Strength Training in Young Athletes

Dec 28, 2011

Vince Kame Jr.

by Vince Kame Jr.
PT, MS, ATC | Owner of the South Chandler Location

Over the past few years, how many times in the fitness industry have you found things that you once thought to be ‘the standard’ changed, upgraded or completely dispelled? The way we warm up is different, the way we execute many exercises is different, and who really wears leg warmers and head bands anymore?
The same is true when it comes to strength training for young athletes. Parents have told their kids for years “Don’t lift heavy weights. It will stunt your growth.”  To a great extent in the athletic training world that has been the rule of thumb as well.  Lifting heavy weights as children develop can cause stress on the areas of the bone that grow, the growth plate, and affect the ability of the bone to grow normally. So many parents completely abstain from letting their children participate in any type of strength training exercises.
However, children as young as 7 can do strengthening exercises without stunting growth plates and it can be hugely beneficial for them in the long run.
This can’t be understated: Lifting heavy weights and using poor techniques can damage the growth plate. Kids should not be doing heavy weights with low repetition numbers. Instead, professionals who deal with training children should use body weight exercises, light weights and resistance band exercises. This allows for the muscle to be stressed to a point that it will get stronger without the adverse effect on the growth plate.
Strength training in youth should also include more sport-specific movement patterns that mimic what the child will be doing in their sport.  This not only minimizes any negative response of the growth plate, but also helps build muscle, bone and tendon in ways that it would adapt and be able to tolerate stresses the child might endure as they progress in their chosen activity.  In addition, learning proper motor skill patterns with exercises like lunging, squatting, push-ups, and landing techniques, will help kids develop good form when handling weight load correctly later in life.
Another myth regarding strength training and youth is that, because the hormones that are responsible for building muscle are not yet circulating in high enough levels, there would be no real strength gains. Recently, studies have shown this not to be true. There have been significant strength gains in children who have undergone appropriate strength training. There have not been big gains in muscle size because of the low levels of hormones but overall strength has increased.  It needs to be stressed here that the hormones will occur naturally in most children. No artificial means of trying to boost these levels should be done. If there is a deficiency your physician will address it.
The benefits of proper strength training for youth can include:

  • Improved strength
  • Protection against injury
  • Improved coordination and motor skills
  • Increased speed
  • Changes in body composition
  • Enhanced self esteem

So now you know the long held standard regarding weights and kids is not, necessarily, spot-on.  It’s important to account for the method of training and how it is implemented. Keeping this in mind, when you consider strength training for your child (or yourself), seek the advice and supervision of an experienced athletic trainer or certified strength and conditioning specialist.

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