strength training for children

Strength Training For Children : Why young athletes should be encouraged to work out with weights

Parents and coaches continue to express concern about the suitability of strength training for children and adolescents despite mounting evidence that it is both safe and beneficial. Paul Gamble homes in on the advantages for youngsters – particularly would-be rugby players.

Through my work as strength and conditioning coach to the London Irish Rugby Football Club and involvement with our regional academy and Elite Player Development Group, I have become aware of concerns expressed by young players and their parents about whether it is appropriate for adolescent athletes (aged 12-16) to train with weights.

The benefits of youth resistance training are well documented and almost universally accepted among health professionals, particularly in the United States (1,2). However, public recognition of these benefits has tended to lag behind and misunderstanding and misconceptions abound.

Historically, concerns about youth resistance training stem from a perceived risk of potential damage to growth plates and consequent interference with normal growth.

In fact, such damage has never been documented in connection with youth strength training programmes administered and supervised by qualified professionals, while studies using appropriate youth resistance training report a very low incidence of any type of injuries (1).

The most frequent causes of injuries to young people working out with weights include incorrect lifting technique, attempts to lift excessive loads, inappropriate use of equipment and absence of qualified supervision. But these factors should not apply with properly administered training.

Naturally, young players, like any inexperienced lifters, should only take part in strength training programmes prepared by qualified coaches, using safe equipment and supervised by qualified instructors. If these conditions are met, there are no grounds at all to restrict their participation.

The reality is that children are exposed to far greater forces (and for longer periods of time) during sports and recreational physical activity than with strength training – even if that training were to include a maximum lift!

Of all resistance training exercises, the Olympic lifts probably impose the greatest forces on the growing musculoskeletal system. Even so, research suggests that competitive weightlifting is one of the safer activities engaged in by young athletes.

It is now becoming recognised that young people can derive the same benefits from strength training as adults. Previously, the presumption had been that strength training before puberty was not viable or effective. But now it is known that prepubescents exhibit scope for strength gains far beyond those attributable to normal growth and maturation (1).

Relative strength gains from resistance training in prepubescent subjects are of similar magnitude to those seen in adolescents, although the latter seem to exhibit greater absolute strength gains.

Improvements in various motor performance have been observed following resistance training in children. These include vertical jump, standing long jump, sprint times and agility run times.

Resistance training has also been recommended as a preconditioning aid for youngsters. Habitual levels of physical activity in children are declining, reflecting changes in modern lifestyles. As a result, the physical condition of many children leaves them ill prepared for competitive sport. Resistance training offers a means to prepare them for participation in other sports and recreational activities, thereby also preventing overuse injuries (2).

This injury prevention aspect of youth resistance training is an important consideration for young athletes – particularly rugby players. Strengthening muscles via resistance training will increase the forces they are capable of sustaining, making them more resistant to injury, while improved motor control and coordination will also improve balance and joint stability.

For adolescent athletes in particular, structural adaptations to resistance training are key to injury prevention. These effects include increased strength of supporting connective tissues and passive joint stability, as well as increased bone density and tensile strength, which are particularly useful in collision sports like rugby football.

As well as protecting against injury, youth resistance training also seems to accelerate rehabilitation after injury, with evidence that resistance-trained young athletes recover more rapidly and return to training sooner than those who do not use this kind of training.

And, far from stunting growth, it now appears that resistance training, in combination with proper nutrition, has the potential to enhance growth within genetic bounds at all stages of development.

Participation in resistance training at an early age also carries health-related benefits similar to those observed in adults. These include a reduction in risk factors for cardiovascular disease and diabetes, both of which are becoming increasingly common in young people. In addition, initiating good health- promoting behaviours during childhood and adolescence increases the likelihood that these good habits will carry over into adulthood.

In view of the increasing prevalence of childhood obesity, the potential of resistance training to favourably alter body composition should also be taken into account. At any age, appropriate resistance training, in conjunction with aerobic exercise, appears to be the best strategy for losing body fat and maintaining weight.

Finally, psychosocial benefits associated with resistance training have been identified in youngsters as well as adults, particularly enhanced self-esteem and improved self-image.

Before puberty, low levels of circulating anabolic hormones limit the contribution of hypertrophy (lean tissue growth) to strength gains, and the changes to muscles that do occur appear to be qualitative rather than quantitative. Neural effects thus appear to underlie the benefits of resistance training in these younger boys and girls.

Such neural adaptations are thought to include improved recruitment and activation of the muscles mobilised during the relevant training movements. Enhanced motor coordination, both within and between muscle groups, is also thought to contribute to strength gains following training.

By their very nature, such training adaptations would appear impermanent. And, indeed, prepubescent athletes do seem particularly susceptible to detraining effects if resistance training is discontinued. However, modest maintenance programmes (1-2 days per week) should be sufficient to sustain strength gains.

The greater hormonal response to resistance training in adolescents leads to structural changes to the muscles and associated connective tissues. As a result, marked changes in terms of muscle hypertrophy and gains in fat free mass are seen in this older age group.

In collision sports like rugby, physical size is a determining factor for participation at higher levels. Young players are naturally predisposed to – and selected for – particular playing positions on the basis of their anthropometric (height and body mass) characteristics and strength capabilities (3).

As with other collision sports, such as American football, rugby union players’ body mass and muscularity has risen at a disproportionate rate over the past 25 years, particularly with the advent of professionalism (4). These days, the physical characteristics of professional players in these sports place them increasingly at the margins of the populations they are taken from.

The importance of lean body mass in rugby union is illustrated by the observation that it differentiates between playing grades in the sport, with players at higher levels of competition exhibiting a greater proportion of lean body mass than those participating in lower leagues. Body mass was also shown to correlate with the respective performance of national teams in the World Cup competition, with the heavier playing squads progressing further in the competition (4).

