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Getting Strong Safely: Considerations for Training Youth
Disa Hatfield, M.A.
Coaching the 18-year-old and under group is definitely not the same as coaching adults or training with your partners. For one, the normal gym discussions you and your training partners have will probably be a little cleaner. But more importantly, the actual planning and implementation of a training program requires much more consideration than we sometimes give to our own training cycles. YOU are responsible for that youth, and you will be the first one the parents of that young person will blame if something happens to their child.
The first two questions that pop into the minds of parents when they realize their baby prefers dumbbells to soccer balls are "Is it safe for kids to lift weights?" and "At what age can kids start lifting weights?" The sad truth is there are many doubts surround the safety and validity of weight training for children. Many would even have you believe that kids have no place at all in the weight room. Despite this conservatism, exercise physiologists and the American Academy of Pediatrics both support the implementation of strength and resistance training programs for young children.
Is it safe for kids to lift weights?
The answer from today's top research authorities is a resounding "yes." Studies show that a moderate intensity strength training program can help increase strength, decrease the risks of injury while playing other sports, increase motor performance skills and increase bone density, and enhance growth and development in children (2, 3, 4, 6, and 7.) Exercise physiologists aren't the only ones recommending resistance training; the American Academy of Pediatrics has also put forth a pro-strength training for children statement.
The American Academy of Pediatrics position on strength training supports the implementation of strength and resistance training programs, even for prepubescent children that are monitored by well-trained adults and take into account the child's maturation level. The only limitation the AAP suggests is to avoid repetitive maximal lifts (lifts that are one repetition maximum lifts or are within 2-3 repetitions of a one repetition maximum lift) until they have reached Tanner Stage 5 of developmental maturity. Tanner Stage 5 is the level in which visible secondary sex characteristics have been developed. Usually, in this stage adolescents will also have passed their period of maximal velocity of height growth. However, there is some evidence that one-repetition maximal testing can be safely administered IF proper technique has been mastered (9.)
The AAP's concern that children wait until this stage to perform maximal lifts is that the epiphyses, commonly called "growth plates", are still very vulnerable to injury before this developmental stage. It is repeated injury to these growth plates that may hinder growth. However, more recently, several studies have been conducted that show that the risk of these types of injuries occur LESS during weight training compared to other sports (13.) In fact, in published literature, all incidences of injury were attributed to either poor training design or lack of supervision (12.)
At what age can kids start lifting weights?
Neither the AAP or exercise physiologists have a minimum age set for a child to begin a resistance training program. Research has been done on moderate weight training programs with children as young as 4 years (9.) However, care should be taken in the progression of a program.
The first objective of a training program is to introduce the body to the stresses of training and to teach basic technique and form, not the amount of weight used. Light weight training can be introduced in order to establish a foundation. Fleck and Kraemer (2) recommend a training scheme of 10-15 repetitions and 1-3 sets per muscle group. The weight should be one that the child can lift for 10-15 repetitions without going to muscular failure. Once a base has been established, the amount of exercises and the weight lifted can be increased and a more advanced periodized routine can be incorporated. It is important to note that there is no real time frame for this progression. Children will advance on a very individual basis, and it is up to you as a coach to recognize good skill and technique and hence the ability to safely increase the weights lifted.
You may be questioning the use of higher reps for children compared to adult powerlifters. There is actually a very good reason why higher reps SHOULD be used for prepubescent lifters. Before puberty, the majority of strength gains are neurological in nature. That is, initial strength gains do not come from muscle hypertrophy as they do in adults. Think of a higher rep scheme as a blueprint for what is to come. Higher reps allow children to build a physiological pathway for their technique (12.)
It is appropriate to very gradually increase the volume and intensity. Despite recent progress in the research of resistance training and children, there is still not enough information to make safe assumptions about percentage-based progressions that are often used in periodized programs. Care should also be taken when performing one-repetition maximum testing. In a recent study that investigated maximal strength testing in children, the researchers needed 7 to 11 sets to determine a one-repetition maximum, as opposed to the normal 3 to 5 used in adult tests (10.)
Tips for Supervising a Youth Strength and Resistance Training Program
Safety should always come first when training a youth or child. It is helpful to prepare yourself for any and all possibilities. Preparation is also helpful in easing the minds on concerned parents. Below are some helpful tips that will help to ensure the safety of your young charges.
Following these basic guidelines will help develop safe and effective programs for young children and adolescents. However, there are certainly many other considerations that will be specific to your program. For instance, if you are training adolescents who are Muslim, it is important to ask if they take part in Ramadam, a month long period of fasting during daylight hours. If they do, you will need to make adjustments to the intensity of their training and possibly time of the day they train at.
- Before you begin training anyone under the age of 18, be sure to have written parental and medical permission to do so. This consent form should also include a disclosure of all known medical conditions that you should be aware about. If there are any conditions, such as diabetes or asthma, make sure you are fully informed about emergency procedures.
