Young to Really Young: Beginning Olympic Weightlifting

A never ending debate in many sports, but especially in weightlifting, concerns when a young athlete should begin training in the discipline.

A never-ending debate in many sports, but especially in weightlifting, concerns when a young athlete should begin training in the discipline. There are two schools of thought in this area and now is a good time to take a look at each one.

A never-ending debate in many sports, but especially in weightlifting, concerns when a young athlete should begin training in the discipline. There are two schools of thought in this area and now is a good time to take a look at each one.

Many decades ago when I first started training, the general consensus was that a man had to be fully grown, say around 17 or 18, before they could think of starting a competitive weightlifting program, i.e., finished puberty. (If you were female you needn’t have asked in the first place at the time.)

Even then it was often recommended that prospective lifters do a year of general bodybuilding training before tackling the more challenging Olympic lifts. Back then it was still possible to produce world champions with such a late start few others started any earlier. No one was getting an unfair jump on the others. It was even common to see people taking up the sport in their 20s.

As the sport developed in the late 20th century it was soon realized that a person had to start younger if they wanted to hit the elite levels. This is true of weightlifting and it is certainly true of most other sports nowadays. When you stop and think about it starting to lift at 17 can seem ludicrous.

Can you imagine if somebody had suggested to Mickey Mantle that he not play baseball until he was out of high school? How about telling the Williams sisters that they weren’t old enough for tennis even in their senior year of high school.

This way of thinking probably was a result of the ideas that weightlifting was purely a strength sport and that mature strength would not develop until someone was fully mature. Heavy training would surely damage teenage bodies even as farm youngsters were expected to do heavy work at an early age. It is hard to imagine their pop telling them to take it easy when doing their chores.

Elite Youth Athletes

As the late 20th century war on, it was apparent to even casual observers that elite level athletes were being produced at younger ages. This could be seen most dramatically with gymnastics and figure skating among others.

It took a bit longer in weightlifting but it did occur eventually. Probably the biggest stimulus to this was the recognition of teenage world records in 1960 and the holding of the first Junior World Championships in 1975. While the Western world did have younger weightlifters, it was rare for any to approach that level.

This was not so in Eastern Bloc where the sport was much more organized and junior competitions were common. But with the establishment of the Junior Worlds, the Western countries now had something to shoot for so the average age of weightlifting registrations started to go down.

As a result, there were a lot more 15 and 16 year-olds who showed up for competitions. One thing that shocked weightlifting around the world was the 1983 emergence of a 15 year-old junior world champion.

Naim Suliemanoglu stunned the world with his long string of junior and senior world records. Since no one jumps to World’s level with very little training, every coach in the world started to wonder just when did this young man start training if he could be a world record beater at age 15?

There is no other conclusion but that such a lifter would have to have started even before puberty had set in. Conventional wisdom had always recommended waiting until puberty had ended.

It was eventually discovered that indeed these lifters were starting quite young and were very experienced competitors by their mid-teens. While many coaches were now eager to start training lifters at younger ages than previously thought possible, there were some who wondered if this was a good idea.

Those in the latter group argued that there were exceptions and this should not be used as a template for all young lifters. They were probably right to some degree as shorter lifters such as Suliemanoglu probably finished puberty at earlier ages compared to their taller peers.

Another argument was that such early starts at specialized weightlifting training were not really necessary. It was pointed out that individual results eventually even out after a few years.

The early bloomers would reach their point of diminishing returns early while the late bloomers would then finally catch up. This is true in many cases but those who favored earlier training had another argument.

The Role of Non-Specialized Training

Some believe that it is better for young athletes to spend their pre-pubertal and early puberty years in a wide variety of sports which would give them a better athletic foundation of which to build on later when they do decide to specialize.

They further argued that too early a start date can result in a lot of young athletes burning out with regard to their enthusiasm. This is especially true with those athletes who had a greater need for social contact with peers. They would be more drawn to team sports which have always been more highly valued by the kids themselves, their parents, and educators due to their ability to teach various aspects of teamwork and sportsmanship.

This idea certainly has some validity especially if one comes across someone who has not been so socialized and then decides to try a more solitary sport like weightlifting. Egos can get out of hand with those who never learned to share with teammates. I’ve seen this many times and indeed such lifters would’ve benefited from some team sports experience.

Those who advocate for an earlier start concede that results may indeed even out over the years but there are still some advantages to their position. One of the major ones is that early starters early were able to maintain mobility, stability and flexibility as they progress to the sport.

Most 10 to 12-year-olds still have very adequate flexibility and they do not lose this if they train regularly and work at maintaining it. This is especially important since school requires long hours of sitting at a desk with little physical activity. By the time a male student is a high school senior, he has lost much of his original suppleness.

Even those who play football, basketball, or hockey do not have need to be all that flexible. Therefore, if such a student decides that he wants to be a weightlifter there will usually have to be some remedial flexibility work needed. This will take time that could be better used in more direct strength training.

You may have noticed I said ”male” in the last paragraph. With the advent of women’s weightlifting we now have a couple of interesting situations. For one, if a girl waits until a later age to start in most cases she is not as handicapped as a boy with regard to flexibility.

Women are generally more flexible than men so they have an easier time taking up the sport and quickly learn the positions. Another advantage females will have is that they generally go through puberty earlier (and finish earlier) so they will be more physically advanced in development at the earlier ages (12-13).

Of course this advantage will eventually be negated by the males’ greater testosterone, but it does give them a little edge in the early teen years and may help with keeping their desire strong.

Starting Young Promotes Psychological Advantage

Probably the major advantage of early starting though is psychological, not physical. Weightlifting involves lifting heavy weights overhead while jumping underneath to catch them. It looks pretty scary to the average, untrained individual who has never had any iron overhead.

In contrast, it has been observed by parents that small children often have no fear of that which they should fear. They can be little daredevils. That same child by the time he hits his late teens has got far more brain cells working (hopefully) and will not be as foolhardy. For good and bad, these tendencies do affect performance in weightlifting.

A good lifter must eventually get over his or her fear of the barbell if they are to be successful. This fear must be overcome by all lifters but it is much more difficult for an 18 year-old who has never lifted before.

Not so with the youngster who has been lifting since he or she was 10 years old. They have has lost that fear and they also have tremendous confidence in their abilities. Those in gymnastics are very aware of this.

How many 20 year-olds would want to do a mid-air flip on a balance beam? Not many, unless they are crazy. But a girl who has been doing this since she was 5 years old will think nothing of it. Most Chinese lifters have been perfecting their technique since late childhood and have no fear of the barbell.

Youth Has Its Advantage

The question about when to start weightlifting for youth is difficult to answer. However, after years of watching 16 and 17 year-olds lifting weights that are only a few kilos off senior world records, it appears that the early starting side of the debate is carrying the day. This is certainly true all of the countries that produce elite weightlifters. The competitive environment of weightlifting and their ability to recruit athletes leaves no other choice.

However, in those parts of the world where virtually professional weightlifting cannot be carried out to any great extent, we still have a situation similar to that which prevailed many years ago. There are many coaches would love to recruit some promising 13 year-olds but this is difficult in a country where there are other sports that are far more culturally supported and have a much easier time recruiting athletes of any age.

While we have made some strides in recent years we just cannot compete with football, baseball, basketball, soccer, and hockey. Those are the glamour sports that are able to skim the cream of the athletic crop—at least up to high school.

We may still have to be content with gleaning those who realize that their retirement day in team sports will coincide with high school graduation. We will still have to try to fashion weightlifters out of a lot of athletes who have not previously lifted seriously until college. It can only be hoped that any athletic experience they do have will hold some experiential benefits for them.