When is a young athlete ready to start squatting with a barbell? This is one of the hardest questions for many coaches to answer definitively. We do know that weight training is safe for children of all ages, as long as they are adequately supervised and coached.
A system/screen is needed to determine whether the young athlete is ready or not. Athletes need to demonstrate acceptable quality of movement before a barbell is introduced. If the kid you’re coaching can’t even perform a good bodyweight squat, there’s no reason why you should place a bar on his back.
Placing a loaded bar on top of an athlete with poor movement patterns increases the risk of injury. Ensuring an athlete is ready to start training with a barbell comes down to 2 simple questions.
- How well can the athlete bodyweight squat?
- Can the athlete maintain technique when a barbell is added?
The Bodyweight Squat
The squat is a movement before it is an exercise. Technique during the bodyweight squat sets the foundation for the barbell version.
Recently we discussed the 5 absolutes of the bodyweight squat. These simple cues allow a young athlete to learn proper technique in a simple to understand ‘step-by-step’ manner. These absolutes can help anyone perform a perfect bodyweight squat regardless of sport participation, differences in body type or long-term training goals.
It is often difficult as a coach to screen the bodyweight squat when you are responsible for many athletes at a time. For this reason, we have developed a simple to use checklist. This tool will help ensure an athlete has an acceptable baseline of movement quality.
One technique factor to consider is the foot placement of the athlete. While toe-angle will change slightly for a barbell squat, the athlete should have the capability to bodyweight squat with their toes relatively straightforward. This is because the bodyweight squat is a functional movement. It sets the foundation for other maneuvers such as jumping and landing. For this reason an athlete should perform this movement with their toes in a straightforward position.
If an athlete has checks in every ‘pass column category, they are ready to test their squat with a barbell. However, if they show checks in any of the “fail” column categories, they have a problem with their squatting movement that needs to be addressed.
Your athlete is like a race car. Attempting to put the car in a race with a flat tire is a recipe for disaster. Making sure the car is in good working condition before racing is crucial. The young athlete needs to be able to demonstrate a good bodyweight squat before slapping a barbell on his back. Technique before training, always.
The Barbell Squat
Once an athlete can pass the bodyweight squat screen, it is time to add a barbell. As a coach, watch to see if technique can still be maintained.
One technique factor that is allowed to change from the bodyweight squat is foot placement. Now that an athlete is squatting with a barbell they may be allowed to turn their toes out slightly. It allows the athlete to squat deeper while maintaining stability.
Lets now go through the checklist for the barbell squat.
If the athlete is able to show good technique with the bar, they’re ready to start training. Regardless of age, barbell training can be extremely safe as long as proper technique is shown and adequate training loads are prescribed (1-4).
Think of the squat as a movement first. The squat as a training tool or exercise is second. Technique and movement quality always trumps how much weight is on the bar. By focusing on technique, we can limit the potential of injuries to our young athletes during training and play.
Until next time,
- Byrd R, Pierce K, Reilly L, Brady J. Young weightlifters’ performance across time. Sports Biomechanics. 2003;2:133-140
- Hetzler R, DeRenne C, Buxton B, et al. Effects of 12 weeks of strength training on anaerobic power in prepubescent male athletes. J Strenght Cond Res 1997;11:174-81
- Sadres E, Eliakim A, Constantini N, et al. The effect of long term resistance training on anthropometric measures, muscle strength and self-concept in pre-pubertal boys. Pediatr Exerc Sci. 2001;13:357-72.
- Faigenbaum AD, Milliken LA, Westcott WL. Maximal strength testing in healthy children. J Strength Cond Res. 2003;17:162-6.