For years, resistance training has gotten a bad rep in the youth population. And for the most part, these misconceptions are irrational. Put your daughter in (the highly dynamic an explosive sport of) gymnastics and no one bats an eye, but give her a tiny dumbbell and everyone flips out [Oh, and just for fun, the injury rates in gymnasts per 1,000 exposure hours is 2.859 for elite gymnasts, 2.820 for high-level, 1.667 for intermediate, and 0.687 for novice gymnasts (Saluan P, 2015). And in comparison, no significant reports of injury under proper supervision have been reported in studies of resistance training in youth].
But I digress.
Overall, resistance training can be very safe and it actually provides many immediate benefits as well as later on in life. And we can also mention that it may lower risk of obesity and in no way stunts growth? So before you condemn the idea of children lifting weights, maybe read on.
Resistance Training is Safe.
Research has proven resistance training (RT) is safe and effective for children and the chance of being injured while performing resistance training is very minimal. In fact, a retrospective evaluation of injury rates among youth shows that resistance training is safer than many other sports and activities (Faigenbaum, Avery D. and G D Myer, 2010). Resistance training can actually serve as a protective means against injury. Physiological adaptions to connective tissue may also aid in injury prevention and help damaged ligaments repair faster.
In the rare event that an injury occurs, it’s usually attributed to lack of supervision, poor technique and improper progression. Additionally, most these injuries are minor and a substantial proportion of youth injuries are extremely preventable with correct supervision. Therefore, it is important for coaches to understand training principles to properly watch over children for technique and proper progressions for age and skill level. If done so correctly, resistance training is a healthy way to train for sport or general fitness benefits (Walters BK, Read CR, Estes AR, 2018). Read on for proper training recommendations.
Benefits of RT in Youth
Let’s state the obvious, significant strength gains have been reported with resistance training among youth (but wait, there’s more!). Additionally, resistance training can improve motor skills, postural control/movement mechanics, sporting tasks (jumping, landing, etc), body composition and bone mineral density.
It has been shown that bone mineral density (BMD) increases as a result of resistance training. For example, the 15 months of resistance training for adolescent girls (14-17 year olds) and increase in BMD of the femoral neck; the increase was from 1.035 to 1.073 g cm. Additionally, a cross-sectional study showed that junior weightlifters (14-17) who had trained for over a year had greater bone density in the hip and femur regions and also had higher BMD than adult men (Fleck & Kraemer, 2014).
It’s also noteworthy that strength improvements appear to be a result of neural adaptions and not muscular hypertrophy. As mentioned before, the physiological adaptions to connective tissue may also aid in injury prevention. So if the child gets hurt (sport, accident, etc), RT may help damaged ligaments repair faster. It can also allow early sport specialization and development, which is important in today’s youth as physical activity appears to diminish (Zwolski C, Quatman-Yates C, Paterno MV, 2017).
So on the flip side, youth with low levels of muscular fitness tend to become weak as adults. So without an early start, adults are at a greater risk of adverse health outcomes. I fully believe that a change in current attitudes is necessary to fix this problem. Parents should be educated about the potential benefits of resistance training for all children (Faigenbaum, Avery D, 2018).
In summary, it’s clear that the benefits that not just adolescents, but children can gain from proper strength training programs outweighs the minimal risks that can potentially happen.
Does Not Stunt Growth
Resistance training is often condemned in youth because of misconceptions that it will “stunt” growth. There is a long standing belief that weight training in adolescents will compromise skeletal health, when actually, there have not been any reports of injury to growth cartilage in youth resistance training and there is no evidence that resistance training will negatively impact growth (Faigenbaum AD & GD Myer, 2010). According to Dr. Avery Faigenbaum, this belief may have come from a 1960s report claiming that children (who were overworked and had nutritional conditions compromised) performing heavy manual labor were short in nature. The origin may be forgotten, but this belief is still around today.
The previous study also mentions that the risk of growth plate injuries increases with jumping and landing activities, which leads me to believe that certain sports themselves might pose more risk than training (also refer to previous evaluation of injury rates among youth shows that resistance training is safer than many other sports). In short, no evidence of a decrease in stature in children who perform resistance exercise and that growth plate fractures have not been reported. Therefore, if guidelines are followed, resistance training can actually have a positive influence on bone development during childhood as we already mentioned before (Faigenbum A., 2011).
Recommendations for Youth Resistance Training
Ok, how should children train? It is important that guidelines are followed. General recommendations for resistance training include:
- 1-2 sets (single set to start with)
- No more than 6-8 repetitions for strength development/20 reps for endurance
- 40-70% working range
- 2-3 days a week to allow for recovery
- Sessions should not exceed 60 minutes
- Children should never lift maximal weights, and supervision is always necessary.
I’d also recommend a proper warm up, cool down, keeping a training log, focusing on technique, monitoring proper nutrition to support exercise goals, and checking the fitness area to make sure the area is considered safe.
Lower Risk of Obesity
And as for younger children, I’ll take this opportunity to go over recommendations for general exercise. According to the CDC, about one in five school-aged children has obesity, a serious problem and it puts kids at risk for poor health. A big contributing factor is that kids are becoming more sedentary. I’m a big supporter of physical activity for our youth population. Exercise is general one of the important building blocks for growth, healthy development and lifelong well-being. So how much physical activity do kids need?
It’s recommended that:
- Toddlers have 30 minutes of structured and 60 minutes of unstructured activity every day.
- Preschoolers get 60 minutes of structured and 60 minutes to several hours of unstructured activity.
- Kids ages 6+ should get at least an hour of activity all or most days of the week.
There you have it. So you can see how regular participation in an appropriately designed resistance should be recommended, as it is safe and provides many benefits including strength, skeletal health, improved motor skills, body composition, sport improvement carryover and above all, helps establishes healthy habits at a young age.
Happy training friends!
Faigenbaum, Avery D. (2011). Strength Training and Children’s Health. Journal of Physical Education, Recreation & Dance, Reston. Vol. 72, Iss. 3; pg. 24-31.
Faigenbaum, Avery D. (2018). Youth Resistance Training: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly-The Year That Was 2017.Pediatr Exerc Sci. 30(1):19-24. doi: 10.1123/pes.2017-0290. Epub 2018 Feb 9.
Faigenbaum, Avery D. and G D Myer(2010). Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects. Br J Sports Med.Jan; 44(1): 56–63.
Fleck, S. J., & Kraemer, W. J. (2014). Designing resistance training programs (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Saluan P, StyronJ, Ackley F, Prinzbach A & D Billow (2015). Injury Types and Incidence Rates in Precollegiate Female Gymnasts. Orthop J Sports Med.3(4): 2325967115577596.
Shanmugam C, Maffulli N.(2008). Sports injuries in children. Br Med Bull. 2008;86:33-57. doi: 10.1093/bmb/ldn001.
Walters BK, Read CR, Estes AR(2018). The effects of resistance training, overtraining, and early specialization on youth athlete injury and development. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 58(9):1339-1348. doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707.17.07409-6. Epub 2017 Jun 8.
Zwolski C, Quatman-Yates C, Paterno MV (2017). Resistance Training in Youth: Laying the Foundation for Injury Prevention and Physical Literacy. Sports Health. 9(5):436-443. doi: 10.1177/1941738117704153. Epub 2017 Apr 27.