Strength Training for Teenagers

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Here’s the 411 on strength training for teenagers.

There’s a lot of myths about children working out but they’re just that: fables that somehow penetrated the cultural zeitgeist and made some well-intentioned parents question whether their kid should wait till their 30th birthday before touching a weight. No, lifting weights won’t stunt growth, damage bones, or any other act of horror you may have heard while chatting around the water cooler (I guess nowadays it would be more ‘chat before the zoom meeting’ but you know what I mean).

You can rest assure that not only is strength training perfectly safe for your kid but one of the best things you can do for them. It be a foundation of physical fitness, but more importantly, it can build confidence and mental strength you just can’t find doing other things. This of course is assuming you do things correctly.

I mentioned the whole ‘stunt your growth’ thing so let me nip that right now. Somehow it was thought that weight training would damage the growth plates in bones (referred as epiphyseal plates) and thus rob your child of their dreams of thriving in the NBA with their freakish height as a frightful center for the Lakers. Here’s the cliff notes of how your child develops; growth plates function because cartilage eventually turns into bone. This turnover then allows the bone to expand and slowly increasing our growth over time.

Extreme genetic conditions can affect the cartilage/bone relationship; not doing a set of bench presses. Physical activity, even structured exercise, will not affect this relationship. If this was the case, kids would never be able to help carry in the groceries or hop over a fence (if kids still go outside these days and climb over things).

With that being said, going to the other extreme isn’t a good idea: there’s no reason a 12 year old needs to try and lift a house. Should your child’s high school have some sort of conditioning program, make sure it’s taught by a qualified exercise physiologist who isn’t going to just dump a bunch of a weight on a barbell in the hopes of falsifying some team deadlift record.

In fact, to get things started, there’s no need for a barbell in the first phase of what I outline below.

The thing to understand is that strength is largely a neural skill. You’re trying to teach the nervous system how to recruit the muscles to perform certain skills. This transfers over into everyday life and into the sport world. On the other hand, gaining muscle mass has a metabolic component to it; your kid just doesn’t have the testosterone levels to develop a significant amount of muscle mass. If you’re trying to get your child to look like they belong on a comic book cover, you’ll need be patient and let things take their course (and hopefully understand that it’s up to your child if they want to try and attempt to put on 20 pounds of muscle).

To sum it up, strength can occur through nervous system develop and good technique – turning junior into little Hulk is not going to happen.

There’s a correlation between early exposure to the androgens (testosterone) and strength levels; so in a nutshell, hitting puberty early may contribute to higher strength and power levels as an adult. Your child doesn’t have any control over this because they’re just responding to the genetics you passed on (which is okay because you can just pass the blame onto your parents should your teenager question their lack of results). While strength training can help, understand that nature plays a big part on whether your teenager is lifting a house at the age of 15.

 

With all that out the way, let’s get to what kids can start doing today. The first phase of strength training focuses on bodyweight moves for maximum repetitions – it’s as simple as following an A/B format that looks like this:

 

Workout A

Bodyweight Squat, 350, rest 45 seconds

Chin Ups, 325, rest 60 seconds

Push Ups, 350, rest 45 seconds

Workout B

Bodyweight Lunge, 350, rest 45 seconds

Pull Ups, 320, rest 60 seconds

Dips, 330, rest 45 seconds

All you’re trying to do is get a certain number of reps in 3 sets: so 350 means 50 reps in 3 sets, 325 means 25 reps in 3 sets. You could do each workout twice a week and follow this plan for 1-2 months.

Phase 2 would go for three months and now incorporate the deadlift.  With the deadlift, focus would be on form as you can buy training plates that only weigh 5 pounds. By the end of the third month though, dedicated kids can lift bodyweight (on the bar) for multiple reps.

 

Workout A

Deadlift- 3 x 5, rest 90 seconds*

Bodyweight Squat, 475, rest 35 seconds

Chin Up – 435, rest 45 seconds

Push Ups -475, rest 35 seconds

 

Workout B

Deadlift – 5 x 2, rest 90 seconds*

Split Squat – 450, rest 35 seconds

Pull-Ups – 430, rest 45 seconds

Dips, 445, rest 45 seconds

 

*A “real” deadlift would require far more rest, but since the goal here is technique, we don’t need to rest as long. The last set of each workout is where the child could attempt a BIT more weight.

By now your child has just about half a year of consistent training. The next phase would be to incorporate the barbell for all moves – bench presses, squats, and even introducing the power clean. That however will be saved for another day. In the meantime, get your kid off their rear and get them training – they’ll thank you years later!

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