Should my youth athlete be strength training?


October 15, 2013, Victoria (ISN) – Ahhh, a question I get all the time. Is youth strength training safe? Effective? Will it help or harm your child? There are many uncertainties associated with this…and justifiably so! The goal of this article is to replace your questions with answers and uncertainty with certainty.

Two Most Common Concerns

1. Will strength training cause premature growth plate closure and stunted growth? 

With appropriately designed and supervised strength training program, there have been no reported cases of fractures or growth plate injuries in literature. The few cases reported were from unqualified supervision and improper training. That can happen in anything, not just strength training. In fact, growth plates in prepubescent children are stronger and more resistant to shearing forces.

Example: On the farms before machines took over, manual labor was done by people, including youth. The wheel barrel was the ‘dead lift’, bailing hay the ‘power cleans’ and carrying milk buckets the ‘farmer carries’. How many of these children grew up to be tiny adults.

2. Will strength training cause injury? 

Injuries reported in the literature are associated with bodybuilding, weight lifting, and power lifting, not with competent strength training programs. Injury documentation was mostly in the 1990s, when the strength and conditioning profession was new, and training was largely done with local meat-heads and other unqualified persons using improper technique and excessive loading.

The safety and effectiveness for child and adolescent strength training are well documented. The NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association), ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine), AAP and AOSSM all support children’s participation in appropriately designed and competently supervised strength training programs.

*Refer to the bottom of article for their statements.

Remember, strength training should not be confused with weight lifting, body building or power lifting. It is vital to have qualified supervision.

*Refer to the bottom of this article for what a qualified professional is.

Now that we have (hopefully) cleared up some concerns…Are There any Benefits? There sure are! 

Here are my…”Top 4 Strength Training Benefits for Youth

1. Injury Prevention/Reduced Injury Risk

“Comprehensive conditioning programs is a proven effective strategy for reducing sports-related injuries in youth athletes.”

Improves Weaknesses and Imbalances

Overuse injuries can occur in any repetitive activity (examples, running, throwing, swimming).

Most overuse injuries are a result of weakness/imbalance. For example, can your youth perform a proper squat or lunge, without their knees collapsing inwards? If he or she does not have adequate strength, the risk for knee injuries and chronic ankle instability is significantly increased.

A well designed, properly supervised program may be the best prevention by reducing muscle weaknesses and imbalances, and improving sport-specific movement patterns.

Improves Movement Patterns and Functional Strength

When running, for example, each foot strike has impact force at an estimated 2-3 x your bodyweight. Training the movement patterns and strengthening supporting muscles lessens impact forces at the knee. This can only be done through a comprehensive strength and conditioning program.

Teaching fundamentals and developing solid movement patterns pay off big-time as children hit the age of lifting heavier weights! If your child has developed a proper push up or form for complicated lifts, for example, he or she is one step ahead. It is much harder and time consuming to correct a 20-year old’s poor form – meaning they have to take 1 step back to correct it – than it is to develop the right form in the first place.

Train To Play. Improves Conditioning to Handle Demands of Sport

“Aspiring young athletes cannot play themselves into shape. One of the greatest benefits of youth resistance training may be its ability to better prepare children and adolescents for successful and enjoyable participation in athletic activities.”

Example: after an off-season comprehensive strength and conditioning program, the Belmont Bulldogs High School Football Team sustained no injuries in a 2-day intensive Seattle scrimmage against some pretty big U.S. teams! The previous year, before their current strength and conditioning program was implemented, over half of the team was injured on day 1.

Research Examples:

Little league Elbow in youth baseball players is reported between 20-40% and is associated with lack of physical conditioning, including strength and neuromuscular training.

“Preseason conditioning programs that included resistance training decreased the incidence of injury in adolescent soccer players.”

“Preseason conditioning programs that included resistance training decreased the number and severity of injuries in high school football players.”

2. Better Sports Performance

The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM): “Properly designed and competently supervised strength training programs has been shown to enhance motor fitness skills (eg, jumping, sprinting, throwing) and sports performance amongst youth.”

