Starting Strong: Youth Strength-Training Programs

A family recently brought their child in for a sports physical for a summer camp the young athlete is planning on attending this summer.  During the exam, his parents asked if it was safe for their young athlete to begin a strength-training program to help him improve in his sport.  This is a good question, and contrary to popular belief, strength-training programs are safe for children as young as seven or eight years old.  Strength training for children and young adolescents is endorsed by the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Academy of Pediatrics – as long as certain recommendations are followed.

What Does “Strength Training” Really Mean?

The goal of strength training is to improve neuromuscular strength and conditioning, and thereby improve athletic performance, reduce injury, and promote overall cardiovascular fitness.  What is not included in this definition are competitive weight lifting, power lifting, or other programs designed to lift a maximal amount of weight or to promote acquisition of muscle mass – ‘bulking up’.  These aggressive forms of weight lifting are not safe for children or young adolescents that are still growing, and should be discouraged in these age groups.

Is Your Child Ready for a Strength-Training Program?

Most children, by the time they are seven or eight years old, have acquired balance and postural control skills that are on par with adults.  The only other requirement for a strength-training program is the maturity needed to pay attention and follow instructions – a key part in a strength program is proper technique.  So the participant needs to be very closely supervised, and be receptive to corrections when needed.  However, before a child is allowed to begin a strength-training program, their doctor should evaluate them because there are certain medical conditions for which strength training would not be recommended.

Elements of an Adolescent Strength-Training Program

Strength training in children and young adolescents should focus first on proper technique.  Once the technique has been mastered, small amounts of weight can be added and incrementally increased over time.  Ideally, two to three sets of 10-15 repetitions should be done two to three times per week, with at least one day of rest between each session.  Remember, the goal is to promote overall strength and muscle conditioning, not to build muscle mass.  ‘Lower weight, more repetitions’ is a good rule to keep in mind – lifting a maximal amount of weight should be avoided to reduce the chance of musculoskeletal injury.

Exercises should include all the body’s main muscle groups, with focus placed on the core muscles.  Resistance can take several forms, from using one’s own body weight (chin-ups, dips, pull-ups, etc.), resistance cords, free weights, or exercise machines.  Exercise machines may not work well for young children because their body size is not compatible with the device, and the lowest weight may still be too much for them to be lifting.  Free weights require more coordination and technique, so proper supervision is even more important.  Each method of resistance comes with its own advantages and limitations, so feel free to introduce variety and experimentation to find a regimen that works best.

Benefits for Athletes and Non-athletes, Alike

Research has shown that children and young adolescents do get a benefit from strength training, and as long as it is supervised and they are following the recommended guidelines, there appears to be no adverse effects on bones, tendons, or muscles.  Benefits of strength training include an increase in muscle strength and endurance, reduction in injuries, and overall improvement in athletic performance.  Another benefit of strength training is that it introduces variety into an athlete’s training regimen, and thereby helps reduce the chances of ‘burnout’.  There are other benefits that non-athletes will get from strength training – healthier bones, improvement in blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and maintenance of a healthy body weight.

Strength training is an integral part of athletic training and an overall healthy lifestyle.  Talk with your child’s doctor first, though, before you have them start a strength-training program.

By Dr. Samuel Schimelpfenig

Pediatrician at Avera McKennan

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One Response to Starting Strong: Youth Strength-Training Programs

  1. Jackie July 16, 2012 at 8:32 pm #

    Wow – I had no idea of all the benefits of kids starting this young on strength training. Thanks for sharing these very helpful tips!