Considerations for Coaching Young Lifters

Sep 14, 2023

“You could make them do anything and they would grow.” 

“He could jerk off in the corner and get stronger.” 

“It doesn’t take a genius to lead a novice to PR’s.”


Coaching young lifters comes with much more responsibility than most people would choose to believe.  The reality is that the above statements, although crass and oversimplified, are not far from the truth.  The novice lifter will make gains in both strength and hypertrophy at a faster rate than at any other point in their lifting career.  That being said, the first few years of training set the groundwork for how they will progress down the road.  The methods, tools and techniques used will be the basis by which all their future training will be measured.  Along with the physical training, the lifter is developing their mental game and learning what hard training should feel like.  The way you manage a young lifter’s training can set them up for long term success or short term failure. 


Volume and intensity considerations

Because a young lifter is unfamiliar with the movement patterns involved in weight training they will have extremely variable maximal strength levels. They are inefficient and inconsistent in the way they move.  For example, within a single set, it is not uncommon for each repetition to look completely different.  Each different repetition provides a different stimulus.   This is the process of motor learning.  Over time the most efficient and natural pattern will be adopted.  

This inconsistency in movement patterns means that the young lifter can handle a much larger amount of volume.  Their movement pattern won’t get over trained because they use so many different ones.  This is a double edged sword because handling more volume is great for motor learning and engraining the appropriate patterns, but it also puts the lifter at risk of injury from repetitive poor movements.  A good coach will find a balance where the lifter has an appropriate amount of practice, but doesn’t risk injury.


Practice does not make perfect

Perfect practice makes perfect.  The cues and coaching you give your young athlete will form the basis for their technique in the rest of their lifting career.  If you do not take this seriously, bad habits will form and will be hard to break later on.  It is never ok to write a program and not coach the lifter through it.  Constant feedback and constructive criticism will set your lifter up for success.  


Success leads to success

A carefully planned training program that under loads the lifter, focuses on their weak points will allow them to be successful when it counts – Meet/ testing day.  Teach your lifter to build themselves during times between competitions/ tests and be patient.  They will get strong VERY fast.  Basing a program on percentages is almost useless for the young lifter because of this.  Teach them to gauge their effort by pushing their limits within reason.  The use of technique focused AMRAP’s, EMOM work and other tools that allow the relative intensity to get ramped up in the absence of bar weight are great for young lifters.  Having them load the bar and lift heavy consistently is a sure fire way to reinforce bad habits, not to mention it will increase the possibility of missing training lifts.


Own their performance

Your young lifter has trusted you with their training in preparation for a performance.  They are entrusting you to improve their lifts, but they must know that the actual act of lifting the weight is their own responsibility.  As long as you have set them up with appropriate and realistic goals, the performance should take care of itself.  You as the coach know that, but the athlete doesn’t because they have never done it before.  Just like the examples above, used to manage training loads/ volumes, these also serve to teach the young lifter about the role their effort plays into their results.  At the end of the day, if you didn’t work hard enough, you won’t get to where you want to be.

This holds true for lifestyle as well.  Teaching the lifters to eat healthy, avoid drugs and alcohol, while at the same time making sure that they know there is more to life than lifting weights.  That in and of itself can be a hard sell.  Many young lifters pour their heart and soul into training, eating, sleeping, recovery, all the while forgetting to experience their lives.  There are lots of pressures that young lifters face to fit in and be part of the social world, and it is up to them to decide how to tread those waters.  This is why off-season and in-season are so important, because it allows them to shift their focus from one end of the pendulum to the other.


Learning the hard way

One of the best tools to teach young lifters humility is to allow them to pick their third attempts at meets.  Before entering the competition, they should have goals and a game plan.  Based on how the each attempt goes, we adjust the following attempt in an effort to go 9/9 with the biggest total we can.  That should be any lifter’s goal.  Allowing the lifter to choose their third attempts is always a win/win.  If they choose a conservative number and smoke it, then they have motivation and positive momentum for future training.  If they pick a big PR and make it, then they learned how to dig deep and fight for something they want.  If they pick a conservative number and miss, they will learn what failure feels like and learn how to execute better in the future.  Finally, if they pick a big PR and miss, then they know that the next time, they need to trust the process and stick to the game plan.


As a coach, you serve as a guide for the young lifter’s success and in a lot of cases you teach them more about themselves outside the weight room than in it.  As most lifters know, you start lifting weights for various reasons, but typically they can all be summarized into “becoming a better me.”  This is the goal the young lifter has entrusted you with.  They have put their personal growth in your hands.  That is not a responsibility to be taken lightly.


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