Is Strength or “Resistance” Training OK for Young Athletes?

– Posted by Dev Mishra, M.D., President of Sideline Sports Doc LLC –

The short answer is “yes,” but with some important cautions.

I ran across an interesting piece in the Wall Street Journal titled “School, Homework, Pump Iron” that prompted me to think about this topic. The author reported on increasing trends in the health and fitness industry to market their services to young athletes, and also to children who might not be athletes for general fitness and various health-related issues.

Not long ago most medical professionals and youth fitness experts advised against “weight lifting” for young athletes due to several safety and health concerns. There are reports of very serious injury and even death due to weight lifting accidents, and also concerns that high stresses placed on the areas of long bones in a growing child could result in growth disturbances. It turns out that the risks of strength training in children are likely much lower than risks from playing many team sports themselves.

Before we get into the recommendations themselves let’s go over a key definition. Most importantly, for a muscle to show signs of strength gains the muscle needs to be put under loads higher than what would be found under normal everyday usage, a concept called increased “resistance”. Resistance training can be done with body weight exercises, exercise bands, machines, or free weights. Safety of the equipment used is an important concern especially in the youngest age groups. Using body weight exercises or rubberized tubing is an excellent way to work with the younger kids. In general a child old enough to participate in sports activities, around age 7 or 8, can do some form of resistance exercise.

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) has a document outlining the Association’s opinion and recommendations for resistance training in children, pre-adolescents, and adolescents. The principal author of the NSCA paper is Dr. Avery Faigenbaum, Professor in the Department of Health and Exercise Science at The College of New Jersey, and Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine and of the National Strength and Conditioning Association. For those interested in researching resistance training for children further I strongly recommend Dr. Faigenbaum’s website you can access a number of very useful resources, and also download a comprehensive list of published scientific references.

Here’s a summary of the NSCA’s recommendations (from Faigenbaum, A., et al. Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. J Strength and Cond Res (0)1-20, 2009):

  • Provide qualified instruction and supervision
  • Ensure the exercise environment is safe and free of hazards
  • Start each training session with a 5 to 10 minute dynamic warm up period
  • Begin with relatively light loads and always focus on the correct exercise technique
  • Perform 1-3 sets of 6-15 repetitions on a variety of upper and lower body strength exercises
  • Include specific exercises that strengthen the abdominal and lower back region
  • The full set of recommendations also provides guidance on power, balance, cooldown, recovery, and the importance of listening carefully to the child for any complaints during the sessions

From my viewpoint as a sports medicine specialist I think the key is providing qualified instruction and supervision. It means the child needs close supervision by someone with specific skills in working with children, and in almost all instances it means someone other than the parents. I’d also recommend against using home exercise equipment with children. Kids also tend to enjoy activities more in a group setting. In the next post we’ll cover some tips in finding the right trainer or class for the child.

Comments? Experiences or Situations? Please share your thoughts and questions.

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3 Responses to Is Strength or “Resistance” Training OK for Young Athletes?

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  3. tab mcaally says:

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