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Should elite players under the age of 16 be lifting weights?

Jordan McCann, head of fitness and conditioning at Luton Town, contributes to Total Football on a regular basis.

Here, he focus on one of the most contentious issues regarding the development of young players’ physical capacity.

Resistance training is now widely implemented across elite sport with numerous journals devoted solely to research publications, undergraduate and postgraduate degrees in strength and conditioning being created every year, as well as the increasing movement of many professional bodies such as the UKSCA.

What is the current practice regarding strength and conditioning in academy football?

Different football clubs will often start their players on resistance training programmes at various differing ages; some as young as nine, some as old as 18, some not at all! So, unlike adult sport where the implementation of strength and conditioning is now widely accepted, why are there so many myths surrounding resistance training for youths and at what age should we be implementing programmes?

The main concern surrounding resistance training for young players has centred on the epiphysis (growth plate), and that this may become damaged if high forces are applied too early in life. How many of you have heard ramblings of lifting weights slowing, stunting or even preventing growth and physical development? Whilst I suspect this will be a high number of you, there is absolutely no empirical research in peer reviewed journals to support this hypothesis.

So, why are the myths so prevalent?

Conducting research into the effects of resistance training on youths has proved difficult for two main reasons. Firstly, it is often incredibly difficult for academics to get access to a significant enough sample of young, elite athletes to make valid conclusions. Secondly, during the research process, growth and maturation will also be having an effect on the youngsters bodies, making it problematic to pin down what exactly is causing the statistical correlations so often found.

However, as the area has adapted a growing interest from researchers, let’s have a look at the benefits being shown by modern research design;

1) Increased strength of 30-50% which will in turn directly affect power, speed and agility.

2) Enhanced motor skills.

3) Reductions in injury rates.

4) Increased self-esteem.

5) Increased flexibility and range of motion.

So, with all of these benefits now continuously reported, why do many football clubs continue to neglect the implementation of resistance training programmes for their young players? My experiences suggest it is down to one, or both of two factors; the traditionalist nature of the sport, or a lack of contact time.

The latter is an interesting area for discussion and one where a sport scientist has difficult decisions to make. It is now commonly acknowledged that a young player must achieve a minimum of 10,000 hours of ‘purposeful practice’ to reach the top of their sport. If contact time is minimal, are the players better off spending time in the gym or more time on the pitch?

It is a question I have mulled over for many hours and one I am no closer to knowing the answer to. Is it possible that at present the best action a fitness coach could take would be to advise against physical training? After all, it is crucial we do not lose sight of our overall goal; to develop professional football players.

As we can now see, answering the question posed in the title is very difficult. Theoretically the answer should be a resounding yes; practically it is not so simple. Hopefully the imminent changes to the structure of youth football at the end of this season will mean this is not a question we have to answer in the future.

Implementing a successful resistance training programme.

If you do make the decision that resistance training is something your young players are going to engage in, there are a few basic rules to adhere to;

1) Carry out a thorough and effective warm-up.

2) Lifts should not be maximal, begin with light loads and progress appropriately.

3) Be competent with your teaching methods and technical instruction.

4) Try to incorporate multi-joint exercises.

5) Make the sessions fun (create pictures).

6) Always consult with the physiotherapist regarding players with developmental conditions e.g. Osgood-Schlatter’s


Jordan McCann
Head of fitness and conditioning
Luton Town FC

Any questions:

Next topic: The Importance of flexibility and how we can develop it in our athletes.

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