Introducing Your 14 and 15 Year Old To Strength Training: One Parent’s Experience and Advice

by Tom Bailey | December 16, 2020

We want the best for our kids, don’t we? We’ve made so many mistakes in the gym, let alone in life, that we don’t want our kids to do the same. We don’t want them to waste time, to go down dead ends, to get frustrated and quit before they reach their goals. Since you are reading this, you value strength, and you want the same for your kids. You know first hand the benefits of being stronger, so you want the same for your 14- or 15-year-old. Or maybe you have no strength training background, but your child keeps saying he or she wants to get stronger for school or for a sport. This guide is for you, the parent of a 14- or 15-year-old who wants to train with you, perhaps train without you, but nonetheless wants to train for strength.

It is interesting to see the questions continually posted to Mark Rippetoe and Starting Strength Coaches about strength training 14- and 15-year-olds. To make it more complicated, the questions are often in reference to training these young teens while they also run track, play basketball, or participate in any number of seasonal or year-round sports or activities. My initial thought is usually, “Been there, done that.”

My experience with my teenagers may provide some guidance for how you approach your teenager’s introduction to strength training. I am not a medical professional or Starting Strength Coach. I am far from qualified to address proper mechanics of the compound lifts or offer programming specific to a growing teen (the strength program to use is the Starting Strength Novice Linear Progression, whether it is you beginning strength training or your teen). But my admittedly small sample size is made larger by coaching youth athletics and working with older teens at the gym where I once trained. I would see my former players in the weight room a few years after coaching them in basketball, often when they are in their junior or senior year of high school. I have introduced dozens of these “kids” to the Novice Linear Progression, sometimes but not always successfully. But the focus of this article is a few years younger than that, specifically high school freshman and sophomores.

Be forewarned: Strength training 14- and 15-year-olds is the Bermuda Triangle of coaching, parenting, and babysitting. It is uncharted territory, and what works for one teen may not work for others due to the varying levels of physical development, maturity, commitment, and ability to withstand repetition and discomfort. But perhaps you can learn from my experience. This article will detail my experience with my young teenagers and offer details on what is meant by Tanner Stage 4 as a biological marker for an acceptable level of progress through adolescence to begin strength training. Additionally, I offer some talking points to have with your young teen so that they understand not only the “how” of the compound movements, but the “why.” I’ll suggest some strategies for balancing your teen’s sports season with strength training, and briefly review teenage neurology. What I cannot help with is how to discuss all this with your spouse or partner who may not be familiar with strength training. Sorry, I just can’t help you there.

First Time Under The Bar

My 14-year-old son expressed an interest in getting stronger when he started Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. My wife agreed that he should go with me to the gym to learn how to lift safely and effectively. He followed me around, watching me squat, press, and deadlift, and keenly observed the “gym bros.” I explained to my son why I squat, press, and deadlift, and why they do what they do, which appeared to be a lot of preening in the mirror and celebrating National Bench Day, day after day. I explained Exercise vs Training and why what I do is strength training and what they do is exercise. After a few workouts of watching me, he inevitably wanted to “try” to squat, press, and deadlift. This will happen to you, and you need to be ready for this moment. Remember Mark Rippetoe’s statement about working with rank novices, as it holds especially true for this age group: “For the novice, the law is: learn first, and then load.”

When my son was ready to get under the bar, he had been observing my technique so that he had a visual model of what the compound movements should look like. But like any novice, basic form needed to be addressed. For him, it was the standard issues: in the squat, dive bombing into the ass-to-grass position and not pushing the knees out, a rounded back when deadlifting, and overextending the wrists when pressing – basically, nothing that cannot be corrected with proper attention and effective coaching.

Perhaps most importantly, I knew the importance of selecting the proper initial work set weight. In our case, we started with the 25 pound bar for the first set and titrated up to the 45 pound bar for sets across. After that, we simply (wait for it…) added 5 pounds each workout. I also had him log his training into a notebook, so that the habit is built and he could clearly see his strength increasing each workout. One of the challenges in the early workouts was encouraging him to rest between sets: no pull-ups or pushups which potentially interfere with completing the subsequent work set.

Going to a Starting Strength Squat and Deadlift Camp

When I learned that a Starting Strength Squat and Deadlift Camp was coming to Boston, I immediately signed up, but I wasn’t sure if I could or should bring my 14-year-old son. The pros: within a few short weeks he had shown a willingness to train somewhat consistently with me at the gym, to rack the bar after 5 reps, and to stop at 3 sets. He loved the concept of GOMAD and trying to eat more than he was used to (much to my wife’s consternation, but more on that topic will follow). The cons: he was only 14! I emailed Starting Strength Coach Pete Troupos who was running the camp and explained my son’s age and interest. Pete assured me my son would be welcome.

liam at a starting strength squat camp

Fourteen year Liam trains the Squat under the watchful eye of SSC Pete Troupos at a Starting Strength Squat and Deadlift Camp in June 2019.  From left: the author (and father), SSC Pete Troupos, and Liam.

