Youth resistance training
In order to design a training program, a strength and conditioning coach needs a certain amount of information which effects the type of training that they will prescribe. One important piece is the athlete’s training age. Generally, the higher the training age the better an athlete’s movement skills and postural control, the more lifts they can perform competently, the greater the tolerance to training volume and the greater their strength. For these reasons alone it makes sense for a young athlete to undertake strength and conditioning sessions to maximise their training age. However, a number of points are often raised against such training, in particularly resistance training. The National Strength and Conditioning Association2 have put together a position statement that includes a large literature review covering the potential risks and concerns and the potential health and fitness benefits of youth resistance training. In this piece I will give a summary of this review in order to show how resistance training can be beneficial for young athletes and could or perhaps should be adopted by schools for their pupils.
The first area that should be addressed is the safety of such training. It is often cited that resistance training could be dangerous when used with preadolescent and adolescent populations. Papers from the US looking at injuries within high schools show that 0.7% of injuries come from resistance training whereas 19%, 15% and 2% occurred during American football, basketball and football respectively6. Only 3 papers to date have reported injuries during resistance training, each of the 3 separate incidents were musculoskeletal and resulted in 1 missed week of training, 1 missed session and recovery after 5 minutes in each case. Whilst there is a certain amount of risk inherent in all sports, training and indeed everyday life, we can safely say that with correct supervision and application of established strength and conditioning principles, resistance training is safe to apply to youth populations.
Weightlifting, as in the Olympic lifts (clean and jerk and snatch plus their derivatives), are commonly prescribed by strength and conditioning coaches and are an excellent method of developing strength and power as well and progressing movement skills and core strength. Weightlifting itself is a sport and when compared to other sports that youth populations partake in it measures very well when it comes to injury and has been shown to be safer in retrospective injury studies3. Not only does this type of training appear to be safe but, given the large amount of neural adaptation required to perform the lifts, pre-adolescence and adolescence may be the optimum time to develop technique because of the higher levels of motor learning capability. When correctly coached and progressed an excellent grounding of movement skills and technique can be established enhancing future athletic development.
Many people will cite stunted growth due to effects of lifting on growth plates as a reason to avoid resistance training altogether. To date, no study has shown any evidence of injury to growth structures among young athletes partaking in resistance training. Potential for soft tissue injury does exist as a result of repetitive trauma but this can be avoided by ensuring appropriate recovery between sessions and by avoiding excessive loading. This, coupled with correct coaching of lift technique, make it a safe and effective form of training.
Having established that such training is safe, we need to understand the benefits that this training can have and hence why we might prescribe it to youth populations. Improvements in vertical jump, long jump, sprint speed and medicine ball throw have been reported in numerous studies as a result of resistance and plyometric based training. Other studies have reported gains in strength without related improvements in movement skills, however this is most likely due to the training design and the exercises used. The use of movement specific lifts such as the Olympic lifts, squat variations and various plyometric exercises have much more training transfer than machine based exercises as are often utilised in youth and adult programs.
Weight bearing activity is essential for normal bone formation and growth4. In addition to normal weight bearing activity i.e. walking and running, resistance training can increase bone mineral density, maximizing development. Many reports suggest that participation in regular exercise including resistance training is a strong stimulus for bone development with some papers showing children competing in weightlifting as having bone mineral density1 and bone mineral content5 well above average.
It has been reported that a reduction in bodyfat has been seen as a result of resistance training or the use of circuit based resistance exercise. While the aerobic/anaerobic metabolism effect of such circuit training is probably the main cause of fat loss, it is also thought that this type of training may break barriers to other forms of training that may reduce incidence of obesity. The development of movement skills already mentioned may make it easier for obese children to participate in other sports and increase participation in and continued adherence to exercise in the future.
The use of resistance training is a safe and appropriate method of training adolescent and pre-adolescent athletes that can improve performance, decrease bodyfat, help to prevent injury, improve bone health and increase participation and adherence to sport. This can be achieved provided the following guidelines are used:
- All sessions should be designed and supervised by an appropriately qualified coach in a safe environment
- Emphasis should be primarily placed on exercise technique
- Loads should be increased gradually as strength and robustness of technique allow
- Progression of training type should be based on the goals and abilities of each individual
- Conroy, B, Kraemer, W, Maresh, C, Fleck, S, Stone, M, Fry, A, Miller, P, and Dalsky, G. (1993). Bone mineral density in elite junior Olympic weightlifters. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise 25 pp. 1103–1109.
- Faigenbaum, A.D., Kraemer, W.J., Blimkie, C.J.R., Jeffreys, I., Micheli, L.J., Nitka, M. and Rowland, T.W. (2009) Youth resistance training: Updated position statement paper from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Journal of Strength Conditioning Research 23(4).
- Hamill, B. (1994). Relative safety of weight lifting and weight training. Journal of Strength Conditioning Research, 8 pp. 53–57.
- Malina, R., Bouchard, C., and Bar-Or, O. (2004). Growth, Maturation and Physical Activity (2nd ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics, 2004. pp. 215–233.
- Virvidakis, K, Georgiu, E, Korkotsidis, A, Ntalles, K, and Proukakis, C. Bone mineral content of junior competitive weightlifters. Int J Sports Med 11: 244–246, 1990
- Zaricznyj, B., Shattuck, L., Mast, T., Robertson, R., and D’Elia, G. (1980). Sports-related injuries in school-aged children. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 8 pp. 318–324, 1980.