Youth strength training has been a somewhat controversial issue. Previously, it was widely thought that the immature bodies of pre-adolescents and adolescents would put them more at risk for growth plate injuries. In addition, because of the results of certain scientific studies and the fact that the necessary hormones, known as androgens, that allow for muscle hypertrophy (growth) are not yet circulating in high enough levels before puberty, it was believed that strength training prior to puberty would not really produce strength gains (1-3). However, recent research on the safety and effectiveness of youth strength training is calming this controversy.
Possibly driven by the increasing competitive nature of youth sports where many are looking for an edge to get ahead, or maybe driven by the desire to imitate what players at the college and professional level are doing, more adolescents are involved in strength training and more recent research has been conducted on adolescent strength training. It now appears that when done under proper supervision, youth strength training can be safe and can improve the strength of a child as young as six in the muscle groups being trained. As it turns out, earlier studies that showed no increase in strength from training most likely involved training at an intensity too low for any significant strength gains to be seen. Now, experts are even beginning to identify benefits associated with strength training in youth.
Benefits of Strength Training
Before we discuss the benefits youth can obtain from strength training, it is important to point out that strength training is not the same as power lifting or body building. Strength training can be in the form of using weights, resistance bands, or the weight of the body to provide the resistance as in sit-ups and push-ups.
When done under proper supervision, and proper supervision must be stressed, strength training can potentially lead to the following benefits:
- improved strength
- protection against injury (1, 2, 4)
- improved coordination (3-4)
- enhanced motor skills (2, 4)
- improved speed (1, 4) and power (4)
- enhanced self-esteem (2, 4)
- weight loss and better body composition (1, 2)
When analyzing potential benefits, you must be aware that the results from strength training will be specific to the program being used and the muscles being trained. Once strength training stops, the muscles will gradually lose the strength that was gained through training.
Proper training and supervision are essential if the risk of injury is to be reduced and the training is to be done properly. Proper supervision does not just refer to an adult being in the same room with a child who is training. Proper supervision refers to a qualified professional who understands the anatomy and physiology of an adolescent and who knows how to design appropriate strength training programs for adolescents. In addition, it is important that regardless of the type weight being used to provide the resistance, children are instructed in the proper technique. If proper technique and form are not used, this could also eventually lead to injury.
Cautions Regarding Strength Training
Despite the fact that the safety of strength training has been demonstrated, there still exists the risk of injury. Proper supervision can reduce the risk of injury, but it cannot prevent it.
- Even though children as young as six can safely participate in strength training, you should consider whether or not this is really necessary. Young children enjoy participating in sports because they are fun. They thrive in a more unstructured practice environment. In addition, many children this young are not psychologically ready for participation in competitive sports. The routine of strength training may be viewed as monotonous and unenjoyable, creating a desire to discontinue sports participation.
- Strength training should never be allowed to become a competitive issue among teammates. Each person is unique in his or her physical development, growing and developing at different rates. Making a competition out of lifting weights can lead to bad technique, lifting weights that are too heavy, and injury.
- While strength training can improve strength, you will not notice any increase in muscle size in pre-pubertal adolescents (2, 3). This is because the hormones needed for muscle hypertrophy are not yet circulating in high enough levels.
- Before puberty, boys and girls generally do not differ much in strength. After the onset of puberty where more testosterone is present in males, the trainability between males and females will differ, and males will generally be stronger (1).
- Just because someone calls themselves a coach does not mean they have training in how to develop and supervise a proper youth strength training program.
The strength training program for children should not resemble an adult training program. It must be tailored to the individual age of the child. Regarding age, Timothy Piper, a USA Weightlifting Senior Coach and assistant professor, and Trey Teichelman, who owns a personal training studio, recommend the following:
- Ages 6-10 – Focus on overall fitness and development of all motor skills and sports-related skills. Emphasize fun, and leave out highly structured and high intensity training and organized competition.
- Ages 11-14 – Focus on overall fitness and development of all motor skills and sports-related skills. Some resistance training and sport-specific training may be added. When conducting strengthening exercises, make sure you show the athletes how it will help them in their sport. Use exercises that “mimic common movement patterns and skills” (p. 37).
- Ages 15-18 – Now is the time to begin sport-specific training. A period of warming-up, stretching, and cooling-down are a must in any type of training, including strength training.
Although not without risks, strength training has been found to be a safe and effective means for helping youth build strength, among other added benefits. It can take the form of lifting weights, using resistance bands, or using the body to provide resistance. Any child who engages in a strength training program should be under direct supervision at all times by a professional. It is true that strength gains have been shown in children as young as six, but you should really consider the psychological needs of your child before allowing him or her to participate in a strength training program. It may be more productive to allow them to develop strength through free-play activities such as swinging on the monkey bars or chasing after their friends.