I had several reasons for bringing him to a Starting Strength Camp at 14 years old and only a few weeks under the bar. The first was that Starting Strength Coaches would be able to coach my son’s movements far more effectively than I could. I knew that my son would listen to experienced coaches like Pete Troupos and Michael Wolf much more than his old man, and I can’t say I blame him.

He loved the Camp and learned a great deal. I recommend it to anyone, even a teen beginning strength training. There was value in him knowing what strong men and women look like and how they perform in training. And my son loved the SSCs Pete Troupos and Michael Wolf, he thought they were the coolest guys around. (Apparently much, much cooler than his white-haired middle-aged Dad.)

Remember: It’s a Teenage Brain

Neurology research suggests that adults and teenage brains work differently, and this is not an insignificant distinction. Adults process the world around them through the prefrontal cortex, the so-called “rational” part of the brain. Teenagers (and some research suggests up to age 25) process primarily through the amygdala – you guessed it, the “emotional” part of the brain.

What this means to you as their “first strength coach” is different from its implication as a parent. When it comes to strength training, it explains why younger trainees are generally more challenging to coach – more impulsive, less consistent, and to make it worse, even less able to separate the role of you as a strength coach from you as a parent. And they just can’t help themselves from attempting a one-rep max. Your job is to prevent that from happening so that no one gets hurt. You want to explain to the wife why Junior got hurt “lifting weights with Dad”?

A well-run Novice Linear Progression (NLP) requires consistency and a willingness to grind through a lot of difficult reps over time. But this is not a teenager’s idea of fun – 14- and 15-year-olds want two things a NLP cannot provide: fun and variety. This is where your ability to explain the “why” is crucial. Discuss the Three Criteria, the Stress/Recovery/Adaptation cycle, and “Why Fives.” Trust me, these principles are simple and can be comprehended by your young teen.

I know you worry about your kid being at a party and making good decisions. We all worry about those moments. Now imagine another likely scenario: your son or daughter in the high school weight room, surrounded by well-intentioned but totally uninformed friends and incompetent coaches, encouraging your young teen to perform useless exercises with heavy weight and poor technique. This perfect storm of teenage hormones and competitiveness may likely result in an injury. You want your teen to make good decisions at a friend's house and in the gym. The discussions you have with your young teen now about the underlying principles of the program may pay dividends for years. To be clear, I am not minimizing the “how” – the mechanics and form of the compound movements. When it comes to young teens, I am simply advocating the need to prioritize the discussion of “why” we train the compound movements.

The Body of Knowledge

Don’t take for granted that your son or daughter understands why he or she is squatting, deadlifting, and pressing when their friends are doing the “fun stuff.” Here is what I consider good conversations to have with young teens while training or walking the dog.

The Three Criteria: There is a tremendous risk to young trainees not understanding the three criteria. At some point, my son’s friends will be at the school gym benching three times a week with 185 pounds – same weight, every time. He may think that this is a good idea and spend four years at his high school gym wasting precious time. But if he can logically evaluate each movement on whether he can use 1.) the most weight using 2.) the most muscle mass over 3.) the longest effective range of motion, he will be less likely to repeat the sins of his father. He will be more inclined to recognize silly bullshit, stick with the program, avoid injury, and get much stronger than his classmates.

What Stress/Recovery/Adaptation means, not only in theory but its application to the stress imposed by each individual workout, what sleep and food intake means for recovery, and what adaptation means in reference to the previous strength level. I have found my teens were mildly interested in S/R/A because of their biology classes.

Why Stronger is Better: At my age I can think of a thousand reasons why stronger is better and why stronger people are harder to kill, and more useful in general. But for a 14-year-old, it's not so clear. Other so called “domains” of fitness are important to this age group as well, such as mobility and flexibility. As I explained to my kids, strength can be defined as the ability to exert force against an external resistance. I have found that having them identify the external resistance in their daily life or sport helps them create a direct linkage to applying force to the bar while squatting, pressing, and deadlifting.  

Have them verbalize what being stronger specifically looks and feels like. It may mean hitting the ball harder or walking more confidently through the school hallway when the juniors and seniors are there. Maybe they will be less anxious about getting into a fight or wrestling with their friends. Just don’t take for granted that they understand why strength is important. If they don’t understand what strength is, how strength is built, and its importance, their adherence to the program will fade, just like with any adult.

Introducing the Books

My son and I would watch some of the Starting Strength videos on YouTube, which can be an effective introduction to the program. But one of my goals was to ensure they knew about the books, primarily Starting Strength: Basic Barbell Training 3rd edition. So, I was surprised when I showed my son the book, he replied that he knew about it. “Dad, I used it for my science homework, remember?” One of his science reports was on basic Newtonian physics: the role of gravity, leverage, and moment arms. Turns out that last year I had shown him the diagrams in the Squat chapter, and he found them easier to understand than his school textbooks. So at least he knew about the book. As far as my daughter, I had shown her The Barbell Prescription a while back for one her school projects about cellular biology. No exaggeration, she also thought the descriptions and illustrations of glucose, insulin, ATP, and the Krebs Cycle were easier to comprehend than her textbooks.

