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Four FAQs about youth strength training, answered

Is strength training safe for kids?

A question that many parents have is whether strength training is safe for kids. As a parent, I completely understand the concern. But as a veteran strength coach, I also understand that the concern is unfounded.

As an article by New York Times health columnist Gretchen Reynolds explains, the misunderstanding can likely be traced back to the 1970s when researchers studied child laborers in Japan and concluded that the children were often abnormally short as a result of lifting and moving heavy objects.

For years, it was widely (and wrongly) accepted that strength training could stunt young peoples' growth and otherwise jeopardize their safety. However in recent decades, numerous researchers and physicians have disproven these beliefs.

A recent study published in the journal Pediatrics concluded that strength training has many benefits for young people, and it may even be essential to promote optimal health.

According to the Mayo Clinic, strength training that is done correctly not only offers numerous health benefits to young people, it also helps protect their muscles and joints from being injured in sports. 

Additionally, the National Strength and Conditioning Association released a position paper in 2009 stating that youth resistance training is now becoming universally accepted by medical, fitness, and sports organizations.

The position paper also stated that the NSCA "recognizes and supports the premise that many of the benefits associated with adult resistance training programs are attainable by children and adolescents who follow age-specific resistance training guidelines."

Ultimately, there is a plethora of scientific information that has been released in recent years that disproves the assumption that strength training is dangerous for young people, and highlights its numerous health benefits.

Can kids get stronger from strength training?

Another misunderstanding that many adults have about youth resistance training is that young people can't build strength.

However, an expansive review published a few years ago in the medical journal Pediatrics proves otherwise. Researchers poured over 60 years' worth of data on children and strength training and found that:

·       Youth ages 6 to 18 benefit from strength training

·       Children can grow stronger from strength training, no matter their age

·       Teenagers tend to gain the most muscle strength from strength training

·       Consistency is key for children to get stronger from strength training

The results shut down what many people have mistakenly believed for years: that children cannot get stronger from strength training. The reason for the misunderstanding likely has to do with the fact that children typically do not put on muscle "bulk" when they get stronger like adults do, the review explained. That means it is more difficult to see when a child has become stronger by just looking at him or her.

However, as youth strength training expert Dr. Avery Faigenbaum explains in an article published by the New York Times, children's strength gains are typically "neurological" in nature and result in the nervous and muscle systems working together more efficiently.

Therefore, strength training not only can improve a young person's strength, but it can also improve the way their body moves in general. As a result, strength training can give young athletes the upper hand on the ice, field, court, slopes, or in the pool.

What are the benefits of strength training for kids and teens?                                                                                            

Now that we have debunked two of the main myths regarding youth strength training (that it is dangerous and that youth are too young to gain strength) we are going to talk a little more specifically about the benefits of strength training for young people.

Building athleticism.

Becoming a better athlete is all about learning how to use your body more efficiently, which is what strength training teaches.

It has even been shown by a few small studies that weight training leads to a significant increase in motor unit activation within a youth's muscles, which essentially means that muscles are contracting more efficiently.

Not only do muscles learn how to work more efficiently, strength training also teaches the body how to maximize force which equals explosivity on the ice, field, or court. Generally, the more force an athlete can use against the ground or ice, the faster the athlete will be.

Preventing injury.

Lyle Micheli, M.D., who is a director of sports medicine and a professor of orthopedic surgery at Harvard University, explained to the New York Times that few young people today, even athletes, get the activity necessary to keep their bodies strong and healthy. When kids engage in sports, their bodies don't always have the tissue strength necessary to avoid injury. Strength training can help with that by building muscle and tendon strength.

For young people who participate in competitive sports, strength training is a key factor in avoiding injury, and also a key factor in rehabilitating after an injury has occurred.

Gaining confidence

One of the best aspects of strength training is the confidence it instills in young people during times when many adolescents and teens struggle with low self-esteem and insecurity. In situations where a young person has been cut by a team, strength training can potentially prepare a young person to try out again the following season, or simply give them a much-needed confidence boost.

Becoming healthier.

Research has disproven the concerns over strength training stunting growth or causing growth-plate injuries. Instead, research has confirmed the many health benefits strength training affords youth, including strengthening bones, promoting healthy blood pressure, promoting healthy cholesterol levels, promoting healthy weight, and promoting injury prevention, as identified by Mayo Clinic.

The days of believing that strength training is dangerous for young people are over. Today, it is clear that strength training not only gives adolescents an edge on competition, it also helps them to avoid injury, gain confidence, and improve overall health.

What is the ideal strength training program for kids?

As we all know, today's average American adolescent gets a lot less activity than the youth of past generations. Instead of carrying milk jugs and helping out on the farm, kids today spend a lot of time playing video games, studying, and on their phones.

At the same time, athletics today are even more demanding and competitive than they have ever been, which can, unfortunately, result in injury. That's why athletes' bodies must be strong enough to handle what they will encounter in their sport by strength training.

For strength training to be safe and effective for young people it has to be properly supervised and catered to their abilities.

One reason supervision is so important is to avoid accidents that can occur when young people are careless around weights, which typically involve dropped weights that cause injuries to the fingers or feet.

Another reason supervision is so important is that the young person must develop the proper technique to use throughout his or her strength training career.

In that same vein, the ideal strength training program for kids who are just getting into it focuses primarily on technique. Heavy weights are not used. Instead, the goal is to teach the kids how to lift.

As the athlete gets older and more experienced with lifting techniques, more weight can be added with care.

As the Mayo Clinic has said, strength training for kids should not be about competition, which is why competitive weightlifting, bodybuilding, and powerlifting should be avoided.

Finally, for optimal results, athletes should use a "smart" strength training program that is catered to meet the needs of the specific sport and athlete. The program should be "periodized," and should incorporate both recovery and injury prevention elements.

With the right strength training program, today's young athletes can make sure that their bodies are well-prepared for their sports.


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