Is Weight Training Safe For Today’s Youth?

Exercise and conditioning, when executed safely and correctly, delivers many benefits to today’s youth.

Exercise and conditioning, when executed safely and correctly, delivers many benefits to today’s youth.   However, there are also risks associated with training the youth population.   These risks can all be avoided by following some basic guidelines, and a training plan tailored to the child or adolescent.  Below you will find that there are both benefits and risks associated with youth fitness.  This article also summarizes the safety of training for today’s youth. Finally, the article discusses guidelines for proper programming in a youth training plan.

Benefits

Zatsiorsky, in the Science and Practice of Strength Training, states that there are many benefits that can be obtained by children and adolescents by adapting a strength training program.  He mentions that there are many general health benefits that can be obtained. The youth that participates in exercise can experience improved sports performance due to increased flexibility, increased strength, increased endurance, and increased power output. Injury prevention is another benefit of exercise, as well as weight control.

The American Council of Exercise has published several benefits as well.  While most of the benefits are physical or physiological, several are also psychological.   For example, ACE states that a youth participating in exercise/training can experience improved muscular fitness, bone mineral density, body composition, motor fitness performance and injury resistance.   Also, from a psychological aspect, they can experience increased self esteem, mental discipline and improved socialization skills.

The International Sport Sciences Association (ISSA) states in their Youth Fitness Trainer certification materials that “exercise is important during growth.  It contributes to a better-developed functional capacity and can enhance neural and musculoskeletal development.  Exercise habits established during childhood and adolescence will carry over to adulthood. We are in the midst of an obesity epidemic in this country. Many studies show that overweight children become overweight or obese adults. Exercise habits established during the school years may help prevent a life-long problem with weight control.”

The International Youth Conditioning Association in their book, Development Essentials, also gives several benefits to children and adolescents being active in a training or exercise program.   These benefits include muscle endurance, injury prevention, and muscle growth.  There are also several tissue adaptations that take place, such as strength, weight, and thickness increases in tendons, ligaments, and cartilage.

Risks

Along with the benefits of a solid exercise program for children and adolescents, there are also potential risks, including injury.  The IYCA states that a study reported the data from 1991-1996 on injuries associated with weightlifting in participants 21 years old or younger. In this time period, there were approximately 20940-26120 injuries reported.  “Most of the injuries were considered preventable due to a cause of improper technique, attempting maximal lifts, and unsupervised training”. Zatsiorsky gives improper exercise technique, improper spotting, and incorrect equipment use/fit as risks and paths to injury.  The IYCA and ISSA also states that children and adolescents should avoid maximal lifts and efforts as well.  Everyone seems to agree that injuries are a risk, but can be avoided. 

Most risks can be avoided by following a set of guidelines during any training activities.  The IYCA gives the following guide in their book, Developmental Essentials:

1. Planning of training programs must take into consideration the level of physical maturation of the athlete.

2. In comparison to the expert lifters, novice weightlifters tend to use techniques that predispose the athlete to injury.  Proper technique should be emphasized at all times.

3. Avoid maximal loads or large increases in loading or activity in developing athletes.

4. Horseplay should never be tolerated in the weight room.

5. Supervision by a qualified instructor must be provided at all times.

Another risk that the IYCA and the ISSA point out is the existence of any muscular or postural imbalances in the participant.   Any imbalances can later hinder improvements in performance and may cause injury.  Even further, as a trainer, the failure to recognize these imbalances and correcting them can increase these risks.

Safety

Safety has been a hot topic in training children and adolescents ever since training youths has become more popular.  There are many myths and fallacies associated with the risks listed above.   One fallacy that ACE points out is that many people think that training will “stunt growth” of their children.  This is definitely not true.  This fallacy stems from the possibility of damaging the epiphyseal growth places during heavy training.  The NSCA states that “Although children and adolescents are susceptible to injury to the growth cartilage, the potential for this type of injury may be less in a preadolescent child than in an adolescent because the growth cartilage may actually be stronger and more resistant to sheering type forces in younger children.  To date, injury to the growth cartilage has not been reported in any prospective youth resistance training research study. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that resistance training will negatively impact growth and maturation during childhood and adolescence”.

