youth athleoBy: Thacher Riddle

As a parent there’s nothing more important than your child’s health and well being. Unfortunately, a child’s success in sports at a young age can begin to become almost as important. Although there are many different training modalities that youth should be introduced to, I want to shed light on the benefits of strength training at a young age to develop a broad base to build off of as they mature. Strength training at a young age is often a topic of controversy clouded with misinformation. So what’s the bottom line? Is it safe? Is it harmful or beneficial? Many of the concerns are valid. I’ve personally experienced both sides of the coin and know all to well the harm of not approaching this issue with the right perspective.

My parents had the same concerns that many other parents have about their children lifting weights, and because of this didn’t allow me to lift weights until high school. Anyone who knows me knows I have struggled with shoulder issues since high school. My sophomore year I suffered an AC joint separation in practice. My doctors and physical therapist concluded the separation was due to weak scapular muscles. Since I wasn’t introduced to any strength training prior to high school I was thrown into a very simple strength program that consisted of only four exercises. My lack of a broad strength base mixed with being introduced to a simple strength program left me very susceptible to injury. I only share my story because it’s an all to familiar one to many others.

At what age is it safe to start strength training? “The age at which a child can begin strength training is determined more by the child’s psychological maturity versus their chronological age.” Coaches and parents must be able to decide if their athlete/children are mature enough to obey safe lifting guidelines and dedicated enough to follow a safe and progressive program. What does proper strength training look like for young kids? The goal of the program should be to safely build a broad strength base in all three planes of motion. An emphasis should be placed on developing fundamental multi joint movement patterns such as squatting, pulling, and pressing. A key component of developing this is teaching and developing core stability and strength. All movements should be sound without load before introducing external load. The program should develop key bodyweight exercises such as pushups, pullups, and dips.

There should be a variety of auxiliary exercises that include unilateral and rotational exercises. Rep count should never be lower than five and the sets should stay three to four. The emphasis is always on developing the quality of the movements and never on the load. The goal of the sessions should be built upon acquiring a certain amount of repetitions not on working up to a set weight. What are the benefits of youth strength training? There are several proven benefits to why youth should be introduced to strength training.

Despite the common myth that strength training will affect children’s growth plates and stunt their growth, it actually does quite the opposite. “Physiologically muscles don’t know the difference between the resistance by strength training or resistance by vigorous work or play.” An individual weighing 120lbs produces forces 3-6 times their body weight (240-270lbs of force per leg) when running, and 4- 11 times their body weight (400-1320lbs of force per leg) when jumping. Much of the force produced on the body during sport or play are unpredictable due to the nature of the activities.

Strength training allows youth to develop strength and stability in all planes of motion they will be put through in sport or play, but in a controlled and predictable environment. This environment allows for them to train in ideal positions, resulting in stronger muscles, ligaments, and more stable joints. The NSCA states that, “weight bearing physical activity is essential for normal bone formation and growth. It can maximize bone mineral density in children and adolescence. There is no detrimental effect of resistance training on linear growth in children and adolescents. Adolescent weightlifters displayed levels of bone mineral density and content well above values of age matched controls.”

The by product of the above mentioned benefits of strength training has been proven to significantly reduce sports related injuries in youth. Most injuries in sports are are caused by poor movements patterns during ground force reactions. Strength training is one way to help develop and strengthen these movement patterns safely and effectively. Strength training in youth also enhances their performance in every sport, by improving proprioception, stability, strength, power, speed, and flexibility. There has also been proven psychological benefits such as elevated confidence and self esteem. Weight training can help maintain children’s weight and promote healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels. In a pediatric review, researchers with The Institute of Training and Sports Informatics analyzed 6 to 7 years’ worth of studies of children and weightlifting, ages 6-18, and found that almost without exception, children and adolescents benefited from weight training.

Despite outdated myth’s it is clear that with proper protocol, youth being introduced to strength training can significantly improve their development and safety in sport or play. For kids whom are going to enter school sports, an early and proper introduction to strength training will give them a head start learning the exercises safely and correctly before being put in their school’s strength training program. It is paramount that coaches and parents ensure their children are mature enough to start strength training. Don’t let well intentioned restrictions placed on youth be the the thing that leads them to being underprepared for sports and play. I encourage parents to seek out a reputable coach that keeps your child’s long term development a priority.

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1. It Will Not Stunt Growth: Strength Programming for Adolescent athlete; Mike Tramello

2. Phys Ed: The Benefits of weight Training for Children; Gretchen Reynolds

3. Strength Training: Ok For Kids?; Mayo Clinic Staff

4. Will Your Child Stunt Their Growth If They Lift Weights?; Dr. Daniel G. Drury

5. Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper From The National

Strength and Conditioning Association; Avery D. Faigenbaum

6. 7 Reasons Youth Athletes Need To Strength Train; Cassie Dionne

Understanding Youth Strength Training