Medical Specialties

Strength Training Recommendations for Young Athletes

Because strength training puts extra stress on growing bones and the tendons and ligaments that attach to them, many parents and coaches have expressed concern about when it is safe for children to begin a strength training program.

Although no specific age has been determined as a the safe age to start strength training, if performed in the right setting, strength training can be done without harm and has been shown to improve performance and decrease injury.¹  Recommendations for safety include having adult supervision, using correct techniques, and avoiding lifting maximal amounts of weights.

Learn more about strength training:

Training Frequency

To avoid overuse injuries it is important to allow the body adequate time to recover from each session of strength training. Too many days of rest between each session, however, may lead to loss of progress made in previous strength training sessions. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends that children strength train two to three times per week on nonconsecutive days.²

Repetitions

Not only is performing a higher number of repetitions using a moderate load safer than performing fewer repetitions under a heavy load, it has been shown to be more effective at increasing an athlete's strength.³  When determining the amount of weight that should be used for each exercise, one safe and effective way is starting with a weight that can be lifted 13 to 15 times with little difficulty and then increasing the weight until it can be lifted no more than 13 to 15 times. Once athletes have increased their strength to a point where they are able to lift the weight more than 15 times, they should increase the weight by 2 ½- to 5-pound increments.

Single versus multiple sets

The National Strength and Conditioning Association supports pre-adolescents performing one to three sets of a variety of single- and multi-joint exercises.¹ Although no studies have been performed in pre-adolescent athletes, multiple studies in adults have shown greater strength gains while performing multiple sets of a particular exercise compared to performing a single set.

Rest period between sets

A three- to five-minute rest is usually a sufficient amount of time for muscles to recover from a set before performing the next set of an exercise. Shorter intervals may not be enough time for the body to recover and may lead to a less-effective workout.

Modes of Training

Several types of exercises are effective methods of resistance training in youths. These include free weights, weights machines, body exercises (push-ups and pull-ups), rubber tubing, and plyometrics. It is especially important to have adult supervision when using weight machines and free weights. 

Developing a Program

Among the many exercises that can be chosen, it is important to include core strengthening exercises, which have been shown to decrease injury by strengthening the muscles most commonly injured in youth sports. These include exercises that strengthen the muscles of the lower back, abdomen and hips.

As with participation in any sport, a pre-participation physical is advised. A warm up should be performed prior to every workout. Warm ups should include stretching and can also include aerobic exercises and one to two sets of light resistance exercises. Organizing the workout so that larger muscle groups are worked before smaller muscle groups is an effective way to expend energy.

When choosing exercises to include in a strength-training program, it is important to include major muscle groups like the chest, back, shoulders, arms, legs and abdominal muscles. Sample exercises include the bench press, bent-over rows, lateral raises, biceps curls, triceps extensions, machine leg presses, calf raises and abdominal crunches.

Suggestions for Having Fun While Strength Training

  • Train with a friend. You can challenge each other, it is safer and you have someone to talk to between sets. Friends are often the best motivation to sticking with a program.
  • Add music to your workout.
  • Wear comfortable, non-restrictive clothing.
  • Stay well hydrated.
  • Warm up before you start lifting. This can include a short session on the treadmill or elliptical and should include stretching.
  • Follow a program, but change it up a little. Performing different exercises that focus on a particular muscle group will make workouts more fun and are a great way to improve strength gains.
  • Keep a workout journal to monitor your progress.
  • Eat healthy and get adequate rest. Your recovery period is as important for strength gains as the time you spend in the gym.
  • Encourage others. Positive reinforcement is good medicine for everyone.
  • Set and achieve workout goals.

Article by Jeffrey M. Vaughn, D.O.

Pediatric and Adolescent Sports Medicine

Center for Pediatric Orthopaedics

Phoenix Children's Hospital

This article was published in the February 2009 issue of Kids & Sports, the Valley's youth sports parenting resource.

References

1.  Faigenbaum A, Risser J. Strength training for children and adolescents.  Clin Sports Med 2000; 19(4):593-619.

2.  Faigenbaum A, Kraemer W, Cahill B, et al. Youth resistance training: position statement paper and literature review.  Strength Conditioning 1996;18(6):62-75.

3.  Faigenbaum A. Westcott W, Loud R, et al. The effects of different resistance training protocols on muscular strength and endurance development in children. Pediatrics 1999;104:1-7.

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