Weight lifting is quite simple. You pick something up and put it above your head. Every granny who unloads her shopping and puts her jar of Marmite in the larder does it. Children helping granny will do it too. Why then do some people get caught up in making weight lifting so complicated? I prefer to keep things simple. In this article I shall endeavor to share what we do when teaching children at Excelsior Athletic Development Club, where we are affiliated with British Weightlifting, British Athletics, and British Gymnastics.
Why are you weight lifting?
First of all, we need to differentiate between the sport of weight lifting and using barbell derivatives of the snatch and clean and jerk to get general populations or sports people strong. The rules of the sport of weight lifting require you to perform two lifts: one with the bar going from floor to overhead in one movement (the snatch) the other in two movements (clean and jerk). In the sport you have to use a standard barbell.
There are no such restrictions when using derivatives of these exercises to prepare for other sports. You can lift anything you want, however you want. People soon realize that the best way to get something above your head is to keep it close to your body or that certain positions might increase the risk of back injury, but there are no rules telling them how to do it.
As a coach (or athlete) you have to decide why you are performing weight lifting sport techniques: are they necessary for your sport? Are they the best answer to the problem you face? I shall not answer that for you; instead I shall concentrate on how our young athletes learn weight lifting. But I do not believe that the answer to that question should depend on the perceived difficulty to learn the lifts. A sound program can remove this hurdle.
What’s the rush?
You may have heard of Long Term Athlete Development (LTAD). I never forget the LT. I am in no hurry to produce a junior weight lifting champion. Our club philosophy is to have young people enjoy the moment, keep coming back and develop them into happy, healthy movers, competent in a lot of activities. If they then choose to dig deeper and specialize towards adulthood, we shall support them, but that isn’t the primary goal.
Experience has taught me that pre -pubescent children move better than those going through puberty. Those younger children can squat, bridge and twist very well if they lead an active lifestyle. Older children joining the club to get fit for their team sport are generally stiff, un-coordinated and weak. I never rush to put a barbell in the latter group’s hands.
Movement before loading
The main rule at our club is movement before loading. If at any time the quality of movement deteriorates, we lower the load. This is explained and supported by our existing athletes. We occasionally get a tire kicker (parent led) who wants to “get big for rugby” or “learn the Olympic lifts for my Volleyball assessment” and wants a quick fix. I never offer quick fixes; there are plenty of other places for that.
Sampling vs. specialization
I would suggest that weight lifting is a late development sport. There is no need to do barbell lifts before puberty. There is definitely no need to specialist before the age of 16. You will find outliers like Rebeka Koha who placed 4th in the 2016 Olympics at aged 18, but I don’t plan my training on outliers.
Instead, consider Zoe Smith, Neil Taylor and Ray Williams. All three British Weight Lifters have won Commonwealth medals. All three did gymnastics until at least the age of 14. When they came to the sport of weight lifting they were all mobile, strong, fast and co-ordinated. Can you say the same about the people entering your gym?
It is fine to pick up a barbell and try out the moves when you are young (sampling), but the human body is capable of so many varied movements it is probably a bad idea just to focus on two movements (specialization) before 15-16 years old.
I am not a subscriber to the “weight lifting is the answer to everything” school of thought. If you just do weight lifting and the child hits a massive growth spurt, or decides they would like to do a sport that involves daylight, then they will have problems adapting.
Start with a buffet before moving to the main course
So here is how we approach weight lifting at different age groups.
Young (pre- pubescent) athletes:
Gymnastics, gymnastics and more gymnastics. Encourage the children to get outside and play.
In our strength and co-ordination sessions (ages 9-12) we introduce external resistance. This will include dumbbells, medicine balls, the 4dpro, Indian clubs, and slosh pipes. The co-ordination aspect is probably more important, so we use hurdles, steps, skipping ropes, tennis balls and basketball to improve co-ordination.
The movement patterns include: hinge, press, squat, lunge, rotate and bracing. This can be loaded with the above equipment when the movement looks good enough.
If you start doing different strength activities like those on the left, then it makes the activities on the right easy:
Here is the same girl at 10 years old attempting a hang clean for the first time. Here are her first and second reps ever:
There are many good things happening in this lift, not least of which she is smiling.
This is where young people join the club to get stronger. While I do have lots of 25-40 year olds asking for coaching in the sport itself, I have yet to have an under-18 year old ask to take up weight lifting. Instead, most of these sporting athletes arrive as early specializers who have been told to get stronger and fitter. I balance the sessions with the first half being generic strength and movement work, the second half barbell derivatives.
An example of a strength and movement exercise is the lunge walk. Here you can see one 14 year old boy in his fourth weight lifting session with me. We do 6 sets of this exercise, plus presses and bicep curls. He is a 14 year old boy, so if that keeps him happy, he will come back.
He also did a hurdle mobility warm up, a medicine ball complex to start and then a hanging sequence at the end of each lunge walk set. By the time we got to the hang clean he had: lunged, squatted, swayed, hinged, rotated (hanging and with feet on the floor) and pressed. These movements had prepared him for the hang clean.
His first few attempts were ugly in week one, but I said just keep going. Five repetitions at a time, from the hang. He started with hang power clean, so I told him to get down after he received the bar to get used to being low. At week four he did his first full clean and jerk, 15kg. We praised him and put the total on our totals’ board. He was pleased to get his name up there. I have yet to offer any more technical advice than “rest the bar on your shoulders”. With the light weight, demonstrations by myself, and him watching the other lifters, he has got the knack.
Now we can keep repeating, working with the snatch and adding that total, praising effort and movement. He walks out tired, with a sense of achievement and also something to work on in the next session.
Some notes on equipment
At our club we have sticks, slosh pipes, 10kg, 15kg and rare 17.5kg barbells. Young people have smaller hands, so do females. When I have been asked to coach at a University or sports academy, I often see only 20kg bars in a gym where half the population is female, and also in school settings!
If you want your athletes to be competent at weight lifting, give them right physical tools to start and teach them how to move well. The children at my club can all lift weights. This may be a dumbbell, a kettlebell, a medicine ball, a slosh pipe or another child, but they can all lift something up. They get comfortable in the gym and many then get the chance to pick up a barbell.