Case Study: Are Outdated Weight Training Techniques Increasing Your Child’s Injury Risks?

Castle View High School Strength and Conditioning Coach says science is leading to safer training methods being used in high school weight rooms.

Back in the ‘80s and ‘90s, most people believed that lifting heavy weights would stunt a child’s growth. “Studies now show that if a child has a weak core and can’t stabilize their body well, it’s like a domino effect,” concurs Castle View High School Head Strength Coach and Physical Education Instructor Patrick McHenry, MS, CSCS*D, RSCC. “It’s not the same as it used to be.”

Experts agree that the best training is integrated not isolated.. “For example, to help avoid kids getting knee injuries, one of the first things we look at is if they are squatting properly,” explains McHenry, one of the growing number of National Strength and Conditioning Association Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialists (CSCS) now working at the high school level. “Sometimes when a person hurts their ACL, it’s because they have weak glutes which are causing their legs to move wrong. It’s often a non-contact injury. It’s not like someone knocked them over. They just stepped wrong and blew out their knee.”

He adds, “A baby can sit all the way down. By middle school, most kids can’t sit like that anymore. They go through growth spurts and can barely squat down. Their hips get tight from sitting in chairs all day. This all leads to problems.”

As a CSCS, McHenry’s primary job is to keep kids safer on and off the athletic field. Working with teens is especially challenging because of their growth spurts. “I must pay close attention to whether they are getting taller because growing adds something to the mix.  A freshman may come into the high school at 5’5”. Then he starts growing which changes his center of gravity. He may have to back off the weights and re-learn the movement patterns.”

What training is safe for your child?

A lot of parents worry that strength training is dangerous for their teenagers. “I’ve studied position papers from around the world. Strength training is safe, but it’s important that it’s taught by someone who understands pediatric and adolescent exercise physiology. That’s a relatively new science,” says McHenry. “There are physiological differences between younger children and adolescents, and adolescents and adults. I examine the research so that I understand the ‘why’ before I apply it to your child.” 

He feels fortunate to work with high school athletes playing all sports, including tennis and cheerleading. In addition to each person needing individualized weight training, each sport requires a specific approach. “With cross country, for example, I’ll work on stabilizing muscles so they can perform better later in the race. Golfers tend to do all their rotations on one side, so I help them work both sides equally. Tennis players have to be explosive. I help them work on that. Cheerleading is a sport with a notoriously high number of injuries. Can the base people handle the pressure of catching someone thrown high in the air? They may need the weight room more than most!”

McHenry says that the strength and conditioning coach is an extension of the sports staff. “The sport coach can be focused on strategy while the strength coach is focused on strength, recovery and nutrition. It frees up sport coaches to do their sport.” After 11 years at Castle View High School, McHenry says the school’s teams are performing better. “That’s how I measure my programs: Are the teams going to the playoffs? Also, we’re lessening the likelihood of injuries. And when kids are injured, their recovery times are less.” 

Motivating athletic youth

One hallmark of a CSCS-certified coach is their focus on creating well-rounded athletes. “Much research says kids get burned out when they play just one sport. I see that all the time. Kids don’t want to play any more after high school. In contrast, studies find that kids who play multiple sports will peak later and not burn out early.”

He continues, “I talk with them all the time and explain that the more sports they play, the more well-rounded they’ll be. You’d never have a student just study math or science all through school. They take all the core classes –  math, science, social studies and reading – to make them well-rounded. By the time they reach college, they have a good base and start to specialize. Sports should mirror school. We want kids to build on all the different abilities, because they are cumulative. As they get older, they are in better shape to specialize.”  

McHenry has tried-and-true ways to keep this lesson top of mind with his studies. “I do performance testing at the beginning, middle and end of the year. The kids get to see their results getting better.  I also review what happens during competition. Everyone feels good at the beginning of the game, but how did they feel during the second half, when it was most critical? Are they making fewer mistakes? Are they able to accelerate when others are slowing down? That’s where they see the results.”

Biography: Patrick McHenry, MA, CSCS*D, RSCC

Patrick McHenry is head strength coach and physical education instructor at Castle View High School in Castle Rock, CO. He is a member of the NSCA Board of Directors and Co-Chair of the NSCA Secondary School Coaches Working Group.

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