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High school and college athletes are bigger, stronger and faster than they were 20 years ago. Patrol the prep gridiron in your hometown and you’re certain to find a bevy of new-breed, helmeted leviathans making and taking the hits, the byproduct of a generation bent on building better athletes through careful adherence to weight training and proper nutrition. Once considered an activity reserved for beach-going Ken doll types, weight training has claimed its rightful place in the curriculum of young athletes.
That’s because the teenage body undergoes a number of hormonal and physiological changes that maximize the potential for marked increases in strength, muscle mass and, consequently, athletic performance. And while just about any kind of physical activity will build lean muscle for a teenager, carefully programmed training regimens—like the one to follow on these pages—can send that progress off the charts. That kind of rapid development is no doubt what you covet most and why you’re thumbing through muscle & fitness. Our complete guide to teen training will provide you with all the tools you need to start growing and shaping your body, whether it’s for the football field or to just start lifting your way to a stronger, more athletic physique.
Weightlifting has shown countless benefits to lifters of all ages, but many parents and coaches are wary of weight training for teens, pointing out potential injuries such as growth-plate or joint damage. But according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association, most injuries to young lifters are the result of poor training protocols, excessive loading, poorly designed equipment or lack of adult supervision, not fragile anatomy.
“The problems tend to stem from kids wanting results too fast,” says David Sandler, MS, CSCS, owner of StrengthPro, Inc., and consultant on National Geographic Channel’s Super Strength. “And without having mastered proper technique or allowing for progression, that can be a recipe for disaster. That’s not limited to teens, though—anyone who does too much too fast is begging to get hurt.”
Sandler recommends that young lifters stick with a minimal starting weight on an exercise until they’ve mastered the full range of motion and can safely complete 10 or more reps without bouncing or jerking the weight. He also says that one-rep-max attempts should be tossed aside, since total volume (total reps and exercises) is far more beneficial—and safer—for growth than total load.
“Another way to minimize risk is to follow a machine-based program, at least initially, where the range of motion is predetermined,” he says. “But it’s free weights that will ultimately produce the best technique and posture and, consequently, muscle gains.”
On paper, the benefits of weight training for teens and adults are the same: increases in muscle mass, tendon and ligament strength, muscle endurance, flexibility and coordination. But youths, particularly those who have gone through puberty, have the benefit of a hormonal surge that increases the response to the training stimulus.
“After puberty, testosterone production is maximized, and both androgenic and anabolic effects take place,” Sandler says.
Testosterone levels, which increase as a result of weight training regardless of age and gender, are central to muscle growth. It’s understandable, then, that a natural spike in this hormone would lead to even greater gains for a teenager engaged in a program of regular, progressive weight training. But even before this Wonder Years—induced hormonal peak, lifting elicits plenty of benefits. “Before puberty, weight training can improve neural activity and muscular recruitment patterns,” Sandler says.
But how young is too young? “At StrengthPro, we’ve trained kids as young as 8,” Sandler says. “The key is that the training must be taught correctly and supervised constantly. The ideal age to start a general resistance program is 11, when you can reinforce technique and movement skills. True resistance training for the purposes of hypertrophy [muscle growth] is best saved for 14.”
Now that we’ve established that teen weight training is both safe and effective for building lean muscle mass, we can get to the particulars. As Sandler notes, progression is key, so we’re providing a detailed eight-week program to start you on your way.
You can’t just drone through countless sets of curls and bench presses if you expect to put on any measurable mass. As a teen (or beginner of any age), you have to play to your strengths, chief among them being that your body is basically hardwired for growth. With this program, you’ll take full advantage of that by calling as much muscle into play as possible by focusing on multijoint lifts. Weighted exercises such as the squat, bench press, overhead press and bent-over row should be comple-mented by bodyweight exercises such as the push-up, pull-up and step-up.
“These types of moves promote coordination, timing and strength,” Sandler says. “They also recruit the most muscle, which is key for maximizing hypertrophy.”
You’ll also sprinkle in some individualized work for smaller muscle groups so no stone goes unturned, but the big lifts have to be priority No. 1. That’s why they always fall first in your workout, when you’re strongest.
The exercises listed here may not seem glamorous, but at the end of these eight weeks you can start branching out and experimenting with similar moves. In fact, your body will require it—muscles cease to respond when the stimulus remains the same for too long. Adding new exercises after eight weeks will help you continue making improvements.
And what about structure? “Most teens should follow a three-day training split at the start,” says M&F Senior Science Editor Jim Stoppani, PhD. “This is a common training split used by bodybuilders to break the major muscle groups into three separate workouts.”
We’ve gone with an easy, traditional split that divides workouts into an upper-body “push day” that trains the muscle groups involved mainly in pushing movements (chest, shoulders and triceps), a leg day (quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes and calves) and an upper-body “pull day” for muscle groups that mainly perform pulling movements (back and biceps). Abs can be trained in the first and third workouts. This type of split allows you to give each muscle group seven days of rest between workouts, which will ensure full recovery.
The days you choose to perform each routine don’t matter much—most people follow a Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule—as long as you allow at least 24—48 hours of rest between sessions and a full week before training the same bodypart again. Resting is crucial because it lets your body recover and grow from the previous workout.
After four weeks of your three-day split, you’ll graduate to a four-day split that allows you to focus more attention on individual bodyparts. We list Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday as your workout days, but you can shift these around as needed, provided you allow at least a full week of recovery before attacking a particular bodypart again. A common way to approach a four-day split is to group chest, triceps and abs on Day 1; quadriceps, hamstrings and calves on Day 2; shoulders, traps and abs on Day 3; and back, biceps and forearms on Day 4.
You’ll start off by doing a modest number of total sets—between 10 and 16—per workout in the first four weeks before increasing the number of exercises performed for each muscle group and the number of sets you do per exercise. “As the volume increases, so does the time it takes to complete the workout as well as the stress placed on your body,” Stoppani explains.
Since hypertrophy is your main goal, all of the rep ranges are 8—12. This range produces the most measurable gains in lean muscle mass, but you must select your resistance wisely. If an exercise calls for 10 reps, you’ll want to choose a weight with which you can complete no more than 10 reps with good form. If you can do more than 10 reps without assistance, you’ve gone too light. If you can’t quite reach 10, then you’ve gone too heavy. Striving for positive muscle failure at the prescribed rep ranges will yield the greatest results.
Rest between sets is crucial for your progress. For most of the exercises here, you’ll rest two minutes, which allows you to recover your strength for the next heavy set. Researchers at Arizona State University (Tempe) found that rest periods of 2—3 minutes were best for maximizing size and strength. Smaller muscle groups such as calves and abs tend to recover faster, so you can keep rest periods to a minute or less with those bodyparts.
On some exercises, you can shake things up by substituting a Smith machine move. The Smith machine allows you to perform the same barbell or dumbbell exercise, but along a predetermined path. The Smith also ups the safety factor since you can set pins to limit the range of motion and use hooks to rack the weight if you begin to struggle. Dumbbells are an acceptable stand-in for some of the exercises outlined here. Dumbbell work requires more focus to keep within the proper range of motion, thus making use of more stabilizer muscles and burning more total calories.
Followed to the letter, this routine will enhance your athleticism, strength and muscle, all while familiarizing you with the gym, the equipment and your own limitations.
Consider this the starting line in your race for a leaner, healthier physique. We’ll help provide the most efficient path to get there. What you do with all that newfound muscle mojo is entirely up to you.