Myths and Facts About Youth Training

This article will discuss the five myths associated with youth strength training. It will discuss objective data based information relating to strength training being safe for kids and adolescents. Information on strength not stunting the growth of kids will be presented. The article will indicate that is no evidence to suggest that strength training has a high risk of injury to growth plates. An argument will be made that participating in sports has high compressive loads on the bones and joints than strength training. And finally, the article will discuss that even very young athletes can safely perform strength training.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Realize that kids and adolescents who strength training do not have accelerated or decelerated growth and maturity with reference stunted height, body proportions, or sexual maturation.
  2. Discover and be able to discuss how trainers and strength and conditioning coaches need to give exact instruction to prevent injury to growth plates and that the risk of injury is low when strength training is taught by a qualified and competent trainer and coach.
  3. Summarize the importance of youth athletes needing to develop fundamental movement skills, postural mechanics, and fitness abilities prior to doing higher levels strength and conditioning.
  4. Distinguish the differences between the compressive loads imposed by sports and recreational activities on the bones and joints of youth athletes compared to strength training.
  5. Explain that youth athletes can improve strength even though they do not have a lot of testosterone secretion.
  6. Summarize that even very young athletes can be successful at strength training and can make improvements to strength and sports performance.

Myths Persist

A month ago I was presenting at a fitness conference and got into a conversation with a 30’something trainer. During the conversation I told him I was writing an article on the myths and facts of youth strength training. He was very interested in the topic. He was particularly interested in telling me that his physician told him he should be 6’ tall, rather than 5’10”. His physician told him the reason he was not 6’ was because he strength trained as a kid, and it stunted his growth. The trainer believed his physician. I was taken aback that a certified personal trainer believed that strength training, as a kid, stunted his growth. I explained to the trainer that strength training does not stunt the growth of the bones and joints of kids and adolescents, and that there are many misconceptions about strength training for youth athletes.

As a strength and conditioning and skating coach for ice hockey players, a lot of parents ask me about off-ice training for their son’s and daughter’s. The majority of parents either believe that kids should not strength train or they have been told that strength training for kids is inappropriate, contraindicated, or dangerous. As such, we still have misconceptions about the facts on strength training for youth athletes, not only by parents, but trainers as well.

Interestingly, in 1983 the American Academy of Pediatrics released a position statement stating that strength training for children was of no use, and that kids and adolescents would not benefit from this type of training. Since the release of the position statement there have been numerous research studies indicating that strength training is, in fact, safe and beneficial for young athletes. Lloyd, et al., (2013) have shown that athletes as young at 5 or 6 years old have not only trained with weights, but found benefit to their athletic performance from strength training.

Strength Training Will Not Make You Shorter

Malina (2006) makes it very clear that strength training and/or competition in sports of any kind do not accelerate or decelerate growth and maturity with reference to height, body proportions, or sexual maturation. Moreover, Faigenbaum (2012) indicates there is no evidence to indicate a decrease in stature in children who regularly strength train in a supervised environment with qualified instruction. In all likelihood, participation in weight-bearing physical activities (including strength training) will have a favorable influence on growth at any stage of development but will not affect a child’s genetic height potential. In fact, childhood and adolescence may be an opportune time for bone modeling and remodeling in response to the compressive forces of strength training (Faigenbaum, 2009).

One of the most often asked questions by parents of youth athletes is the effect of strength training on growth plate fractures. A common misconception about strength training for kids and adolescents is that there is a high risk of injury to the growth plates. The fact of the matter is that a growth plate fracture due to strength training has not been reported in any research study when there has been proper supervision, appropriately designed exercises, and the athletes were using proper lifting technique. The forces on the growth plates of youth athletes are most likely greater when they are playing their sport than they are when strength training. Even when kids play, there are high forces on the growth plates when they run, jump, land, fall, roll, pull, catch, and throw. Therefore, it comes back to the trainer who must give proper instruction and feedback and never allow young athletes to play around with weights or attempt to do maximum lifts (Faigenbaum 2012).

No More Injury Risk than Other Sports

The risk of getting hurt when strength training is not any higher than when participating in sports and activities (Faigenbaum, 2012). The forces on bones, joints, tendons, and muscles that kids are exposed to in sports and recreational activities can actually be greater in magnitude and exposure time than strength training. This is put into perspective when realizing the force on a young athletes bones, joints, and muscles when he or she sprints to get a pass in lacrosse or field hockey, kicks a soccer ball, lands a jump in snowboarding, makes a sharp turn in ice hockey, pedals hard in BMX biking, carves a turn in surfing, or decelerates in football.

The key to injury prevention in strength training for kids and adolescents is to make sure they have qualified supervision. Trainers, and strength and conditioning coaches, for youth athletes must have the proper education in kinesiology or exercise science and probably should have a specific certification in youth training. In order to be successful and prevent injury, trainers need to understand the psychosocial uniqueness of kids’, correct exercise methodology, exercise mechanics, how to detect errors and give appropriate feedback, and how to make training fun.

To illustrate the significance of proper education and certification for trainers who work with youth athletes, Faigenbaum and Meyer (2010) conducted a review of literature of the epidemiology of injuries related to the safety and effectiveness of youth strength training. Several case studies and questionnaires about strength training, and the competitive sports of weightlifting and powerlifting, showed that injuries do occur in young lifters, although most are accidents. Lack of qualified instruction that can cause poor exercise technique and inappropriate resistance could explain some of the injuries. The athlete must have age-specific instruction as well as exercises based on the amount of training experience he or she has.

