Why Young Athletes Shouldn't Lift Every Day

Some young athletes are eager to lift as often as possible. STACK explains why coaches should limit this activity.

I've begun to notice a troubling trend with my athletes.

As a director of strength and conditioning at a private high school, I oversee many lifting sessions. Some of the athletes I train have fallen into the habit of performing their team lifts with me and then going to another facility to perform additional strength training.

Their logic is that since all their teammates perform the lifts at school, performing a second lift on their own can give them a leg up and a better chance to start or compete for playing time. I love the motivation and drive these athletes possess, but their method is destructive.

If you want to get better and progress as an athlete, you cannot lift every day. Period. An elite Olympic lifting coach once said, "Three days per week is optimal; two is better than four; and one is better than five." The culture we live in believes more is better, but when it comes to strength training, that's not the case.

There are several reasons why young athletes should not lift every day.

The primary reason is that your body needs time to adapt to strength training. The purpose of a lift is to stress your body to the point that it is not able to function as efficiently as when you started your workout. I tell my athletes that they should be weaker when they leave the weight room than when they first arrived. If I have my athletes perform 5x5 for Front Squat and they could duplicate that workout a couple hours later, they went too light for their lift.

You should be weaker by the time you leave the gym due to the stress strength training places on your muscles. This is the alarm phase of the adaptation process. As you can see in the diagram below (via Primal Strength Camp), the athlete's performance goes down after a training session until they're able to recover and reach supercompensation. If the athlete lifts again before they are able to recover, then they never reach the supercompensation period. The line simply continues to dip lower and lower until the athlete finally rests or gets injured.

If the athlete approaches their strength training with the philosophy of "stress then rest", they should continue to see positive adaptations. However, If the athlete waits too long to stress the body again, than they will reduce the gains made from the first workout.

You know who can strength train more frequently than athletes? Bodybuilders. Since they isolate muscle groups and the intensity of their workouts is generally lower, their sessions don't affect the central nervous system in the same way. But athletes generally do not train their muscles in isolation, utilizing mostly complex multi-joint exercises, which are incredibly fatiguing to the central nervous system.

Even if you are doing an upper-body, lower-body split routine you are training the same nervous system with each workout, and that nervous system needs rest just like your muscles. Below is a list of six ways an individual gets stronger via strength training. Other than muscular hypertrophy, these are all nervous system adaptations. If the nervous system plays such a major role in adaptation to strength training, than nervous system fatigue must be taken into consideration.

  • Hypertrophy (increase in muscle size)
  • Increased synchronization of motor unit firing
  • Increased number of motor units firing for a task
  • Reduction in autogenic inhibition
  • Increased firing rate
  • Reduced co-activation

And just like we must use the appropriate frequency of our workouts for optimal gains, we also must use the appropriate stress.

Just as many young athletes want to lift too often, they also want to perform exercises or drills well beyond their training age. Many of my athletes will reference things they see on social media from professional athletes and ask me why we do not have that in our workouts.

First, professional athletes are in the elite end of the human gene pool. Their bodies are able to handle more stress and recover from that stress better than 99% of human beings. Beyond that, though, those athletes have a training age that is at least 6-10 years beyond a kid in high school.

For example, NFL running back Saquon Barkely has many impressive videos of his strength. One such video shows him performing a Farmer's Walk with over 250 pounds up a hill while his strength coach pulls against him with a resistance band. Most young athletes couldn't walk up that hill with just the trap bar, and I doubt Saquon could do that when he was 14, either. If you want to get to the level professional athletes are at, than you need to do what professional athletes did to get there.

Young athletes who want to lift too often is a good problem to have. It means they have bought in to strength training as a way to improve their performance, and it also means they have the drive to work extremely hard. However, their coaches must make it clear to them that lifting every day or nearly ever day is counterintuitive to their goals. When they don't allow proper time for recovery, both their muscles and their central nervous system can't perform as intended. That means weaker lifts and more low-energy sessions. Rather than thinking they need to be in the weight room every single day, young athletes should be taught to follow an appropriate program (I prefer three lifts a week) and execute it with intelligence and intensity.

Photo Credit: Ibrakovic/iStock

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Topics: YOUTH SPORTS | HIGH SCHOOL SPORTS | CENTRAL NERVOUS SYSTEM