Is strength training safe for children?
Health care and fitness professional groups – including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Orthopaedic Society of Sports Medicine, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association – agree that a supervised strength training program that follows the recommended guideline and precautions is safe and effective for children and adolescents (ACSM, 1998; Cahill, 1998; Faigenbaum et al, 2002; Pediatrics, 2008; Schafer, 1991)
Like adults, before starting a program, children should have a pre-participation physical exam by a qualified medical professional. This is necessary because some children should not participate due to medical reasons. Children and adolescents with cardiomyopathy, isolated pulmonary hypertension, stage 2 hypertension, chemotherapy with anthracyclines, and Marfan syndrome patients should not participate (Babaee Bigi and Aslani, 2007; Pediatrics, 2008; Rice, 2008). Consultation with a medical professional regarding resistance training is also required for young athletes with uncontrolled seizure disorders (Epilepsia, 1997, as cited in Stricker et al., 2020).
Always attain medical clearance.
At what age can children start strength training?
There is no minimal age requirement for participation. A child’s physical, cognitive, and social maturity are main factors in determining the age at which a child is ready to begin a strength training program. Children must be able to follow directions and demonstrate sufficient balance and proprioception, with usually occurs by 7 or 8 years of age (Dahab and McCambridge, 2009).
Frequency: 2 to 3 non-consecutive days/ week
Intensity: Begin with 1 to 2 sets of 8 to 15 repetitions at a low resistance training intensity (≤ 60% 1RM). The initial load should be selected so that 10 to 15 repetitions can be completed with some fatigue but no muscle failure (Faigenbaum et al, 1996).
As the child’s resistance training skill competency improves and can be demonstrated consistently, the weight can be increased in 5% to 10% increments with a reduction in the number of repetitions. The program can be progressed to 2 to 4 sets of 6 to 12 reps with a low-moderate intensity (≤80% 1RM) (Stricker et al, 2020). Periodic phases of lower repetition ranges (<6) at a higher intensity (>80% 1RM) can be introduced so long as resistance training skill competency is high (Lesinski et al. 2016).
Timing: 8 to 10 exercises per session. 2 to 3 exercises per muscle group. 1 to 3 minutes rest between sets. Each training sessions should include a 5-10 minute warm-up and a 5-10 minute cool down.
Type: A variation of resistance types: free weights, resistance bands, medicine balls, and weight machines. Be cautious of weight machines as they are usually adult-sized and not meant for kids and the lever arms may not be sized correctly. Also, be careful with free weights since balance and coordination are underdeveloped in preadolescents which increases their susceptibility to injury (Dahab and McCambridge, 2009).
Note that weight training programs should be individualized based on age, maturity, and personal goals and objectives. Programs that incorporate an aerobic component are most beneficial because they stimulate an increase in metabolism and improve cardiovascular fitness (Dahab and McCambridge, 2009).
Appropriately designed strength training programs can benefit children’s health by not only improving their strength, muscular power, and local muscular endurance; but also their balance, bone mineral density, lipid profiles, fat-free mass, and insulin sensitivity. In addition, it contributes to an increased personal self-esteem, resistance to injury, and mental health (Conroy et al. 1993; Faigenbaum et al. 2009; Fripp & Hodgson, 1987).
Is 1RM testing appropriate for kids? Heavy loads? Olympic Style weightlifting?
The American Academy of Pediatrics, 2008 does not support using continuous maximal lifts for youth strength training. Single maximal lifts are not recommended until skeletal maturity is attained. Generally, submaximal loads should be used and when a child or adolescent is learning a new exercise, no-load repetitions can be used to develop form and technique.
However, research conducted by Faigembaum et al., 2003, demonstrates that healthy children can safely perform 1-RM strength tests so long as the appropriate procedures are followed and qualified instruction is present.
Olympic-style weightlifting and powerlifting can also be performed by healthy children so long as proper progression is followed as well as the guidance of a skilled coach (Dahab and McCambridge, 2009).
Resistance training programs that are appropriately designed have no apparent negative effect on linear growth, the cardiovascular system, or physeal health (Lloyd et al. 2014, as cited in Stricker et al. 2020). The rare case reports of epiphyseal plate fractures related to strength training are due to the misuse of equipment, lifting inappropriate amounts of weight, improper technique, or training without qualified adult supervision (Caine et al., 2006). Similarly, soft tissue injuries to the lower back are commonly the result of poor technique, too much weight, or ballistic lifts (Jones et al., as cited in Dahab and McCambridge, 2009). There is no direct relationship between strength training and occurrence or severity of injuries in young athletes. It may even indirectly reduce the risk or severity of sports-related injuries (Dahab and McCambridge, 2009).
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