Recommendations for youth sports strength training continue to be affected by the debate for and against that exists among the medical community, sports community and parenting community. The argument against strength training, especially for kids under 12 years old, holds that strength training, especially weight lifting, will damage growth plates causing injury and abnormal bone development. In addition to growth plate issues, other concerns include muscle tears, hernias, and injuries due to coming in contact with falling weights or machinery. Another area of concern is lack of adequate supervision and proper technique or coaching. Adolescents have a tendency to make risky decisions by not thoroughly thinking through the consequences of their actions and are prone to peer pressure. As such, kids "working out" under unsupervised conditions could be a scene ripe for error and injury.
However, a growing body of research suggests, that with proper supervision and proper weight and technique, that strength training can be safe for adolescents. These studies suggest that the benefits of strength training include: increased strength and stamina, improved performance, and resistance to certain injuries. The caveat to these findings is that these benefits only materialize under the proper conditions: proper weight/resistance, proper technique, proper recovery and nutrition and most importantly, with supervision. However, one has to wonder however how much of this new research is being driven by the over emphasis on youth sports performance, single sport focus, travel steams, and the strength training market place.
Recently the Council on Youth and Sports medicine released a ground-breaking report which contained these youth strength training recommendations.
1. Proper resistance techniques and safety precautions should be followed so that strength-training programs for preadolescents and adolescents are safe and effective. Whether it is necessary or appropriate to start such a program and which level of proficiency the youngster already has attained in his or her sport activity should be determined before a strength-training program is started.
2. Preadolescents and adolescents should avoid power lifting, body building, and maximal lifts until they reach physical and skeletal maturity.
3. As the AAP has stated previously, athletes should not use performance-enhancing substances or anabolic steroids. Athletes who participate in strength-training programs should be educated about the risks associated with the use of such substances.
4. When pediatricians are asked to recommend or evaluate strength-training programs for children and adolescents, the following issues should be considered:
a. Before beginning a formal strength-training program, a medical evaluation should be performed by a pediatrician or family physician. Youth with uncontrolled hypertension, seizure disorders, or a history of childhood cancer and chemotherapy should be withheld from participation until additional treatment or evaluation. When indicated, a referral may be made to a pediatric or family physician sports medicine specialist who is familiar with various strength-training methods as well as risks and benefits for preadolescents and adolescents.
b. Children with complex congenital cardiac disease (cardiomyopathy, pulmonary artery hypertension, or Marfan syndrome) should have a consultation with a pediatric cardiologist before beginning a strength-training program.
c. Aerobic conditioning should be coupled with resistance training if general health benefits are the goal.
d. Strength-training programs should include a 10- to 15-minute warm-up and cool-down.
e. Athletes should have adequate intake of fluids and proper nutrition, because both are vital in maintenance of muscle energy stores, recovery, and performance.
f. Specific strength-training exercises should be learned initially with no load (no resistance). Once the exercise technique has been mastered, incremental loads can be added using either body weight or other forms of resistance. Strength training should involve 2 to 3 sets of higher repetitions (8 to 15) 2 to 3 times per week and be at least 8 weeks in duration.
g. A general strengthening program should address all major muscle groups, including the core, and exercise through the complete range of motion. More sports-specific areas may be addressed subsequently.
h. Any sign of illness or injury from strength training should be evaluated fully before returning to the exercise program.
i. Instructors or personal trainers should have certification reflecting specific qualifications in pediatric strength training. See Table 2 for the various avenues of certification and certifying organizations.
j. Proper technique and strict supervision by a qualified instructor are critical safety components in any strength-training program involving preadolescents and adolescents.
The recommendations for youth sports strength training listed above all boil down to common sense. Use light weight, develop proper technique, involve your child's physician in the decision, and make sure there is adequate supervision. Most sports don't require extreme levels of strength, except for perhaps wresting and football, so by focusing on overall physical conditioning a young athlete will be better prepared for any sport they wish to play.