As youth sports become increasingly popular, athletes and parents are looking for ways to gain a competitive edge. One topic that has been highly debated for the past few decades has been whether or not children and adolescents should participate in strength training programs. Despite the belief that strength training was dangerous or ineffective for children, the safety and effectiveness of such programs are now well documented.1,2,3
Today, more reliable methods of testing strength and a better understanding of the physiology behind neuromuscular strength exists.1,4,5 Both epiphyseal (growth plate) fractures and musculoskeletal injuries are uncommon and are believed to be largely preventable by avoiding improper lifting techniques, maximal loads, and improperly supervised programs.9 Compelling evidence now suggests that strength training, when appropriately demonstrated and supervised, can produce substantial increases in muscular strength (but not muscular size), neuronal activation, intrinsic muscular adaptations, and improvements in motor coordination in young athletes.1 The American College of Sports Medicine, the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association all support child and adolescent participation in strength training programs.6 Further research states that strength training may actually be an effective stimulus for growth and bone mineralization in children.6
Though the optimal amount and type of exercises recommended for adolescents have not been specifically defined, programs should be individualized based on medical status, maturity and skill level, as well as prior exercise experience.7 Several agencies do encourage all persons over the age of six to accumulate at least 30 minutes of moderate- intensity physical activity on most and preferably all days of the week.7 The optimal time to begin strength training is 11-13 years of age for girls and 13-15 years of age for boys, although the use of high resistance should be avoided until well into adolescence; even then it needs to be monitored very carefully.8
It is important to remember that young athletes are anatomically, physiologically, and psychologically immature. Special precautions should be applied to any youth strength training program.
A medical evaluation should be performed by a physician knowledgeable about youth strength training.
Qualified personnel should instruct and supervise program(s) at all times; setting realistic goals and making sure all participants understand and follow directions.
The primary focus initially should be on learning proper techniques for all exercises and developing an interest in strength training while having fun.
Begin with minimal resistance (body weight against gravity or a bar without added weight) with gradual application of resistance to follow.
Perform full-range, multi-joint exercises in a controlled manner, avoiding ballistic (fast and jerky) movements.
Avoid repetitive use of maximal weight. Loads should permit 8 or more repetitions without severe muscle fatigue so as not to damage skeletal and/or joint structures.
Strength training sessions should be limited to 2-3 times per week, while encouraging participation in other forms of physical activity.
A warm-up/cool-down phase should be included with particular attention given to the development of abdominal, spinal, and scapulo-thoracic muscles that are essential to posture.
Power lifting and bodybuilding should also be avoided by young athletes.
The American Academy of Pediatrics now states that strength training, when properly structured with regard to frequency, mode (type of lifting), intensity, and duration of program, can increase strength in preadolescents and adolescents.1 Athletes are not the only ones who can benefit from such programs. In an age when childhood obesity statistics continue to climb, strength training combined with aerobic exercise may be the ideal solution to fat loss and weight management in overweight children.1
Benjamin HJ, Glow KM: Strength training for children and adolescents. The Physician and Sportsmedicine. 2003; Vol 31(9).
Falk B, Tenenbaum G: The effectiveness of resistance training in children: a meta-analysis. Sports Med 1996; 22(3): 176-186.
Payne VG, Morrow JR, Johnson L, et al: Resistance training in children and youth: a meta-analysis. Res Q Exerc 1997; 68(1):80-81.
Weltman A: Weight training in prepubertal children: physiologic benefit and potential damage, in Bar-Or O(ed): Advances in Pediatric Sports Science: Biologic Issues, Vol 3. Champaign, IL, Human Kinetics, 1989, pp 101-129.
Blimkie CJ: Resistance training during preadolescence: issues and controversies. Sports Med 1993; 15(6):389-407.
Charlebois D: Strength training for children and adolescents www.teenbodybuilding.com/derek42.htm
American College of Sports Medicine: Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription (6th Ed). Lippincott, Williams & Wilkins, pp 220-222.
C.H.E.K. Institute: Correspondence Course: Program design for children and adolescents. firstname.lastname@example.org
, pp 43.
American Academy of Pediatrics: Strength training by children and adolescents. Rainbow Pediatrics Knowledgebase: www.rainbowpediatrics.net/faq/13.45.html