As pointed out above, and by the IYCA, ISSA, and by Zatsiorsky, by using a long term program designed appropriately for the child or adolescent, using proper technique, adding variety, allowing for individual characteristics, and using suitable training load increases we all but eliminate the risks associated with training.

The ACE stated in their article that “In fact, all of the major fitness and medical organizations in the U.S. recommend strength training for youth, assuming that basic guidelines are adhered to and that appropriate leadership is present. And about the question of age, children can begin to train with weights as soon as they are able to accept and follow directions—usually around the age of seven or eight”.

The following is directly from the NSCA’s position on youth strength training:

The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recognizes  and supports the premise that many of the benefits associated with adult resistance training programs are attainable by children and adolescents who follow age-specific resistance training guidelines.

It is the current position of the NSCA that:

1. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program is relatively safe for youth.

2. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can enhance the muscular strength and power of youth.

3. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can improve the cardiovascular risk profile of youth.

4. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can improve motor skill performance and may contribute to enhanced sports performance of youth.

5. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can increase a young athlete’s resistance to sports related injuries.

6. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can help improve the psychosocial well-being of youth.

7. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can help promote and develop exercise habits during childhood and adolescence.

Guidelines

The ISSA, IYCA, and NSCA all provide a set of guidelines that lead to programming a safe, fun, and effective training plan for a child or adolescent.   They all seem to echo the same tune.  The one that seems easiest to remember, and least specific, is the ISSA’s “Seventeen Principles of Training” from their Youth Fitness Trainer certification manual.  The guidelines are listed below.

Athletes benefit the most from their program if they follow the Seventeen Principles of Training. These principles are a guide to gradual, long-lasting, injury-free fitness development that leads to improved performance with the smallest risk of injury. They also serve as a guide to gradual and long-lasting fitness development.

Principles of Training

  1. Train the way you want your body to change.
  2. Eat well-balanced, high performance meals.
  3. Establish realistic goals.
  4. Have a workout plan.
  5. Train all year round.
  6. Get in shape gradually.
  7. Don’t train when you are ill or seriously injured.
  8. Train first for volume (more repetitions) and only later for intensity (more weight or resistance).
  9. Listen to your body. Know when to rest and slow down.
  10. Vary volume and intensity of workouts.
  11. Work on weaknesses, not just strengths.
  12. Train systematically.
  13. Warm-up and cool-down.
  14. Train the mind. Learn to focus and delete extraneous “information” as you train.
  15. Listen to “Coach Pain.” Do not be a hero by trying to continue workouts when you know you should not.
  16. Become informed about the physiology of your body. Learn all you can about exercise and the effects of training.
  17. Have Fun! Keep the exercise program in its proper perspective.

Resources:

Developmental Essentials – The Foundations of Youth Conditioning   Edited by Dr. Kwame Brown – International Youth Conditioning Association, Inc. 2007.

Science and Practice of Strength Training, Second Edition – Vladimir Zatiorsky and William J. Kraemer – Human Kinetics, May 2006 pp 191-213.

YOUTH RESISTANCE TRAINING: UPDATED POSITION STATEMENT PAPER FROM THE NATIONAL STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING ASSOCIATION – NATIONAL STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING ASSOCIATION, 2009.

Youth Fitness Trainer, Second Edition – Dr. Thomas D. Fahey, EdD – ISSA, 2006.

Strength Training for Kids: A Guide for Parents and Teachers – American Council on Exercise, 2010 -  http://www.acefitness.org/fitfacts/fitfacts_display.aspx?itemid=2682

About Michael Milani

Michael Milani is an ISSA Certified Master Trainer, Elite Trainer I and II, Certified Fitness Trainer, Youth Fitness Trainer, Senior Fitness Trainer, Specialist in Sports/Performance Nutrition, Strength and Conditioning, and Exercise Therapy. Michael has been serving the Orland Park area since 2010. He is also very active in coaching youth athletics in the Orland Park area.