Research Example: Harries, Lubans, & Callister (2012) reviewed 34 studies on the effects of resistance training in adolescent athletes on improving power and sports performance for running, jumping, and throwing. Conclusion? Resistance training programs significantly improve running, jumping, and throwing performance in children and adolescents.

Research Example: Numerous studies looked at the effects of either soccer training or strength and conditioning along with soccer training. In all studies, only the soccer players in a strength and conditioning program plus soccer training group significantly improved vertical jump height. There were no improvements in the soccer only training group. 

3. Improvements in Self Esteem and Confidence

Improvement in self-esteem and confidence is an important and often overlooked benefit of strength training programs. Having the mental edge is often what the difference maker between performing to your best and having a performance that is subpar.

I have yet to meet a youth who did not gain confidence after a consistent period of strength training. There is nothing more rewarding than seeing them gain that confidence and carry that confidence with them to both sport and life. 

4. Better Health

Strength training has a cholesterol-lowering effect and a favorable effect on blood lipid profiles of children. It is the ideal solution for fat loss and weight maintenance in overweight children.

Example: After working with me for 5 weeks, a youth baseball player lost 15 pounds and had significantly better blood lipid profiles.

Strength training can initiate better health, not only as a youth, but throughout life. Youth who start strength training are more likely to continue in a healthy lifestyle.

Example: After 3 months, numerous Bulldog football players completely transformed their bodies. One team mate, for example, lost over 40 pounds and increased his strength by over 25%. This has inspired healthy lifestyle changes not only in the athletes, but their entire families. 

So…Should Your Youth be Strength Training? You bet!

Please feel free to contact me for questions or comments.

Best in health, sport, and life,

Tammy Kovaluk, CSCS, Msc (candidate)

The Current Position of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA):

  • 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.

* The NSCA based this position statement on a comprehensive analysis of scientific evidence for youth resistance training. An expert panel of exercise scientists, physicians, and health/physical education teachers with clinical, practical, and research expertise regarding pediatric exercise science, sports medicine, and resistance training contributed to this statement. The NSCA Research Committee reviewed this report before the formal endorsement by the NSCA. The terms youth and young athletes are broadly defined to include both children (up to 11yrs female and 13yrs male) and adolescents (12-18yrs female and 14-18yrs male).

The American College of Sports Medicine, World Health Organization and International Federation of Sports Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the International Olympic Committee

Comprehensive preseason and in-season preventive strength and conditioning programs focusing on neuromuscular control, balance, coordination, flexibility, and strengthening especially of the lower extremities are advocated for reducing overuse injury risk, especially among pediatric athletes with a previous history of injury.

All pediatric athletes should begin participating in a training program that emphasizes endurance, strengthening, and flexibility, at least 2 months before the sport season starts.

What is a Qualified Professional?

Athletes, including and especially children, deserve the upmost qualifications for a competently designed program.

This means someone who has adequate education, with CSCS (certified strength and conditioning specialist) as a minimum.

This means someone who has an exceptional background in exercise physiology, biomechanics, anatomy, and other related courses. Having a thorough understanding of the body’s complexity (and sport) is the difference between the ability to develop a program with a purpose or using the ‘cool stuff’ seen on the internet, a gym, or elsewhere without understanding the why, when, and how to apply it.

On top of CSCS, I recommend you look for someone who has taken additional courses, or is taking additional courses. The body and how to train it – especially for sport performance – is very complex. As a parent, do you want someone who attained minimum standards or has the passion to continually strive to make him or herself (and his/her athletes) better? One of the best instructors I have had (Dr. Daniels) is almost 80 years old, still teaching, and still learning!

Ask for references from other parents, coaches, or athletes. Ask questions. If something does not feel right, go somewhere else. Even a great strength and conditioning coach may not be the right fit for your child. Perhaps, for example, the personalities are not the right match. Unlike other team coaches, this is an intimate setting. Having your child feel comfortable and secure with their strength coach can make their experience a great one, or one that is mediocre.

See article 


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