As a consequence, for young players who aspire to play at the highest level participation in strength training is no longer optional. Without experience of systematic strength training, young players are unlikely to have developed the physical characteristics that will recommend them to scouts and coaches in the regional academy system.

Strength training recommendations for young rugby players

Guidelines vary according to chronological age and, more importantly, biological age. Any resistance training programme should be geared to the physical and emotional maturity of individuals in the group.

In general, if a child is ready for participation in organised sports, he or she is probably ready to undergo instruction in resistance training. However, for children with known or suspected medical conditions, medical clearance should be sought in advance.

Sample workouts for youngsters at all levels of experience are set out in the table below.

When young athletes are first introduced to resistance training, light loads and high repetition schemes (12-15 reps) are most appropriate. At early stages of training, progression should be achieved by increasing the number of sets performed and the number of exercises in the workout. The number of training days can then be increased at a later stage.

Adequate rest and recovery is a key component of successful youth resistance training. And because young athletes may need more recovery time between sessions in order to maximise the effectiveness of training and reduce the risk of injury, training on non-consecutive days is recommended for younger individuals.

It has been suggested that before puberty the focus of the programme should be on improving motor control and coordination and developing proprioception (awareness of limb position and orientation of the body). However, at this stage developing strength is still seen as a primary programme goal.

Given that many of the benefits of strength training in this population stem from improved coordination, balance and proprioception, exercise modes that favour the development of these qualities should be emphasised. Thus calisthenic exercises and free weights may be better than resistance machines, although users are likely to require closer supervision.

In this context, it is worth noting that resistance machines need to be tailored to the dimensions of their users, and that some apparatus cannot be adjusted sufficiently for use by children.

With advances in training experience, exercises like structural multi-joint lifts (bench press, variations of the barbell squat and deadlift) can be introduced, although the focus throughout should be on proper lifting form, with loading limited until the athlete has mastered the appropriate technique.

Experienced young lifters can integrate Olympic-style lifts into their strength training programmes. These should be taught initially using a broomstick or empty barbell. For prepubescent athletes, in particular, the loads used for these lifts should be kept light, with the emphasis on the quality of the lifting movement.

As with adults, exercise specificity influences young athletes’ responses to strength training, with greatest transfer of training effects observed with performance measures that are similar to the movements featured in training. Exercises should therefore be selected with their sport specific benefits in mind, taking account of the skill levels and training experience of the young athletes concerned.

For young rugby players, a sport specific exercise programme should feature multi-joint lifts that incorporate triple extension of the hips, knees and ankles, generating force from the ground upwards, since this is the principal biomechanical action common to many movements in rugby (5). In addition, the shoulders should be targeted for specific strengthening and hypertrophy, as these are a common focus for impact forces during collisions with other players.

Periodisation can be incorporated into youth resistance training programmes by means of systematic variations throughout the training year, taking account of the timing and duration of the playing season as well as the players’ concurrent training and practice schedules.

Paul Gamble is strength and conditioning coach to the London Irish Rugby Football Club, based in Sunbury-on-Thames, Middlesex

What strength training does for youngsters

The documented benefits of resistance training for youngsters include:

  • Significant strength gains, particularly in adolescents
  • Improved motor performance
  • Injury protection
  • Preconditioning preparation for sports participation
  • Beneficial structural adaptations, including increased bone density
  • Accelerated rehabilitation after injury
  • Potential to enhance growth
  • Health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes
  • Favourable effects on body composition
  • Enhanced self-esteem
Table 1: Sample strength training workouts for youngsters
Beginners 15 reps, 1-3 sets Intermediate 12 reps, 3 sets Experienced 8 reps, 3 sets
Unloaded squat
Hands on head, squat until thighs parallel with floor
Dumbbell squat
Dumbbells held at side, descend until thighs parallel with floor
Clean pull with empty barbell
Start with barbell hanging down at arm’s length, then propel explosively upwards by pushing through floor in a jumping action, pulling barbell to chest height, keeping elbows over bar
Modified push-up
Performed resting on knees
Decline push-up
Standard push-up position, with feet raised up on bench
Incline dumbbell bench press
Sit back on an incline bench, dumbbells resting by chest below shoulder level, then press until arms extended with dumbbells finishing directly above face
    The following exercises require a spotter
Unloaded walking lunge
Hands on head
Seated cable row
Feet resting against blocks, torso upright, pull cable handles to chest level
Barbell back squat
Standard back squat with barbell resting across shoulders, descending until thighs parallel with floor
Unloaded step-up
Step up onto bench or box, alternating lead leg
Dumbbell step-up
Light dumbbell or hand weights held at sides, step up onto bench or box, alternating lead leg
One-arm dumbbell row
Left knee and hand supported on a bench, right foot planted next to bench, dumbbell hanging in right hand, pull dumbbell upwards to finish next to rib cage. After 1 set repeat with other arm
  Standing dumbbell shoulder press
Light dumbbells or hand weights resting on shoulders, then pressed until arms extended directly over crown of head
Assisted chin-up
Standard chin-up on suspended bar, with manual assistance from spotter
    Dumbbell lunge
Dumbbells held up at shoulders, lunge forward, then return to start by pushing off lead leg. Alternate lead leg with each rep

References

  1. Strength & Conditioning Journal 1996: 18: 62-75
  2. Strength & Conditioning Journal 2004: 26(3): 16-21
  3. Sports Medicine 2003; 33(13): 973-991
  4. Journal of Sports Sciences 2001; 19: 253-262
  5. Strength & Conditioning Journal 2004; 26(4): 10-23

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