The decision of when to enroll your child into some form of resistance training is a tough decision for many parents. Unfortunately, there is a lot of misinformation when it comes to resistance training for youth athletes. Some has been around for decades and continues to be passed on from person to person. It's time to set the record straight.
Age-appropriate resistance training is safe
But, before I get into the myths, let's cut right to the chase: If programmed and performed correctly, age-appropriate resistance training (or strength training) is safe for youth athletes. The Mayo Clinic (2) recently joined a long and growing list of organizations which support this position, a group which includes the American Academy of Pediatrics (3), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (1), and the American College of Sports Medicine (4), just to name a few.*
The key is age-appropriate: Youth athletes should be taught the basics of each exercise movement and progressed very slowly. One should NEVER be in a rush to add weight or get too fancy with programming. Doing the basics over and over will build a solid foundation, which will set the athlete up for success throughout their athletic career.
Now on to the myths. There are three that I hear on a consistent basis when talking with parents:
Myth 1 - Resistance training is dangerous
Studies have shown that resistance training has a very low injury rate, especially when compared to sports participation itself. In a study that evaluated sports-related injuries in youth athletes over the course of a year, resistance training resulted in 0.7% of all injuries, compared to 19% in football and 15% in basketball (1). Most of those injuries can be attributed to excessive loads (using too much weight) or bad technique. Injuries can happen any time, any place. However, injuries should almost never happen in the weight room if training is properly supervised, properly programmed, and proper technique is taught and enforced.
Myth 2 - You should not perform plyometrics unless you can squat at least 1.5 times your bodyweight
Plyometrics involve an aggressive concentric muscle contraction following a rapid eccentric muscle contraction. Most people associate plyometrics with jump training. I have had the above statement argued to me on more than one occasion. However, this is not supported by any current research and clinical observations. Stop and think about a child playing hopscotch or leap-frog. Couldn't one make the argument that these are plyometric activities? When it comes to plyometrics, if they are programmed, implemented and performed correctly they can greatly benefit a youth athlete. Plyometrics can enhance movement biomechanics, improve functional abilities and even lower the risk of sports-related injuries.
Myth 3 - Strength training will stunt a child's growth
This is the biggest misconception of all. I honestly do not know where this idea started, but it is the most asked and most misunderstood. A Google search of "will strength training stunt my growth" produces almost 100,000 results. There is also no shortage of people willing to tell you that this is a fact. The fact is injury to growth cartilage has not been reported in any youth resistance training study, and there is no evidence to suggest that resistance training will negatively impact growth and maturation during childhood (1). So this is not my opinion, it is a fact, backed by research.
Strength training should not be confused with weightlifting, bodybuilding or powerlifting in which participants compete to lift heavier weights or build bigger muscles than those of other athletes. This can put too much strain on young muscles, tendons and areas of cartilage that haven't yet turned to bone (growth plates) - especially when proper technique is sacrificed in favor of lifting larger amounts of weight.
Benefits and when to start
Okay, you may be saying, resistance training is not harmful, but asking, is it beneficial? After all, a child is going to naturally become stronger just through the maturation process. The answer here is "yes" as well. A large number of studies have shown that a proper resistance training program can significantly increase strength above and beyond regular growth and maturation. Typically most youth athletes will see about a 30% increase in strength after a short-term program (8-20 weeks) and they decrease their chance for a sports- related injury. Motor skills such as broad jump, vertical jump, speed and medicine ball toss also have been shown to improve. The benefits are not just sport-related either. Resistance training can lower cardiovascular risk, strengthen bone, help manage weight, and improve self-esteem.
So when should an athlete begin a resistance training program? It will vary from athlete to athlete. A certain level of maturity is needed to be able to properly receive instruction and execute movements with proper technique to ensure the training session is done safely. With that said, if an athlete is old enough to participate in an organized sport, then they are ready to participate in a training program. Typically this is around 7-8 years old. Lastly, although it is not a requirement, it is always a good idea to have the athlete receive a medical evaluation to ensure no conditions are present that could present a complication during training.
The key is that the athlete follow a proper age-appropriate strength and conditioning program and is being supervised to ensure proper technique. Bodyweight exercises should rule the day when it comes to young athletes. Technique should not only be a focus, it should be the only priority.
When resistance training is done properly, youth athletes can see improvements in strength, motor skills and self-esteem, and do so safely.
* The 2014 international consensus position statement on youth resistance training (Lloyd RS, et al 2014) strongly recommends resistance training for children and teens. It has been endorsed by 10 groups.
Ryan Horton SCCC, USAW-SPC is the owner of PR Sports Performance, an online sports performance website offering complete strength and conditioning programs and coaching for athlete of all sports, ages and ability levels, and Director of Strength and Conditioning at Elkin Sports Performance in Richmond, Virginia. He has 12 years experience in the strength and conditioning field, spending the first 10 years working on the collegiate level at the University of Tennessee and Florida International University, and has trained over 80 athletes now playing professionally in their chosen sport, as well as numerous collegiate All-Americans and conference championship teams. A Strength and Collegiate Coach Certified through the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coach Association, Ryan is also a certified United States Weightlifting Sports Performance Coach through USA Weightlifting. Ryan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
1. Faigenbaum AD, et al. Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper From the National Strength and Conditioning Association. J Strength Conditioning Res. 2009;23:S60-S79.
2. Mayo Clinic Staff (2012) Strength training: Ok for kids? (http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/strength-training/HQ01010)(accessed April 12, 2013)
3. American Academy of Pediatrics Position Statement: Strength Training by Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics 2008; 121(4):835 -840.
4. American College of Sports Medicine. "Strength Training in Children and Adolescents." September 2002 (http://www.acsmlearning.org/acsmweb/pdf_library/view/currentcomments/str...).
5. Loyd RS, Faigenbaum AD, Stone MH, et al. Position statement on youth resistance training: the 2014 International Consensus. Br J Sports Med 2014;48:498-505. doi:10.1136/bjsports-2013-092952
Posted April 16, 2013