- Make sure the equipment you will be using is free from defects. Also be aware that the equipment is adequate for young children, who may not be able to lift a normal 45-pound bar or may not be tall enough to use the squat racks or bench.
- It is vitally important that young lifters are adequately hydrated and have had at least a small meal within a few hours of training.
- Athletes should be sufficiently warmed-up before beginning a training session.
- Youth should always be under the direct supervision of a competent trainer or coach when weight training.
- Employ a wide variety of exercises and training styles to keep interest levels high and encourage participation in a wide variety of sports and activities.
- You should have personal liability insurance in case of an accident. Depending on your circumstance, you may need to get a personal training certification from a reputable organization to obtain this. If you are working in a school or a gym, be sure to ask if their coverage covers you.
- Make sure that the environment is conducive to training. If you are training in a gym that doesn't have air-conditioning in the middle of a heat wave, take special precautions to ensure that everyone is staying hydrated. If possible, train in the morning when it is cooler, and don't be afraid to cancel squat day if the temperature is too high. Weather reporters sometimes use the term "wet-bulb globe temperature," especially in the summer. In hot weather, it is advantageous to pay attention to this number. The National Athletic Trainer's Association recommends that training or events be delayed if this temperature reaches 82 degrees. Keep in mind this is the wet-bulb globe temperature, not what we normally consider the "temperature" to be. A wet-bulb globe temperature of 73° (which is a high-risk level) is approximately the same as a dry-bulb temperature ("normal" temperature) of 73° with 100% humidity and a dry-bulb temperature of 93° at 20% humidity (11.)
- Be able to provide informational sources to parents of young lifters to erase and lingering doubts they have about their children lifting weights. This will also be helpful educating the parents about the importance of instilling health lifestyle choices at a young age. Coaches often have no control over the eating habits, sleeping patterns, etc of their athletes, so communication with the parents is vital to enhance these very important ideals.
As a final reminder, because this can not be stressed enough, at all times remember that children should progress AT THEIR OWN PACE. Though this makes training difficult in a school or club setting because training program will have to be individualized, it is incredibly important to insure the health and safety of your athletes. It is also important to stay abreast of the current of research in this growing field. The following are a few of my favorite references to help you plan and implement a training program for young kids.
- Strength Training for Young Athletes by Fleck and Kraemer. This book can be obtained through any online bookstore such as Amazon.com or Borders.com. It is very user friendly for those who don't have an extensive background in exercise science.
- The National Strength and Conditioning Association's Position Statement on Youth Resistance Training. This can be obtained for a small fee from http://www.nsca-lift.org/Publications/posstatements.shtml
- Developmental Exercise Physiology by Rowland. This book goes into all aspects of fitness for children, and offers explanations for physiological responses for children. I would recommend it for those who want a little more explanation as to the science behind exercise and children.
- Roundtable Discussion: Youth Resistance Training. This article is found in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, Volume 26, number 1, pages 49-64. You can order just this article from http://nsca.allenpress.com/nscaonline/?request=index-html
- American Academy of Pediatrics Policy Statement. Strength, Weight and Power Lifting, and Body Building by Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics. 1990; 5: 801-803.
- Fleck, S.J., Kraemer, W. J. Strength Training for Young Athletes. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 1993.
- Faigenbaum, A.D. Strength training for children and adolescents. Clinical Sports Medicine. 2000; 4: 593-619.
- Guy, J.A., Micheli, L.J. Strength training for children and adolescents. Journal of the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons. 2000; 1: 29-36.
- Heinonen, A., Sievanen, H., Kannus, P., Oja, P., Pasanen, M., Vuori, I. High-impact exercise and bones of growing girls: a 9-month controlled trial. Osteoporosis International. 2000; 12: 1010-1017.
- Payne, V.G., Morrow, J.R., Johnson, L., and Dalton, S.N. Resistance training in children and youth: a meta-analysis. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport. 1997; 1: 80-88.
- Tsuzuku, S., Ikegami, Y., and Yabe, K. Effects of high-intensity resistance training on bone mineral density in young male powerlifters. Calcified Tissue International. 1998; 4: 283-286.
- Witzke, K.A., Snow, C.M. Effects of plyometric jump training on bone mass in adolescent girls. Medical Science and Sports Exercise. 2000; 6: 1051-1057.
- Faigenbaum AD, Milliken LA, Loud RL, Burak BT, Doherty CL, Westcott WL Comparison of 1 and 2 days per week of strength training in children. Res Q Exerc Sport. 2002 Dec;73(4):416-24.
- Faigenbaum AD, Milliken LA, Westcott WL. Maximal strength testing in healthy children. J Strength Cond Res. 2003 Feb;17(1):162-6.
- Binkley, HM, Beckett, J, Casa, DJ, Kleiners, DM, and Plummer, PE. National Athletic Trainers' Association Position Statement: Exertional heat illnesses. J Ath Tr. 2002; 37(3): 329-343.
- Faigenbaum, AD, et al. Youth Resistance Training: Position statement and literature review. NSCA. http://www.nsca-lift.org. December, 1996.