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Proper Youth Strength Training

Youth Strength Training
Avery D. Faigenbaum, Ed.D., CSCS


The development of muscular strength in children has received increasing public and medical attention in recent years. Despite the previously held belief that strength training was unsafe and ineffective for children, major health organizations such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) , the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Strength and Conditioning Association(NSCA) now support children's participation in appropriately designed and competently supervised strength training programs. In addition to increasing the muscular strength of young weight trainers, regular participation in a strength training program may improve a child's muscular endurance, body composition and sports performance. Further, participation in a preseason conditioning program that includes strength training may reduce the incidence of overuse injuries in youth sports.

It is important to remember that strength training is an activity which is distinct from the competitive sports of weight lifting and powerlifting. The term strength training refers to a method of conditioning which is designed to increase an individual's ability to exert or resist force. Weight lifting and powerlifting, on the other hand, are sports in which individual's often train at high intensities and attempt to lift maximal amounts of weight in competition. The goal of youth strength training is not to see which child is the strongest, but rather to improve the musculoskeletal strength of all children while exposing them to a variety of safe and effective training methods that are fun.

The most common concern associated with youth strength training is the belief that this type of exercise will cause damage the growth plates of children. Although a few case study reports have indeed noted growth plate fractures in children who lifted weights, most of these injuries occurred as a result of improper training, excessive loading or lack of qualified adult supervision. Typically children were injured while they attempted to lift maximal amount of weight overhead in an unsupervised environment. Growth plate injuries have not occurred in any prospective youth strength training study that followed established training guidelines. In fact, recent findings suggest that strength training during childhood and adolescence may actually make bones stronger. At this time there is no scientific evidence to suggest that youth strength training is riskier than any other sport or activity in which children routinely participate.

When designing strength training programs for children it is important to remember that children are not miniature adults. Children are anatomically, physiologically, and psychologically immature, and this uniqueness must be considered when developing youth strength training programs. Adult strength training guidelines and training philosophies should not be imposed on children. Although all participants should understand the risks and benefits of strength training, a young child should not be expected to comprehend the intricacies of muscle action. Focus on lifetime fitness and teach kids how to exercise properly. Above all, provide a stimulating program that develops in children amore positive attitude towards strength training and a healthy lifestyle. Generally speaking, if 7 and 8 year old children are ready for participation in organized sports or activities (e.g. little league baseball or gymnastics), then they are ready for some type of strength training.

In terms of equipment and supplies, body weight exercises such as push-ups and sit-ups can work for beginners, but more advanced trainees would probably enjoy the challenge of weight machines or free weights(i.e. barbells and dumbbells). Although pads and boards can be used to modify most types of adult strength training equipment, child-size training equipment is available and has proven to be safe and effective for children. The focus of each training session should be on proper form and technique, and if free-weights are used spotting procedures should be followed. Above all else, all youth strength training programs must be supervised at all times by experienced adults. A summary of youth strength training guidelines from the NSCA are presented below. A complete copy of the NSCA Youth Strength Training Position Statement Paper and Literature Review can be purchased from the NSCA by calling 719-632-6722.

Youth Strength Training Guidelines:

- An instructor to child ratio of at least 1 to 10 is recommended to provide adequate supervision and instruction. When children are learning exercises for the first time, closer supervision may be required.
- Children learn best by doing. When teaching a new exercise to a child, have the child perform the exercise under your watchful eye.
- Ensure that the training environment is free of hazards. Be aware of the exploratory nature of children and remove or disassemble any broken equipment from the exercise room before classes start.
- The exercise room should be well lit and adequately ventilated. Since children are more prone to heat illness than adults, encouraged them to drink water even if they are not thirsty.
- Perform calisthenics and stretches before and after every strength training class
- Begin with 1 set of 10 to 15 repetitions on 6 to 8 exercises that focus on the major muscle groups of the upper and lower body. - Start with a relatively light weight and high reps and increase the load and decrease the reps as strength improves. Beginning with relatively light loads will allow for appropriate adjustments to be made.
- Maximal lifting is not recommended for general conditioning purposes.
- Two to three training sessions per week on nonconsecutive days is sufficient.
- Increase the weight gradually as strength improves. Generally a two to five pound increase in weight is consistent with a 5% to 10% increase in training intensity.
- Progression can also be achieved by increasing the number of sets ( up to 3) or number of exercises.
- Multijoint exercises such as squats may be introduced into the program based on individual needs and competencies
- Treat children with respect and speak with them in a language they understand. Remember that children should feel comfortable with the program and should look forward to the next workout.
- Strength training should be one part of a total fitness program. Keep the fun in fitness and promote lifetime health.


Avery D. Faigenbaum, EdD, CSCS is an Assistant Professor of Exercise Physiology in the Department of Human Performance and Fitness at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. His email address is avery.faigenbaum@umb.edu


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