Introducing weightlifting to juniors

There are few things in coaching as rewarding as helping a young person achieve something for the first time: a forward roll, a cartwheel, leaping over a hurdle or standing up with a weight above their head. Their enthusiasm is contagious. Conversely, there are few things in coaching as difficult as coaching a group of young people whose minds and bodies are going through the turmoil of puberty and school and socialization. In this article I shall outline some of the coaching and technical ideas that I use when coaching juniors.

Remember: we coach children not weight lifters

It is easy to get caught up in the frenzy of whichever foreign program you are following (German volume training, Bulgarian split squats, Romanian deadlifts and Russian squat series, etc.) and forget that we are coaching children. At our club we run weightlifting sessions for juniors aged 13-17. The 13-year old is an arbitrary figure that I chose based on emotional maturity and that children of that age tend to choose what activities they want to do rather than be told by their parents.

Within this group we have the obvious difference of boys and girls as well as different physiological ages, training ages and backgrounds and personalities. The younger girls are also learning to manage exercise around their periods and this changes both their mood and ability to lift weights. What seems like the dream child with perfect technique and manners one week can turn into someone who is weaker, less coordinated and doesn’t mind slamming the weights around in frustration the next. We have to understand this and be empathetic to these children who are trying to navigate their way through their changing bodies. And all parents also know that the mood of their child depends on what kind of day they have had at school and what they ate/drank.

All of the above means that I have to nurture and encourage and support the child before I try to predict what weight they are going to lift. The totals will fluctuate session to session: as long as they are safe and enjoy the training they will come back and lift again. The totals will come with time.

Where to begin: physical literacy for weightlifting

I never start with the barbell. I get the children moving unloaded in different directions: lunging, squatting and doing our basic athletic development sequences that connect the hip to the shoulder. I can then add a stick to a sequence like the multi-directional lunges.

Moving whilst holding an implement above the head is often a novel experience: it raises the person’s centre of gravity (COG). Controlling their new body with its new COG is hard enough with just a stick. It also helps develop their shoulder and hip mobility.

I then use dumbbell complexes to prepare the children for lifting. It is easier to get into the positions with lighter weights and they can do the higher repetitions  necessary for their learning.

An example of one of our dumbbell complexes would be:

  • High Pull Snatch
  • Rotational Press
  • Hinge (good morning)
  • Bent over row
  • Squat

They do 6-8 repetitions and 2-6 sets. As we progress through the weeks they add sets, up to 6, and then reduce sets once they start to lift the barbell competently until we remove the dumbbells completely.

It is in this stage that the children are learning and building confidence in the new environment. The volume builds strength in small doses. The load is determined by movement competency. As it is for all the lifts, our requirement is that it must be smooth and full range.

Teaching the lifts: start with the snatch

If you take your child to football training they will want to kick the ball and score a goal. It might not look pretty but they have a go. The same applies in weightlifting: I let them have a go. Unlike football, most children have not grown up surrounded by weightlifting and being familiar with the terminology. Kids aren’t allowed to lift free weights in their schools, so every technical term is new to them.

I show them the lift first and let them attempt it with a stick or slosh pipe. Our club members who have come through gymnastics and athletics can use the 10-kilogram bar: they have an idea already and are strong enough. We have 10kg, 15kg and 17.5kg bars at our club, as well as the standard men’s 20kg bars. I have seen many school and university gyms that only have 20kg, mostly power, bars. This is discriminatory towards some athletes who want/need to lift. Lighter bars are essential for the juniors to learn safely.

After a couple of sets of trying it themselves–typically it ends up as a combination of reverse curls, upright rows and back extensions–I tell the children to put the weights down and watch me break it down in more detail. By trying it out they have already got a ‘feel’ or perception of what is involved. They have a destination in mind when they now do the sub-components.

They can do these parts of the lift with the 10kg bar and pull from below the knee at first. The combinations of moves could be:

  • Hinge (good morning)
  • Behind head press
  • Overhead Squat.

This helps them get a straight back, control the weight above their head and then get into the bottom position of the snatch. Progression onto the next stage is dependent on competence.

  • Power snatch ( 1 rep, ugly looking, to get the weight up)
  • Press into overhead squat x 3
  • Snatch Balance x 3
  • Sotts Press from the bottom x 3-5 (grimacing and moaning about their shoulders, so they usually come up to a prallel squat).
  • Rest
  • Repeat.

This might be enough on day one: no heavy loading, lots of repetitions in these novel positions and gaining familiarity with the terminology. I would then go back to the stick/slosh pipe and let them attempt the whole snatch again and praise them on how much better it is looking: invariably it is.

Building on the foundation: progressing to the clean and jerk

Observant readers will have noticed that I haven’t touched the clean and jerk yet. There are two reasons why I don’t start with that combination:

  1. The sequence of two lifts frazzles their brains. The children often combine the two moves into a hybrid split clean that has me reaching for the defibrillator. They need to learn them one at a time before combining them.
  2. The clean is too easy to ‘muscle-up’ at the start. They can use their farm boy/ girl strength to get it up and lean back from the waist. Once they start doing this it is hard to stop them. They can’t do this in the snatch so they learn to use their legs and back first.

The jerk is hard for the children to learn. I get them practising the foot patterns on the platform and feeling where their legs should land. Then they can attempt it with dumbbells (they are less likely to hit their chin). The dumbbells are harder to control but lighter. Once they get the timing and the control of the landing position they can attempt the lift with the bar.

Over the next few weeks we repeat what we did in the first session but add in the lifts from the hang and later from the floor. The speed and range of motion of the barbell work are stimuli that create adaptation without the need for extra disks: here my my emphasis is on keeping the bar close to the body and getting under it. We have wooden disks that weigh .75kg on either side of the 10kg bar so they can lift from the floor with only 11.5kg at the start. This is too light for some, the bar flies up,  so we use the 15kg bars.

Getting the balance between work/range/technique/speed is hard.   The children get the ‘work’ from the dumbbell complexes: they need to feel that they have done something. Developing strength throughout the range of motion required in weightlifting takes time. The muscles adapt to simple loading quickly: bodyweight and dumbbell squats and lunges are great for this. The connective tissues in the shoulders, wrists, hips, ankles and t-spine take longer to adapt and so their is a lag between the ‘dumb’ strength and the weightlifting totals.

Final thoughts

Patience and empathy are essential when coaching juniors. They can make rapid progress in their lifts from a low base and it is tempting to pile on weights each week to get a personal best. My aim is not to create a world champion at 13-years old but to get the children competent, confident and enthusiastic about lifting. If they are smiling and tired when they leave they are more likely to come back the next week and then the next. And that is how we create good weightlifters.