Strength Training for Young Athletes

The benefits of strength training are well documented — muscle growth, increased metabolic rate, and decreased risk of injury. But when should kids begin?

   Generally speaking, says New Yorker Elissa Hyman, ACE and AFAA fitness instructor and veteran trainer of children, if 7- and 8-year-old children are ready for participation in organized sports or activities (like Little League baseball or gymnastics), then they are ready for some type of strength training. But as opposed to building muscle mass, the focus of many adult programs, effective strength training for children should focus on bodyweight movements — such as pushups, sit-ups, lunging and squatting.

   And proper supervision is vital. “Resistance training has the most potential of any physical activity to fulfill the need for increased muscular strength — as long as it is supervised,” stresses Hyman.

   Although a few case study reports have noted bone fractures in children who lifted weights, most of these injuries occurred as a result of improper training, excessive loading, or lack of qualified adult supervision. Typically, children were injured while they attempted to lift a maximum amount of weight, overhead, in an unsupervised environment.

    Growth plate injuries have not occurred in any youth strength training study that followed established training guidelines. In fact, recent findings suggest that strength training during childhood and adolescence may actually make bones stronger.

  And aside from the building up of body strength, such training enables kids to better tolerate sports stresses and to avoid athletic injury.

   According to Hyman, it takes a child one to three months to acclimate to basic exercises. During this period, Hyman recommends keeping the overall volume low while gradually introducing new exercises such as calisthenics and partner-assisted training drills.

   “Teaching proper technique is critical during this stage,” indicates Hyman, who often uses weightless bars and dumbbells to teach younger children. “Children sometimes have trouble sticking to exercise routines, so let them progress at their own pace.”

Making fitness fun

   When it comes to exercise, long-term motivation hinges on early experience — so it is important not to set goals too early. For example, asking a child to perform too many sets initially can result in severe muscle soreness.

   This is also true of rigid workout schedules and statements, such as, "Anyone could be a champion," or, “You should be 25 lbs. heavier or lighter”— which can only lower self-esteem at a critical time.

   Hyman recommends a variety of activities — along with frequent praise — to build motivation and interest.

   “Children love circuit training, playing with exercise balls, and working with a partner,” she says. “The more variety you give your child, the more likely they are to stick with exercise.”

   Equally important to maintaining motivation, says Hyman, is encouraging your child’s unique interests and viewpoint. Exercise frequency and intensity will undoubtedly shift with participation in different sports. And setting flexible goals and encouraging progress go a long way toward laying the foundations for the future.

   “Freedom and healthy praise builds early self-esteem,” Hyman stresses. “Regardless of the activity, the most important factor is the desire for self improvement.”

Preparing to perform

   Around 11 to 13, Hyman says children will be ready to begin a more complex routine using weighted bars and dumbbells. Gradual increases in weight and exercise volume during this period help them to prepare for a more adult routine.

   Around age 16, and once basic technique has been mastered, Hyman indicates sports specific training, along with normal weighted strength training.  This is the age when most adolescents begin developing muscle mass.

   For adolescents engaging in a particular sport or activity, strength training can assist in building far more than strength in a particular sport. Observing the movement or combination of movements involved in your child’s sport or activity will help them understand the exercises necessary to become more efficient. Consider the baseball pitching motion. This movement involves balancing on one leg while twisting the torso and pushing the arm to generate force. So the best training for this athlete would involve a combination of abdominal twisting motions, one legged balance drills, and lunging.

   Try these guidelines for effective progression:

—An instructor-to-child ratio of at least 1-to-10 is recommended to provide adequate supervision and instruction. When children are learning exercises for the first time, closer supervision may be required.

—Children learn best by doing. When teaching a new exercise, have the child perform the exercise under your watchful eye.

—Ensure that the training environment is free of hazards. Be aware of the exploratory nature of children; remove or disassemble any broken equipment from the exercise room before classes start.

—The exercise room should be well lit and adequately ventilated. Since children are more prone to heat illness than adults, encouraged them to drink water even if they are not thirsty.

—Perform calisthenics and stretches before and after every strength training class.

—Begin 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 relatively light weights and high reps, and increase the load and decrease the reps as strength improves. Beginning with relatively light loads will allow for appropriate adjustments to be made.

—Maximal lifting is not recommended for general conditioning purposes.

—Two to three training sessions per week on non-consecutive days is sufficient.

—Increase the weight gradually as strength improves. Generally a 2-5 pound increase in weight is consistent with a 5-10 percent increase in training intensity.

—Progression can also be achieved by increasing the number of sets (up to three) or number of exercises.

—Multi-joint exercises such as squats may be introduced into the program based on individual needs and competencies.
—Treat children with respect and speak to them in a language they understand. Remember that children should feel comfortable with the program and should look forward to the next workout.
—Strength training should be one part of a total fitness program. Keep the fun in fitness to promote lifetime health.

CHRIS KELLY is a NYC NASM-Certified fitness trainer, nutritionist, and editor of ‘The Spotter’, a webzine devoted to health and wellness for city dwellers. For more information, visit