Youth Fitness

Children and Olympic Weightlifting - Mike McKenna

Children and Olympic Weightlifing: An interview with Mike McKenna

(Photo credit to Stephanie Vincent of Bridgeport Barbell Club)

It’s hard to believe, but when you see the video of a young weightlifter, 11-year-old Elle Hatamiya, training in her gym, you can see how serious she is about her training. Seeing a child this young lifting up huge barbells leads to a lot of questions.  

To get the best answers, I turned to my friend and colleague, Mike McKenna of McKenna’s gym in Stewartstown, Pennsylvania. Mike is a level 2 weightlifting coach, a USAW certified instructor, and coach to athletes of all levels. His lifters have qualified for every National Level Meet (Youth, Junior, University, and Senior) and the Youth National Squad.   

So Mike, can you explain to our readers, what exactly is Olympic weightlifting?

Weightlifting is basically a sport that consists of lifting weights explosively from the ground to overhead using two specific lifts. The snatch moves the weight from the ground to overhead in one powerful movement. The clean and jerk is a two-part movement where the weight is first moved to the shoulders and then pushed overhead. Weightlifting is the only weight-based sport in the Olympics.

In the video, we see an 11-year-old girl training with a goal to eventually compete in the Olympics for weightlifting. Is this appropriate for her age?

It is totally appropriate, under the guidance of a qualified coach, of course. Multiple peer-reviewed studies have shown repeatedly that under the guidance of a qualified coach, weightlifting has a very low injury rate and its benefits are even greater. Any kid who is decently healthy and has no bone, connective tissue, or major health issues can use these movements for both competition and general training.  

Can kids benefit from learning the weightlifting movements even without competition goals?  

Absolutely. The biggest benefit is to body coordination. Young athletes who learn to snatch and clean learn to move using their whole body to coordinate powerful and explosive movements. All sports involve being on your feet and pushing off the ground. These movements are ground-based and the athletes learn to not only generate force through their feet but to also dynamically move and receive a blow.  

What I mean by that is, although the sport is called weightlifting, it is required that one also catch the weight. Once the weight is pulled explosively off the ground, the athlete must quickly reverse this or her body position to get under the bar and absorb the shock of the catch.

Another great benefit is injury prevention. Lifting weights strengthen not just muscles, but ligaments and tendons. Because these movements are complex and explosive, they require the nervous system to adapt and improve neuromuscular efficiency.  

What about the weights this girl is lifting?  Are these numbers out of reach for the average 11-year-old?

The important thing about this girl is that she is demonstrating smooth, good technique. When working with kids it’s important to realize that they are in it for the long haul. We want her to know that she is capable and confident in her abilities. There is no maxing out here; she is mastering technique and as she gets better at that, she can handle more weight.

With this approach, she is training to succeed. She’s not pushing her limits, she is working on improvement and that is how we get kids improve and become better athletes. Not by focusing on winning, but instead, focusing on getting better. That is how we build good athletes and great people. No matter what sport we do, a sport is a way to develop and reveal character. And that’s incredibly important to remember with kids.

How would you approach training a child this age?

You have to take a holistic approach when training kids. Too much specialization cheats them out of comprehensive athletic development. With kids, I teach the weightlifting movements in part, first. Once they master the individual parts, then we progress to full lifts.  

For example, snatches from the hip, high pulls, clean deadlifts, etc. It is also important to include basic strength movements like the squat, deadlift, bench, overhead press. And it doesn’t stop there. They need lots of agility, flexibility, mobility and a good mix of endurance-based training to build the well-rounded athlete.   

Well-rounded athletes can train harder, longer, and get injured much less. Overall, we want kids to be moving for 60-90 mins every day. It can be running, climbing, jumping, etc. and maybe one-quarter of that is weightlifting movements. The rest is simply movement and play.  

You’ve heard from the expert; now let me know in the comments if you have any thoughts or questions about kids and weightlifting.

Sara Fleming

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