By Mark S. Cassidy, MS and Jennifer Adams, CPT
If you are involved with youth sports programs at any level, the question will eventually come up, “Should my child start lifting weight?”
The answer itself is not that complex, however the question should not be taken lightly. There are a number of factors to consider when implementing strength training programs for adolescents.
It has been recommended by medical and fitness organizations that children/youth participate in 60+ minutes of moderate to vigorous physical activity per day; therefore strength training is an option. In general if a child is old enough for activities such as basketball, baseball, soccer or gymnastics they are old enough to start strength training.
Strength training is best described as using free weights, weight machines, body weight, rubber resistance bands, or any external resistance in order to build and develop muscles. When resistance is placed on the muscles, the muscles have to work harder, which causes them to grow stronger, thicker, and more effective when performing daily and athletic related tasks.
The benefits for youths who strength train can be:
- Increase in muscle strength & endurance
- Stronger ligaments & tendons
- Lower body fat composition
- Lower cholesterol levels
- Stronger heart
- Better bone health
- Less susceptibility to injuries
- Better self esteem
- Decrease in receiving peer pressure
- Improved social skills
Strength training should not be confused with weight lifting, bodybuilding, and powerlifting. These are actually classified as sports which emphasize using heavy weights and resistance in order to compete against other individuals with similar size and skill set. These types of athletes are large in physical stature and require a tremendous amount of specific physical work, with mental and nutritional discipline, in order to gain and keep their size in order to compete. No one simply gets “huge” through strength training… promise.
For quite a while people used to believe that kids shouldn’t lift weights until they were at least 16 or 17 years old. However that is no longer the case. Youths as young as 7 or 8 years old can do strength training activities (like pushups, sit-ups, body squats and calisthenics) as long as they can perform the exercises safely, can follow instructions, and show an interest in strength training exercises. But they should not be in a weight room setting until they are a bit older and have the emotional and physical maturity to handle that environment.
In regards to lifting weights, the good rule to use is to gradually increase the resistance as the child gets older and progresses. An aerobic activity of 5 – 10 minutes should be used to warm-up prior to weight lifting exercises. It has been suggested that children perform 2-3 sets of 8-15 repetitions for all the major muscle groups, 2-3 times per week on non-consecutive days. A cool down with less intense activity and static stretching should be conducted at the conclusion of the session.
In regards to the youth’s supervision, fitness instructors and strength coaches should have a nationally recognized and approved strength training certification and experience with coaching and teaching youths. A college degree in a sports medicine or physical education discipline would also be an asset. A poor instructor or coach can kill a youth’s interest in strength training for years to come, so make sure a qualified individual is obtained.
There are issues that have been associated with the detraction of youths participating in strength training sessions. These evolve around the risk of acute injury, stagnation with long term growth, and the actual benefit of participation.
Studies have shown that risks associated with strength training are no greater than any other sport or activities in which youths regularly participate. The key to minimizing any risk is to provide qualified supervision, age-specific instruction and a safe training environment. Accidents do happen in all sports; however they can be minimized with proper and established strength training guidelines.
There is no current evidence to indicate a decrease or impingement in a child’s growth, who regularly strength trains in a supervised environment. Rather, participation in weight-bearing physical activities, including strength training, have a favorable influence on growth development and do not affect a child’s genetic height potential. Also, growth plate fractures have not been reported in any research study that was competently supervised and appropriately designed.
Previously held notions that boys and girls would not benefit from strength training due to insufficient testosterone levels are not correct. Studies and comparisons with women and elderly individuals, who can have lower and limited levels of testosterone, have experienced measurable gains in strength, when involved with a supervised resistance program.
When doing a statistical analysis, program induced strength gains in children are comparable to those in adolescents and adults. Regular participation in a strength training program can enhance the performance of young male and female athletes and reduce their risk of sports related injuries. Its shown that strength training can enhance bone mineral density, decreasing the risk of developing osteoporosis, in addition to potentially igniting an interest in physical activity in overweight children who tend to dislike running, jogging and other aerobic style exercise.
In conclusion, as long as the weight-exercise program is developmentally appropriate, you are teaching safe training procedures, and providing a stimulating program that gives participants a more positive attitude toward strength training and physical activity in general, you are doing your job, as a member of the strength and fitness industry. And how can parents encourage their young athlete who may not be seeing the physical results right away? Tell them, to tell their kids to just keep at it and follow the properly instructed strength training guidelines. Just because they aren’t seeing immediate results doesn’t mean their body isn’t making progress. Keep working hard, everyone can get there!
Mark is the Athletic Facility Manager and Strength Coach at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. He is also a faculty member of the World Instructor Training Schools. He graduated from Temple University, and has been working in the industry for over 25 years, coaching and training athletes of various abilities from youth sport participants up to athletes at the professional level.
Jennifer is a Fitness Specialist at the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine. She has a degree in Health Promotion and Fitness Management from Rowan University. She also is a Certified Personal Trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine. She’s been working in the health and fitness industry for 10 years.