Youths and Strength Training
Strength training is seen as a dangerous activity for kids to participate in by many parents. Their concerns are warranted as they only want what’s best for their kids. The problem is their concerns are based on many myths and misconceptions that they have heard through the media or misinformed coaches, or coaches that just don’t know about strength training so they write it off as useless and dangerous.
While there are risks to strength training it is no different to playing any other sport, riding a bike, or skateboard. If you learn optimal technique and follow some specific guidelines the chances of injury are quite small. Probably more so than other activities as strength training is performed in a controlled environment.
The important thing to note as a parent is to see a qualified strength coach. Just because Johnny’s dad looks jacked doesn’t mean he knows anything about technique or program design. The same goes for most personal trainers. Many of them can’t lift properly themselves or have no idea about planning of training. They simply make people sweat and half of them just steal programs off the internet that aren’t customized to their client’s needs. If you see one of these types of people to train your kid’s then strength training may be dangerous.
The first question many people ask is “what is a good age to start strength training?”
There is no minimum age for a young athlete to start resistance training. Most kids are performing some type of resistance training when they play, whether it be jumping, running, climbing, skipping, or hopping. You don’t have to lifting maximal weights to be performing resistance training. As a general rule between the ages of 8-12 it is good for kids to perform jumps and throws and start lifting weights 2 years before puberty.
The most important factors to take into consideration are whether or not the child is mentally and emotionally ready to follow coaching instructions and handle the stress of a training program. The desire of an athlete to participate in a strength training program will determine whether or not it will have any benefit. If a young kid doesn’t understand why strength training is important or isn’t mature enough to follow a program then it will more than likely lead to burnout. No young athlete should be forced to lift, especially if it is beyond their capabilities (physical and emotional).
If you have young kids, say 4 or 5 years old, and they like to hang out in the gym and play around doing squats with a broomstick mimicking you, then let them. Don’t go correcting their technique or anything like that, just let them figure some stuff out for themselves. When they are bored they’ll move on. The most important part is that they are in a healthy environment, later on when they are older and ready, they will ask to train with more structure.
When designing strength training programs for young athletes it is important to take into account not only their chronological age but also their physiological age. Physiological age is the most important.
Safety is always a major concern when the topic of strength training in young athletes is brought up. Most injuries are caused by poor lifting technique, poor spotting technique or lack of, and accident (trips, falls, faulty equipment etc.). To prevent injuries proper instruction and supervision are a must. Poor program design is also a cause of injuries, particularly overuse injuries. An example of this is the young bloke who joins the gym and does nothing but bicep curls and bench presses (some never grow out of it). This is why you need to work with a qualified professional as mentioned above. Another reason is that most kids play 2 or 3 sports and adding in strength training just increases their total volume, again leading to overuse injuries if not planned properly.
Injury to children’s growth cartilage has been a valid concern. For this reason it is important that children’s programs don’t focus on maximal strength work. It is more important to develop perfect technique in the early stages of training. It is recommended to wait until after puberty, which is when growth plates ossify, before working on maximal strength. All 3 growth-cartilage sites are more prone to injury during growth spurts in adolescence due to increased muscle tightness across joints.
All injuries related to growth plate fractures in youths involved overhead lifts and lifts with near maximal weights or maximal weights. This is why I don’t recommend maximal lifts for young athletes.
When we work with young athletes we don’t load then up with squats, deadlifts, or even bench presses for that matter. We work on physical limitations through corrective based exercises and in the gym we focus a lot on body weight exercises such as chin ups, push ups, dips etc. progressing into split squats, leg curls, step-ups, back extensions, DB presses etc. In that time we work on squat and deadlift technique using a broomstick and progressing to an empty bar. So we are building a foundation while teaching optimal technique and motor control.
We like to use kettlebell squats standing on boxes to train the legs without loading the spine as we believe you shouldn’t load the spine before puberty. Also we avoid deadlifts using back extensions and reverse hypers instead. Again we only work on technique with a broomstick to teach the movement not strengthen it.
When working with young athletes it is important they understand that rep ranges are only a guideline. The set should be stopped at technical failure not absolute muscle failure. This means the last rep of a set should look like the first. When programming rep ranges for young athletes we like to work in the functional hypertrophy range, say anything from 4-8 reps. The reason for this is so we don’t load the kids up with maximal weights but also the gains from resistance training are primarily neural in nature and don’t seem to come from hypertrophy. This means the strength gained is more from coordination and learning the movement not from gaining muscle mass. It isn’t until after puberty when hormonal changes take place that hypertrophy can be significantly achieved. This rep range allows enough reps to be completed to learn the movement but not so many that fatigue sets in and increases the chances of technical breakdown like a set of 12-15 reps may do.
On average, gains in strength of 30-50% have been observed in children with programs lasting 8-20 weeks (Kraemer). Sports performance can also be improved but only if the program is designed effectively (like any age) allowing carry over to the playing field. Training adaptations are still specific to children just as they are to adults. This is why I don’t like excessive amounts of conditioning work with kids as it ruins their power output when they are older. Using modified strongman activities and sprints is a better option in my opinion.
Reduction of injuries is another benefit of resistance training for young athletes. Kids should prepare their bodies to handle the sport they play, just the same as adults do. Playing the sport doesn’t necessarily get them into shape for that sport because the sport itself doesn’t always improve muscle and connective tissue growth or strength. Improving range of motion and addressing other weaknesses can also help prevent injuries during competition of the chosen sport.
Developing healthy habits through resistance training will also help the kids throughout their lives. While increased sports performance, reduction of injuries, and long term athletic development are great, the benefits of children enjoying their time training are just as, or more important in my opinion. Improved blood pressure, improved bone mineral density, and all the other physiological benefits to resistance training are great but the psychological benefits are just as important. With the way society is at the moment with all the social media I believe it is important for kids to grow up having a positive self-esteem, understanding the reality of what to expect from training, and being comfortable and confident in who they are and what they do. Resistance training can help develop these attitudes.
If you follow the above guidelines resistance training won’t stunt the growth of your child, they won’t get too big and muscular, it won’t slow them down, but it may reduce injury, increase sports performance, and set them up with healthy habits that could last a lifetime.
Here is a video of a young Chinese weightlifter to show how far some people are willing to go to be the best. While this may be considered dangerous and pushing the boundaries for some people, it is interesting to see the strength levels and the technique of someone so young.
As always if you have any questions or would like more information please feel free to contact us.