How Young is Too Young to Begin Strength Training: by John A. Bergfeld, M.D., Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland Browns & Cleveland Cavaliers Team Physician

by CoachZ on January 21, 2009

Strength Training for Young Athletes

Athletes strive toward achieving their personal best. As coaches, parents and physicians, we need to be able to guide them so they can reach their goals without injuring themselves. One way to prevent injuries is having the athlete train to increase strength and flexibility of muscles through a strength training program.

With every young athlete, the question eventually arises:

What is the appropriate age for a child to start strength training?

Before answering this question, let’s define strength training: This refers to a method of conditioning designed to increase an individual’s ability to exert or resist force. The goal is not to see which child is the strongest, but to improve the musculoskeletal strength. Strength training can mean using weights, or it can mean doing sit ups, push ups and leg curls without weights. Despite the previously held belief that strength training was unsafe and ineffective for children, health organizations such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) now “support children’s participation in appropriately designed and competently supervised strength training programs.”

Experts have found that strength training programs can be safe, effective and may also help prevent certain sports-related injuries among young athletes. Recent findings suggest that strength training during childhood and adolescence may make bones stronger, a benefit which can last a lifetime.

As far as what age a child should start such a program, here is a good rule of thumb: If 7- or 8-year-olds are ready for participation in organized sports or activities such as little league or gymnastics [soccer], then they are ready for some type of strength training program. For children starting out in weight training, lifetime fitness and proper exercise techniques should be emphasized. Adults designing training programs should provide a stimulating environment that helps children develop a healthier lifestyle.

Before beginning, children should have a healthy, balanced diet, to make sure they are getting enough carbohydrates, protein and dietary fat to maintain energy for exercise. This is also part of the healthy lifestyle image that will help athletes through their adult years.

When teaching children proper techniques for strength training, keep in mind that children learn best by doing. Show the child the correct technique, then closely supervise them to make sure they understand how to do it. Push ups and sit ups are great for beginners, but as they advance, young athletes may want to try weight machines or free weights to enhance their work outs and to keep themselves from getting bored with the same routines. This is fine as long as an adult is available for teaching the correct lifting techniques and to supervise the athlete’s progress.

Warming up and stretching should be performed before every class. Since children are more prone to heat illness than adults, they should be encouraged to drink plenty of water throughout the workout. For a beginning program, start with one set of 10-15 repetitions of 6-8 exercises that focus on the major muscle groups of the upper and lower body. Start with light weight and high reps and increase the load and decrease the reps as strength improves.

In general, two to three training sessions per week on nonconsecutive days is sufficient. Remember, strength training should be one part of a total fitness program.

Teaching young athletes the benefits of a healthy lifestyle and strength conditioning can give them the strong base on which to build their adult lives.

Adapted from an article by Avery D. Faigenbaum, EdD, CSCS, assistant professor of exercise physiology in the Department of Human Performance and Fitness at the University of Massachusetts-Boston.

John A. Bergfeld, M.D.
Cleveland Clinic Sports Health
Head Team Physician, Cleveland Browns and Cleveland CAVS

SAFETY FIRST
The following guidelines should be included into a program for youth strength training:
1. Give children realistic expectations.
2. Teach them positive lifestyle habits.
3. Supervise technique closely.
4. Give proper instruction and programming for upper and lower body exercises (i.e., bench press and leg press).
5. Give proper instruction and programming for single and multi-joint exercises (leg curl and shoulder press).
6. Allow gradual increases in volume and intensity, usually 1-2 pound increments.
7. Systematically vary their strength training program for diversity.
8. Encourage participation in a variety of sports and activities.

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