The number one priority is to be practicing due diligence by providing a training environment that is safe in order to prevent injuries. Kids and adolescents must be taught that they can never to use weight training equipment without supervision from a qualified professional (Faigenbaum, 2012). Lloyd, et al. (2013) indicate that youth resistance training programs must be appropriate with an athlete’s “training age,” biomechanical competency, and maturity. Avery Faigenbaum Ed.D., a pediatric exercise scientist and professor from The College of New Jersey adds “In order for youth athletes to be successful, they must have the ability to accept and follow instructions. This is also when they can start with specific strength training.” Very young athletes must start with resistance such as medicine balls to learn and develop the proper motor programs for correct exercise technique. Before many young athletes start resistance training, it is important they develop basic movement skills and proper static and dynamic postural mechanics. These are important proprioceptor developmental movements and postures which can build the foundation for future training. For instance, young and very young athletes need to learn, and feel, the proper technique for “foundation” exercises such as squats, push-ups, and planks.

No Testosterone – No Problem

Some people believe that young athletes cannot make strength and power gains because they have not started to secret a lot of testosterone. The fact is that testosterone is not essential for improving strength. It is for this reason why women and the elderly can increase strength even though they have little testosterone. When compared on a relative or percent basis, training-induced strength gains in children are comparable to those in adolescents and adults. Faigenbaum (2012) indicates there is a compelling body of evidence that kids and adolescents can increase their strength, above and beyond growth and maturation, if the program has sufficient intensity, volume, and duration. In addition, there are neural adaptations that can increase strength within two to three weeks by inhibiting the Golgi tendon organ response to a strength stimulus allowing an athlete to lift more weight or perform more body weight repetitions.

Strength Training at Any Age

Boys and girls of all ages can benefit from strength training. Children as young as 5 and 6 years have benefited from regular participation in a strength training program (Lloyd, et al., 2013). Kids who weight train increase strength, decrease risk of injury, and enhance sports performance. Even body weight training (push-ups, squats with no weight, planks, lunges, etc.) can give very young athletes the ability to develop strength and motor programs for proper movement techniques (Faigenbaum, 2012).

Developing basic movement skills and postures is important for young athletes before they start strength training. Important proprioceptor developmental movements and static and dynamic postures can build the foundation for future training. Young and very young athletes need to learn, and feel, the proper technique for “foundation” exercises such as squats, push-ups, and planks. Static stability can be developed with balance positions on one foot and two, with static and dynamic arm movements. Dynamic balance can be developed with combinations of jumping, hopping, bounding, and other locomotor movements. Success in sports is based, in part, on the ability to move in multiple directions with smooth and coordinated movements, therefore it is important for young athletes to feel and learn locomotor movements such as:

  • Running, Jumping, Hopping, Galloping, Skipping, Side Stepping, Karaoke Run, Leaping
  • Vertical jumping and landing
  • Horizontal jumping and landing
  • 2-foot hopping and 1-foot hopping
  • Side-to-side hopping
  • Body rolling
  • Acceleration/deceleration
  • Reactivity
  • Agility
  • Balance on unstable surfaces.

Avery Faigenbaum (http://championsyouthfitness.com/avery_faigenbaum.php) has done strength training research with boys and girls as young as 6 years. He indicates that kids this young can make significant increases in muscle strength and power by training in a well-designed strength and conditioning program. He describes a twice-per-week, after-school work-out that lasts 60 minutes and includes:

  • Functional warm-up with light weight (1 kg) medicine balls.
  • Jumping and medicine ball throwing drills.
  • Strength-building exercises using balls, bands, dumbbells and child-size weight machines.
  • Cool-down games and activities.

Children work in groups of 10 and are supervised by at least two trained fitness leaders. When the children were post tested, after eight weeks of training, they improved upper and lower body muscle strength, long jump, vertical jump, and seated ball throw.

In conclusion, there are many myths about strength training for youth athletes. But the fact is, they are myths and are not substantiated data based research or practical application by experienced trainers and strength and conditioning coaches. Strength training for kids and adolescents has little risk of injury (when properly supervised and give proper instruction) and has tremendous benefit for improved strength, power, and endurance as well as improving sports performance.

References

Faigenbaum, A. D. 2012. Youth Strength Training: Facts and Fallacies (2012), http://www.acsm.org/access-public-information/articles/2012/01/13/youth-strength-training-facts-and-fallacies, Retrieved January 28, 2015.

Faigenbaum, A. D. and Myer, G.D. 2010. Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects, Br J Sports Med, 44:56-63.

Faigenbaum, A.D., et al. 2009. ; Youth resistance training: Updated position statement paper from the National Strength and Conditioning Association, J Strength Cond Res, 23(4).

Faigenbaum, A. D., (**No date on the document) http://championsyouthfitness.com/avery_faigenbaum.php, Retrieved January 28, 2015.

Lloyd R.S. et al. 2013. Position statement on youth resistance training: the 2014 International Consensus, Br J Sports Med, Published Online First: September 20, 2013, as 10.1136/bjsports-2013-092952.

Malina, R. 2006. Weight Training in Youth-Growth, Maturation, and Safety: An Evidence-Based Review, Clin J Sport Med, (16)6: 478-487

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