When people talk about strength training they generally mean resistance training, even though strength training is a broader term than can also encompass the use of body weight exercises in order to gain strength. Whilst it is generally well accepted that children and adolescents can use body weight as a form of training, (such as gymnastics and other forms of body weight exercises), there is more hesitation regarding the use of additional resistance in this age group.
Forms of resistance training include the use of body weight, weight machines, free weights (barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells), elastic bands and medicine balls. There is now a growing body of scientific evidence that supports the regular participation of young athletes in resistance training for positive health and fitness adaptations as well as enhancement of sports performance.
From a health point of view, resistance training can make positive changes to body composition, reduce body fat, improve insulin sensitivity in adolescents who are overweight and enhance cardiac function in obese children. There are also positive effects on bone density and skeletal health.
From a performance standpoint, resistance training can lead to significant improvement in muscular strength, power production, running velocity, change of direction speed and general motor performance in youth athletes.
Muscular strength and resistance training have been associated with positive psychological health and well being in children and adolescents and the World Health Organization (WHO) now include resistance training as part of their physical activity guidelines for children and adolescents.
In the past, it has been proposed that resistance training may be harmful to the developing skeleton and possibly lead to injury of the growth plate, however these myths have never been supported by scientific evidence. To the contrary, childhood may be the perfect time to build bone mass and enhance bone structure by participating in weight-bearing exercises and resistance training. Children may actually have a lower risk of resistance training related joint sprains and muscle strain injuries compared to adults but attention must be paid to correct postural alignment and technical competency of the mode chosen.
The young athlete
Appropriately designed resistance training programs can benefit youth of all ages with children as young as 5 or 6 able to participate in basic resistance training exercises using free weights, elastic bands and machine weights. It is important that any child participating in a form of resistance training, irrespective of their age, is emotionally mature enough to follow directions and has enough balance and postural control to perform the exercises as demonstrated to them.
The gains in muscle strength related to resistance training in children and adolescents prior to puberty is likely to be primarily related to neural adaptation as opposed to increase in muscle fibre size. Once the adolescent reaches puberty, there are also additional gains in lean body mass and muscle cross-sectional area, particularly in males.
- The use of child sized equipment (light barbell, small dumbbells and light fixed machine weights) is important for children or adolescents to properly and safely execute a movement with correct technique
- Once bodyweight exercise technique is sufficient in the young athlete (squatting, lunging, pressing and pulling movements), exercises with free weights can be incorporated
- All youth resistance training programs should be consistent with the participants training age, technical competency and maturational status
- Participation in the sport of weight lifting and the performance of weight lifting movements (clean and jerk and snatch) can be a safe, effective and enjoyable form of resistance training provided qualified supervision is available and progression is based on technical performance ability