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Editor’s note: Nancy Justis is a former competitive swimmer and college sports information director. She is a partner with Justis Creative Communications.
You have a talented young athlete. You want to do everything in your power to support his or her success. That might include strength training.
At what age is safe and appropriate for the start of this area of athletic training?
According to the American Council on Exercise (ACE), strength training is a safe and effective option for most children age 7 and up. As long as it is supervised and training is done within a strict set of guidelines established by the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Sports Medicine, The American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine and The National Strength and Conditioning Association.
ACE also stresses the importance of eating correctly and performing aerobic exercise along with the strength training.
The Iowa High School Athletic Association notes on its website the issue of strength training in children below the ages of 12 to 15 has been the subject of many debates. Three issues are at the heart of the debate, according to the IHSAA:
l Does strength training place undue stress on the musculoskeletal systems of young athletes?
l Can prepubescent youth make significant strength gains through strength training?
l How should strength training programs for youth be designed to maximize possible benefits and minimize the risk of injury?
JC Moreau of North Liberty’s The Strength U and author of the e-book “The Parents Guide to Sports Performance Training” says the age to start strength training is based on the individual in most cases.
“I work with a 9-year-old (youngest) but have told the parents of 11-year-old children to wait,” he said. “Sometimes it’s a physical development issue, but my job is to help with this obviously, so more often it’s a maturity and mental focus/concentration related.
“I have three little girls who are in gymnastics and that is basically more stressful resistance training than much of what I do with children 7 years older than my youngest (3-year-old) twins.”
Moreau goes on to say he has researched the topic and he has 15-plus years working with thousands 17-to-24-year-old athletes.
“Most of them showed up to the university I was at underprepared and underdeveloped,” he said. “I think most strength coaches in high schools and other organizations have lost perspective related to weights.”
Armand McCormick, director of XL Sports and owner of CrossFit Kilo in Cedar Falls, believes strength training can begin as early as a child is coordinated enough to move with correct body mechanics.
“Children play, by doing ballistic movement and picking things up daily,” he said. “It only makes sense that teaching them correct movement and letting them do strength training will protect them from future injury.
“There is not a chronological age for this. This depends more on a biological age scale. Maturity is important here.”
He agrees with Moreau when he says he means not just physical maturity but mental maturity.
“A child has to be able to comprehend what they are doing and be coordinated enough to replicate movement,” he said.
The IHSAA states the risk of injury from participation in strength training can be minimized through proper adult supervision and by teaching youth to use proper techniques. Youth can risk possible injury to growth cartilage in their joints and growth plates, but cartilage injury is “very rare.” Besides adult supervision and proper technique, errors can include lifting weights over their heads, lifting near maximal weight loads and involvement in competitive weight lifting, the last two of which are different from strict strength training.
Many exercise physiologists support the implementation of strength and resistance training programs for young children. Studies show that “moderate intensity strength training can help increase strength, decrease the risks of injury while playing sports and increase bone density in children.”
The IHSAA also reports “strength training is particularly important for young girls, as females are at an increased risk for osteoporosis.
“Researchers also recognize the use of calisthenic-type exercises such as push-ups and situps that are commonly used in elementary school physical education classes. Body-weight resistance exercises are a good starting point for most children under the age of eight, or those at any age, who are just starting a strength training program.”
McCormick said year-round training should begin as early as possible.
“Training for fitness is as important as teaching them anything else about health, training or ‘sport’ year-round is not necessary until that child is driving their future,” he said. “It should not be forced.”
“My overwhelming priority for 10 year olds, 16 year olds, 20 year olds or a 50 year old is movement quality,” Moreau said. “It’s a constant struggle as virtually no one is flawless and some kids are remarkably dysfunctional through several ranges of motion.
“There is no point in loading a flawed movement pattern, so correcting them comes first, and then everything from lunge patterns to more advanced jumps and plyometrics has a progression.”
In summary, the IHSAA provides the following tips for supervising a youth training program.
• Safety should come first.
• Written parental and medical permission.
• Equipment free from defects.
• Young clients are adequately hydrated and sufficiently warmed up before a session.
• Direct supervision of a competent trainer or coach.
• A program that emphasizes technique and form, not the amount of weight.
• Gradual increases in volume and intensity.
• Keeping motivational levels high encourage participation in a wide variety of sports and activities.
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