Your mileage may vary on how effectively you introduce the books to young teens. Just don’t hold your breath expecting them to read the book cover-to-cover at this age. My goal was modest: I simply wanted them to know what Starting Strength was about. I mean, Rip isn’t exactly J.K. Rowling, is he? Young teens aren’t the target audience of the books, and they are textbooks, not leisure beach reading. The goal here is to let them know what Starting Strength 3rd edition is, and where Dad keeps his copy. When the kids are ready they will read it. But if you don’t have the books, neither will they. So, if you don’t at least have the blue book at the house, I highly recommend you order it, otherwise you are a terrible, awful parent.

The Sports Coaches

I am reluctant to include this, but no discussion of strength training young teens is complete without addressing the strength and conditioning programs run by their sports coaches. It is likely that your teen’s athletic programs have a strength and conditioning component run by the head coach or an assistant who may not have a strength background. My advice is simple: Be tactful. Be respectful.

Let the coaches coach and run the conditioning unless there is a clear and present danger to your teen. Don’t be that parent, and you know what I mean. If you must say something because “you know more than the coach does about strength training,” don’t say it. Sleep on it. The reality is that nothing will change and more harm than good will result.

Training Your Son and Daughter

Trust me on this: your daughter’s strength training will be no different than your son’s. Hard to believe, right? I can speak to this since I have twins, a boy and girl. Nothing is different during the novice stage of their strength training. Not one thing. They are both novices. They will perform the same movements (squat, deadlift, press, and bench) as described in the program. The weight used may be different, but the volume and exercise selection remain identical. However, be ready to have your daughter use 5 sets of 3 when needed.

Strength acquisition is independent of gender. The Stress/Recovery/Adaptation Cycle is at work on all living organisms, regardless of age or sex. I will say it again: at this age train your daughter the same way you would train your son. Both males and females will run a Novice Linear Progression. The only difference will likely be a less than enthusiastic reception by your daughter to consuming the same volume of food and whole milk as your son, but she will eat when she is hungry, and she will get stronger by running her own Novice Linear Progression.

liam training the press at home

Eighteen months later, a much taller and heavier 15 year old Liam is back training with his father, this time at their new home gym.  Note the significant change in anthropometry which must be accounted for when a young teen returns to training after a layoff.

The Mandatory Reference to Tanner Stage 4

Be aware that if your teen has not reached Tanner Stage 4 of physical development, he will not experience a sufficient physiological response to the training stress due to lack of sufficient hormones, such as the testosterone level needed to drive strength gains. If Tanner Stage 4 is not reached, your young teen will likely not experience the increases in strength, which provides the necessary positive feedback to continue training.  

The Impossible Balance: Sports Seasons and Strength Training

It’s likely that your teenager’s schedule is full with sports, or at least physical activities such as cheerleading. Juggling the sports schedule of practices, games, and tournaments with consistent strength training and consistent recovery will likely be impossible, especially given the fact that most kids this age simply will not eat enough to get recovered. So be prepared to back off from strength training during the height of the season. In fact, be willing to entirely stop strength training your young teen during the sports season if needed. Your 14-year-old is not the beast that you like to think you were in your prime. They need all the rest they can possibly get during the season. Adding more stress (in the form of strength training) to a full schedule of practices and games while not adding more recovery to a growing body will end in failure. Parents need to remember that during the season the teens are managing a full schedule, and teens need to remember that the power rack will be there at the end of the season.

Be aware that if your teen’s layoff is longer than a few months, the kid may have grown, sometimes upwards of four inches depending on the growth spurt. This may potentially cause coordination and balance to lag as he adapts to his increased height and to moving the bar the increased vertical distance. Don’t expect a young teen to tap into the same muscle memory available to an adult trainee after a layoff. I haven’t grown an inch since 1985, so no matter how long my layoff is, my anthropometry has not changed in thirty five years. Your teen’s anthropometry may have changed markedly in those few months, so patiently work with your young teen to relearn the form at his new height before loading the bar.

The Kitchen

It would be ideal to keep the fridge full of cereal, chicken, eggs, and gallons of whole milk. However, this will require your spouse or partner to understand why this is necessary. If that is not possible, you have two options. First, you can attempt to explain that “the increased caloric intake is necessary to recover from the training stress”. The second option is to let Junior repeatedly eat everything in the fridge in order to demonstrate the new levels of grocery shopping and meal preparation required.

I highly recommend the latter.

If you have a home gym, this is the point that your spouse or partner may start considering strength training with you and your young teen. If you don’t have a gym at home, this would be a great time to discuss the advantages of building one – “for the family,” you know. We built one, and I highly recommend it.

Managing Expectations (Yours, Not His)

Good luck with strength training your young teen. Remember, don’t expect full compliance and consistency. As with other activities, there will be plenty of starts and stops. Simply restart the Novice Linear Progression when needed, stress the “why” of exercise selection, demonstrate and coach correct technique on the compound movements, and offer an environment conducive to training and recovery.

They say you can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink. So lead your teen to the barbell, and you may be pleasantly surprised. Or perhaps temporarily disappointed. It’s okay if your 14- or 15-year-old wants to Exercise, and not Train. Be patient – we are playing the long game. Manage your expectations appropriately and enjoy the strength journey with your young teen.

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