It’s very common for youth and teens to get involved in sports—such as football, basketball, baseball, softball, and various other common field sports. Unless you’re a strength and conditioning coach involved in the strength-sport community, you almost never hear of younger athletes getting involved in strength sports.
I want to make a good case here as to why younger athletes should get involved in strength sports. (In this article, I’m mostly referring to powerlifting and weightlifting when I refer to strength sports).
So here we go…
1) Strength sports can be safer than field sports
Anything associated with strength training is commonly thought of as dangerous. Generally, there are two ways to view this. Research has documented that strength training can be safe for kids and offers a wide variety of benefits. And while any sport can be risky, if you hire a bad coach who doesn’t consistently teach good movement habits and loads a young athlete with too much load too soon, injuries can occur. According to an epidemiological review in Sports Medicine, weight-training sports (bodybuilding, strongman, powerlifting, weightlifting, Crossfit, and Highland games) appear to have relatively low rates of injury compared to common team sports. There are some common flaws when studying injury rates across common sports; the main one being they don’t document why the injuries occurred. This means that the injuries could’ve had nothing to do with the sport, but that the athlete simply injured him or herself during the sport. However, the benefit of strength sports is that they happen in a controlled environment and don’t involve the risk of uncertainty. When you compete in powerlifting and weightlifting, you know exactly what the competition is going to entail, and you’re competing in the exact same areas that you trained in. In all field sports, you can’t predict how your opponent is going to cut or jump, and you can’t prepare for an opponent who falls directly into your knee. In this sense, strength sports are safer, because the competition is predictable and very specific related to your training. A more unpredictable environment can result in an increased risk of injury.
Finally, because strength sports obviously involve strength training, they can actually make you more resilient to injury. If proper strength training is followed, it can prepare a young athlete to handle various stressors in a way that an untrained athlete might not. Also, if a young athlete decides to compete simultaneously in both strength and field-sports, the strength training can help him or her withstand potential injuries on the field and help to develop physical qualities that can improve their performance on the field.
2) Strength sports have a longer shelf life
Very quickly, put yourself in the position of a young athlete. Let’s say that you really love to play basketball and you’re really good at it. You’re good enough to play at the Division I level, but not quite good enough to make it professionally. Your genetics just weren’t quite optimized to get you there. You’ve played sports for the last 14 years and now you’re graduating college. What do you do? All you’ve known up to this point is competing in sports.
Many might think you can apply that same competitive mentality to the job market. While I believe this is true, many athletes would tell you it’s just not the same. This is where strength sports can provide a lifetime opportunity of competing. If your first 20 years of life involved competing, chances are you’re going to carry that same attitude with you late into your twenties. There needs to be a competitive outlet for people in life, and strength sports can be that outlet. If an athlete is introduced to strength sports when young, then he or she has those early years of development already in tow and can now start to excel in the sport when reaching their later twenties. And, they still have plenty of years ahead to continue competing, even if they aren’t in the top 1% of the talent pool. This doesn’t mean that younger athletes should specialize in strength sports earlier in life, and I don’t think they should. However, it’s good for them to be introduced to strength training, something they can transition into as they get older, if they still want to scratch their competitive itch.
3) Strength sports offer opportunity for the “ungifted”
If you want to be a professional football, basketball, baseball player, etc., you need to start practicing the skill at a very young age. You also must have the genes that’ll help you excel at a sport. The likelihood that you’re going to make it professionally is very small, and even though it may be hard to hear, sometimes it doesn’t even matter how hard you work.
This isn’t the case for strength sports. For sports that require speed, you need to be born with a predominance of fast-twitch muscle fibers in order to optimally excel at those sports. Not everyone can wake up with the same physiology as Usain Bolt. Genetic and physiological factors will greatly influence how good someone can get at football, basketball, track, and other high-speed sports. For sports like powerlifting, this may not be the case. Research shows that elite powerlifters (avg. squat/deadlift of about 280kg/630 lbs, and bench of 170kg/375 lbs) have about the same Type I (slow-twitch)/Type II (fast twitch) fiber-type ratio to that of untrained people. This shows that powerlifting, as a sport, doesn’t rule in only individuals with a muscle-fiber ratio skewed toward Type II-like various field-sports. An additional study shows similar findings, where Olympic-style male lifters had about the same percentage of Type-I fibers as the untrained population, and the percentage of Type-I fibers was not critical to performance. You simply can’t become a Usain Bolt or Russell Westbrook without a fiber ratio skewed toward Type II. However, you could still be an elite powerlifter and potential elite weightlifter with an average amount of slow-twitch fibers.
4) The bar doesn’t lie, but coaches may
Many of us may know someone who complains that it’s all the coach’s fault that they’re not getting enough playing time. In team sports, you’re always at the mercy of your coach in terms of how much you play and where. In my opinion, while being the hardest worker on your team earns you play time, your coach may not agree. Johnny, who has a little more talent and ego, is just better. With strength sports, it’s not that way. How much you lift on the bar directly determines your destiny. Yes, strength sports still have coaches, but there’s not a stating roster. Any athlete, no matter what level, can compete in a meet. A coach can have a team of 20 lifters; all can compete in the same meet. No need to decide a “starting line-up.” If you lift more weight on the bar than all the others, you win. If you keep increasing your weight on the bar across multiple competitions, the better you’ll do in the sport. While you still may come across an arrogant coach, it’s easy enough to find another. There are plenty of great powerlifting and weightlifting coaches who would love the opportunity to coach someone new. There’s very little politics in strength sports. If you lift more weight on the bar, you’ll do better.
My intention for writing this article was not to persuade all young athletes to drop their mitts and baseballs and pick up the barbell. Instead, I wanted to explain the various benefits of strength sports over field sports to show that there’s another competitive outlet open. There are many people, like me, who grew up playing sports who want to continue competing for the rest of their lives. Strength sports are one of the only ways to do that. I wish I would’ve been introduced to powerlifting and weightlifting when I was in high school. It probably wouldn’t have made me drop football and basketball, but I would be a way better lifter than I am today and could be competing for National or International titles. This is the opportunity I want to let young athletes know is available to them. If you love a sport with all of your heart, continue to play and strive to be better at that sport. However, just know that there are other sports available to you that you can excel at that’ll be around way longer.
- Fry, A.C. Schilling, B.K. Staron, R.S. Hagerman, F.C. Hikida, R.S. & Thrush, J.T. (2003). Muscle Fiber Characteristics and Performance Correlates of Male Olympic-Style Weightlifters. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 17(4), 746-754.
- Fry, A.C. Webber, J.M. Weiss, L.W. Harber, P.B. Vaczi, M. & Pattison, M.A. (2003). Muscle Fiber Characteristics of Competitive Power Lifters. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 17(2), 402-410.
- Keogh, J.W.L. Winwood, P.W. Sports Med (2017). The Epidemiology of Injuries Across the Weight-Training Sports. Sports Medicine. 47: 479.