athlete to heavy loads (≥80% 1RM) to maximize power output, maximal strength, muscle cross-sectional area, and maximal neural activation (13). For experienced athletes in the Performance Weightlifting stage, the use of supramaximal loads may also be used to further stimulate maximal motor unit recruitment (e.g., first pulls performed with a 120% 1RM load). However, to expose the neuromuscular system to a range of stimuli across the force–velocity spectrum, and to avoid overtraining symptoms (28), it is suggested that such loadings are used for brief periods of time within an overall periodized program.

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FREQUENCY

In accordance with previous literature, it is proposed that training frequencies for youths should not exceed 2–3 one-hour weightlifting sessions per week (26). However, to maintain performance quality and athlete enthusiasm, it is reasonable to suggest that multiple sessions of shorter duration (i.e., 3–5, 30- to 40-minute sessions per week) could be an alternative approach, especially with younger athletes. As athletes progress toward the end of the progression model, training frequency may rise up to approximately 5 sessions per week, dependent on the training block within a periodized training program. However, the volume loads associated with such programs would only be conducive to individual athletes of the appropriate training age, and such frequencies should never be superimposed on athletes of a young training age.

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RECOVERY

Due to weightlifting exercises and their derivative lifts being whole-body, multijoint multi-muscle movements (32), the need for adequate intra- and intersession rest is essential. As is common with generic resistance training methods for youths, an intersession rest period of 48 hours is recommended (19); however, for athletes within the Performance Weightlifting phase, the minimum rest period may on occasions be reduced. Although children may not show symptoms of delayed onset of muscle soreness because of their reduced body mass and increased pliability of muscle tissue (17), they will likely require more recovery time between consecutive training sessions to adapt to training-induced physiological stresses, and to allow for natural growth processes to occur (1,46). Therefore, it may not be as easy to monitor training readiness therefore in youths, and consequently it is recommended that the strength and conditioning coach should always use a common sense and flexible approach to training program design.

One option available to the coach could be the use of the Profile of Mood States questionnaire, which has proven useful for assessing and preventing overtraining in young athletes (41). However, such questionnaires do not reflect the extent of fatigue at a neuromuscular level, rather they provide only perceptions of fatigue. Consequently, neuromuscular monitoring, possibly via measurement of the reactive strength index (ratio of jump height and ground contact time) during a rebound-based test, could be a relatively simple method of quantifying actual neuromuscular fatigue (36). Regardless of the monitoring tool selected, coaches should be aware of the symptoms of overtraining, such as: decreased performance, persistent fatigue, susceptibility to upper respiratory tract infections, disruptive sleep patterns, mood swings, and sudden weight loss (1,41).

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SUMMARY AND PRACTICAL APPLICATIONS

The current article has reviewed the suitability of weightlifting for long-term athletic development. Despite previous misconceptions, weightlifting for youths is a safe and effective training modality to enhance physical literacy, muscular strength, and explosive power. This article has also speculated on potential injury prevention benefits that weightlifting may provide to young athletes and confirms that the previously reported risk factors can be reduced or eliminated with appropriate supervision and instruction from appropriately qualified coaches. It would appear that pre-pubertal age-related neural developments and postpubertal maturity-related increases in sex androgen concentrations might offer suitable windows of adaptation to maximize athletic gains through weightlifting. The progression model provided within the article offers coaches a logical and sequential development tool to follow, which is in accordance to the theories of long-term athletic development. The training prescription guidelines included within the model should always be integrated with the needs of the individual athlete in mind, and at no stage should strength and conditioning coaches treat children like miniature adults.

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Keywords:

weightlifting; long-term athlete development; power; youths; pediatrics

© 2012 National Strength and Conditioning Association