Rick Howard is actively involved in the National Strength and Conditioning Association, where he serves on the Youth Special Interest Group as a founding member and Immediate Past-Chair, as well as the Vice-Chair of the NSCA State Provincial Director Committee where he is the Mid-Atlantic Region Coordinator overseeing strength and conditioning clinics in seven states. Howard also is very actively involved with the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance, where he serves as Co-chair of the position statement on National Youth Sports and Physical Activity Framework, Immediate Past-Chair of the National Association for Sport and Physical Education Sport Steering Committee and the Immediate Past-Chair of the Let’s Move in School Advisory Committee.
When is it safe for a youth athlete to start strength training?
Generally at around age 8, at about the same age in which they begin sports participation. This age is thought to relate to the youth athlete’s ability to listen to and follow directions as well as their interest in participating in strength training. Beginning a quality strength training program helps promote the development of positive healthy habits as well the development of technical proficiency of movement patterns.
What are some of the benefits of strength training for youth athletes?
Strength training, motor skill competence and self-efficacy are all interrelated. Increases in strength for youth have a positive effect on injury reduction/prevention, motor skill development, self efficacy of motor skills and sport competence, all of which are excellent markers for lifelong pursuit of physical activity. Strength training, when properly supervised and implemented, provides fun and challenging activities for youth, whether they consider themselves athletes or not. Strength training is a lifetime fitness activity, so making the experience safe, fun, and challenging is paramount to continued excitement and participation. Strength training also is integral in a long-term approach to positive youth physical development.
Are strength training and weight-lifting the same thing?
No, strength training includes any activity that promotes the development of strength and may or may not include weights. Strength training is often referred to as resistance training to reduce the confusion from actual sports like weightlifting and powerlifting and to emphasize that resistance training may or may not include weights, depending on the developmental level of the youth. Young athletes should be taught how to successfully perform exercises using bodyweight; light PVC pipe, dumbbells and barbells; machines; medicine balls, etc. so that young athletes develop proficiency in a variety of movements in a variety of settings, just like in youth sports participation. A properly-designed strength training program includes development of health-related fitness components (cardiovascular endurance, muscle strength, muscle endurance, and flexibility) AND skills-related fitness components (speed, agility, balance, and power).
Can a youth athlete just do a watered-down version of an adult’s strength training program?
No, and this is a huge issue in youth strength training. We often hear that youth are not miniature athletes yet we see high school strength programs being taught to preadolescents (child has not yet reached puberty), and college programs being promoted to high school athletes. The concept of training age is important, too— training age is determined by the amount of time the trainee has been involved in strength training. So, two twelve-year-olds may have different training ages and should be using a developmental-age and training-age appropriate program. Youth will vary at any given chronological age (age according to birth), biological age (physical maturity for their age which can vary two years on either side of their chronological age), and training age. So there are many factors that need to be considered when designing resistance training programs for youth.
Is it possible for a youth athlete to over-train? How can a parent help prevent injuries?
Yes, especially if the youth athlete is participating in more than one sport at the same time. Parents need to be sure to keep open lines of communication with all coaches to ensure that their aspiring champion gets the right dose of exercise. If youth athletes are practicing two times each day with different teams and each team incorporates strength exercises either into practice or separately before or after practice, the odds of overtraining increase. It is advised that young athletes participate in only sport per season and be given adequate recovery each week (at least one day off and less days participating than their age per week), month (no more than 10% increase per week in any exercise or total number of exercises and sports playing time), and throughout the year (one-two months per year off from a specific sport).
Also important is the concept of periodization, where a program needs to be designed with long-term and short term goals in mind and systematically varied throughout the year to reduce the risk of overtraining and to maximize results. Generally, for every four weeks of training, the third week is an unload week, with either less volume or less resistance. Parents need to be aware that emphasis on maximum amounts of weight lifted is generally inappropriate for youth athletes and does not correlate to performance on the field, court, or pool. Steady progress (there will be sticking points along the way) with focus on proper technique is what safely builds young bodies for the rigor of youth sports participation.
Can you give a few ideas of how a strength training regimen might differ for an 8 year old versus a 12 year old?
The first important point is that both programs will include development of all fitness attributes, including strength, speed, endurance, and agility. The level of intensity and number of exercises will be different and the structure of the sessions will be different. Using the example that the 8-year-old is just beginning a strength training routine (training age 0), it is recommended to start with eight exercises, done in circuit format (one set of all exercises before considering adding another round of all exercises), focusing on perfect form for between 12-15 repetitions. The training session should include a balance of full body (squat, lunge), and single-joint (bicep curls, abdominal crunch) exercise that alternates between an upper body, lower body, and core exercise. Focus must be paid to improve all fitness attributes and develop motor skill mastery. The program is somewhat of low structure, meaning that many fitness attributes can be developed in settings of play, and structured exercise can be infused to set positive habits for routine, safety, and technique.
The 12-year-old, if he/she began strength training at age 8, will by now be training age 4 and will have learned a wide variety of exercises. Proper technique should be automatic but must still be emphasized. Program design can include a varied periodized program to meet the specific goals and to help correct any deficiencies in any fitness attribute. If the 12-year-old has reached adolescence (puberty), program design can also include lower repetition (6-3) periodized routines to maximize strength development at what has been referred to as a critical age for strength development. This age is when “mirror muscles” seem to take priority, especially for boys, so emphasis on maintaining a well-balanced approach to training is important. The programming is more structured for this age group. Note that is possible for two youth athletes at any given chronological age to be at different biological and/or training ages, thereby requiring different strength training programs.
How do you feel when you see those YouTube videos with the strongest kids in the world, looking like mini body-builders?
Sadly, sensationalism sells. More parents, coaches, etc. need to know how to properly develop young athletes yet the media does not sense the sensationalism in that, so shows us the one in a million heavily-muscled child or the 7th grade basketball phenom. Blogs and other social media have become important outlets for those seeking evidence-based information on how best to provide positive youth physical development. Fortunately, most people recognize the problems with many of these videos, but fewer people recognize how to do it right.
Should boys and girls train differently?
The evidence suggests that before puberty, the answer is no and post-puberty the answer is yes. Once adolescents begin to determine in which sport or activity they will excel (research indicates that specialization is typically not recommended before age 15), individualized programming is essential to maximizing performance and reducing the risk of injury for that particular sport or activity. Preadolescents, regardless of gender, need to focus on technique and form over amount of weight lifted, and all youngsters should continue to develop all fitness attributes. For adolescents, the sport more than the gender will determine the exercise selection, loads, and repetitions. Gender comes into play for adolescents more for tracking the peak height velocity (commonly referred to as the growth spurt) and taking advantage of times when young athletes may be able to better emphasize strength development within their comprehensive training program. Since girls typically mature earlier than boys, the suggested age to focus on strength is between 10-15 for girls and 12-16 for boys. Please remember, though, that there are wide differences in maturity for both genders, so parents and coaches need to pay attention to the onset of puberty and the growth spurt to time the programming correctly.
Rick Howard is an Adjunct instructor in exercise science/strength and conditioning at Delaware State University, Neumann University, Rowan University, Temple University, and West Chester University. He is certified with distinction by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Connect with Rick on Twitter.