Brayden Littell is a standout wrestler with multiple state championships and even a national title.
Lean and flexible, he relies heavily on technique but can overpower opponents when pure muscle is required.
For that, he credits a rigorous strength training program he began three years ago.
He’s only 13.
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“It helps me with everything, really,” said Littell, a seventh-grader at Center Grove Middle School Central. “With wrestling, (strength training) helps extremely, because strength is a big factor in that.”
A critical factor in most sports, strength — for performance and health reasons — is a must for athletes of all ages. The most common and effective way to build and improve it is through strength training, a rigorous activity that involves various forms of weightlifting.
So what is the best age to start?
Certified strength and conditioning coaches generally agree there is no right or wrong age to begin a training program. How much weight a kid does, or doesn’t, lift in the beginning stage depends largely on the existing fitness level.
“It’s a question we hear very often, ‘Is this going to stunt their growth? Is this going to be bad on their joints?’” said Jeff Richter, a strength and conditioning coach at St. Vincent Sports Performance in Indianapolis. “What chronological age, 10, 11, 12, 13, is OK?
“The better question is: How far along are they in their training age?”
Marty Mills, the strength and conditioning coach at Center Grove High School, agrees there is no right or wrong age to start resistance training. In his program, no one — regardless of age — starts lifting weights right away.
Everyone learns movement patterns and technique before they ever lift a barbell or, as is the preferred method in Mills’ classes, a kettlebell.
“It doesn’t matter if someone’s 10 or they’re a freshman or they’re 20 or 50. They all have to do the same basic program,” said Mills, who trains athletes of all ages, from upper elementary school through college and beyond.
“It doesn’t matter to me what their age is necessarily. It matters more where their training skills are.”
At St. Vincent Sports Performance, that determination is made through a series of tests called the Functional Movement Screen. As the name implies, the FMS assesses movement ability and measures, among other factors, joint stability and flexibility. Results then determine what level of strength training the athlete is ready for.
Age is largely irrelevant.
“You’re looking at how well an athlete is able to control their body weight. That’s not something where chronological age is going to be a one-size-fits all,” Richter said. “I would never say as a coach, at age 13 you start lifting weights. The truth is, an athlete at 15 years old might think they can do a pushup, but they don’t know how to do a pushup with proper body control, with proper technique. And if they can’t do a pushup, I don’t want to put them on a bench press.
“And yet at the same time, a 12- or 13-year-old who has an exceptional Functional Movement Screen score, where they have good control and mobility where they need it, we would be more apt with that athlete to maybe work through our sequence a little more aggressively.”
Kaley Mills is a freshman at Center Grove. She participates in cheerleading and track and field. A former gymnast, she began learning proper movement and technique in grade school. She worked her way to up to kettlebells at age 8 and has been a regular in the high school weight room, with her coach and father, Marty Mills, for more than six years.
“When I was like 4, I would take a wooden stick and do all the lifts over and over again,” said Kaley Mills, 16. “When I was in gymnastics, I would be here on the nights I didn’t have gymnastics, and I would lift; and it would help me with the skills that I needed.”
Today, Mills strength trains to sharpen her performance in cheerleading and track and for the satisfaction of achieving personal lifting objectives.
“I’m a big person about pushing myself and trying to exceed my goals and try to get better,” she said. “I like the kettlebells because it’s not super-hard, but it’s easy to go up in weight and push myself, and it’s easier on my body.”
That’s why most of Marty Mills’ lifting programs incorporate more kettlebells than standard barbells and dumbells. Kettlebell lifts are similar to barbell and dumbell equivalents, such as presses, rows, lunges and squats, but place more emphasis on movement and control and combine cardio and resistance benefits in the same movement.
Again, age has little bearing on when it’s OK to start, as long as the athlete is under the direction of a certified expert.
“The athlete (through assessment) tells us if they can lift and how much they can lift,” Richter said. “So we never have a cookie-cutter program where we say this 14-year-old is going to lift this weight or attempt to lift this weight. We let them show us what they can do.
“So that’s our job as coaches, to make sure that we challenge them appropriately and increase the weights appropriately.”
Mills echoes the sentiment.
“It’s all about the coach. I would give my 10-year-old to a coach who really knows what they’re doing,” he said. “Coaching is everything in this type of thing. People wonder, ‘Is resistance training going to hurt my kids?’ So the way I like my program is, it’s kind of gymnastics with weights or cardio with weights. I’m working movement patterns.
“I’m teaching movement patterns, so what it’s doing is, it’s making them a better athlete, but it’s also their entry into weightlifting later on.”
So far, it’s worked for Littell, who stands 4-foot-8 and weighs 100 pounds. He’s won nine age-group state wrestling championships and a USA Wrestling national title and aspires to be a state champion someday for Center Grove’s varsity team.
Strength training gives him the confidence to achieve in the heat of any wrestling moment.
“I feel good working out. It helps a lot, because I know if it’s going to be a close match, then strength will help a lot,” Littell said. “And it could help early in the match, too. Score some easy points without using a lot of technique.”