Weight training is a vital element to any young athlete’s development. It can improve strength, explosiveness and reduce the chances of injury. But what age should someone begin working out?
One age often thrown out there is 15. But C.J. Stockel, the strength and conditioning coach of Flowery Branch High and head coach of Georgia’s U.S.A. weightlifting team, says kids should start training as early as elementary school.
“Think about it,” said Stockel, “how old do you have to be to start playing soccer, baseball, basketball or football? These kids start hitting and colliding at 5, 6 years old. Everyone’s saying you shouldn’t lift weights until a certain age because it’s going to hurt your body, but it’s OK to let kids collide at full speed? That doesn’t make sense.”
Stockel’s not suggesting a 5-year-old should hit the gym three days a week for bench presses, dead lifts and hamstring curls. But what he strongly recommends is for kids to learn exercise movements and the techniques behind weightlifting.
He believes the sooner kids learn how to work out, the better off they’ll be down the road.
“We start kids with dowel rods to teach movements,” Stockel said. “What I preach is technique moves the bar. I don’t care how old you are. When a child can stand, what’s the first thing she does? She sits back down in a squat. What do we do? We pick her up so she’ll stand. She’ll never squat again. We take away that hip flexibility right away. I’m going to teach a kid to squat even with air because that’s what it’s all about — technique.
“There is no reason why every elementary school in Hall County isn’t teaching a squat or presses with a dowel rod — they’re very affordable — or teaching lunges for good posture.”
Stockel started both of his daughters on weight training in the third grade. Currently, he’s working with a hand full of middle schoolers every week at Flowery Branch High’s weight room, and parents of the young kids working out don’t believe their kids are in any danger under Stockel’s watch.
“I never had a concern,” said Sharon Matthes, whose two kids, Jake — now a rising junior — and Jonah, who will enter sixth grade at Davis Middle, work out on Stockel’s watch. “The weights are so light in the beginning because the focus is on the technique and form. Heavier weights is not what they’re doing. Jake nor Jonah have never been hurt as far as weightlifting goes.”
Spending elementary school and middle school years learning technique puts a young student-athlete on track for adding heavy weights at a much earlier age and definitely by high school.
“I’ll start adding weight and continue adding weight as long their technique and form is perfect,” Stockel said.
Once a kid reaches high school level, heavy weightlifting becomes a part of the student-athlete’s routine. Jim Pavao, the strength and conditioning coach at Gainesville High, has been coaching for nearly 30 years. He takes an old school approach to weightlifting that still applies to today’s athlete.
“Some guys are a little more scientific, but I’m more like, ‘Let’s get in there and work hard,’” Pavao said. “We use a percentage of their max for reps and utilize a three-rep max for kids. If we feel they need more weight, we’ll give them more weight.
“We’re standing right there with them and monitoring them very closely. We’re really hands on.”
Former Flowery Branch running back Imani Cross, who is now a junior at North Hall, began lifting weights at 8 years old. By the time he was a freshman, he was benching 310 pounds and working out with the upperclassmen linemen. Now at 6-foot-2, 215 pounds, he benches 350.
“It has made me more durable,” said Cross, who played as a freshman on Flowery Branch’s state runner-up team. “I don’t have to worry about tweaking a hamstring; I’m stronger, more explosive, quicker, and I can last a long period of time playing at a high level, giving and taking contact.”
Cross is at the gym 5-7 days a week, using a multitude of exercises for a full-body workout.
“I’m in the weight room every chance I get,” he said. “I’ve always had the love for working out.”
With heavy weightlifting established in high school, if the student-athlete is fortunate enough to advance his/her career to the college level, that’s when the workouts become more specialized to a particular sport. The workouts also become more challenging.
“The intensity level is probably the biggest difference between high school and college workouts,” said Mike Clanton, head athletic trainer at Brenau University. “In high school, students are bound by classes all through the day and they go home.
Those time restrictions don’t exist in college. Also there is more specialization at the college level. Some workouts, like for soccer, work more on speed, whereas softball workouts work on power and explosiveness.”
Stockel, Pavao and Clanton agreed there’s not a specific age for a kid to begin weightlifting, but all said the approach should begin with technique-based workouts that don’t involve heavy lifting. Once the technique is down, weight can be added as long as form remains perfect.
“Stabilization and coordination is the key,” Stockel said.