The role of strength training in youth sports has long been a point of contention among parents, coaches and even doctors. Much of that has to do with a lack of understanding and myths about the subject.
You might be surprised to learn that whether your child is ready for strength training has more to do with the maturity of their mind than their body. If your child is mentally ready to listen to coaches and understand the rules of sports, they are most likely ready to comprehend the direction needed to safely start a resistance training program to build strength and help avoid injury.
WHY IT’S NECESSARY
Kids today do not get the same amount of outdoor free play or physical education that previous generations did. Climbing trees for hours on end used to be “natural” strength training disguised as a lot of fun. But, the increased use of digital devices combined with cuts to physical education programs have diminished the exercise kids get on a daily basis.
In order to make sure kids still have opportunities to build strength, parents now need to make deliberate choices to incorporate strength training into sports and free time.
Medical professionals can propagate myths about strength training at an early age. You’ve probably been told by someone that kids who lift weights can damage their growth plates and are susceptible to bone fractures. But in our research, published in American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal, I have found no evidence to back up these claims.
Strength training is a tool that can be used to reduce the risk of injury for a child who plays sports. The science shows that your child’s body can handle loads much heavier than anything we would ever use in a training session.
By measuring ground reaction forces, we’ve found that when your son or daughter runs and jumps, high-impulse loads of anywhere from two to ten times their body weight can pass through their open growth plates without causing any damage. For comparison that could be as much as much as 1,000 pounds of force that is safely dissipated and by a child’s growing body. That is much more than any child would be subjected to in a structured strength training program.
WHEN TO START
Strength training for kids doesn’t mean you’re taking your 5-year-old child to the gym for squats, bench press and dumbbell curls. In my experience kids who are around 7 or 8 years old are mentally ready to understand the direction needed for the first phase of a strength training program. Again, strength training doesn’t always mean we’re dealing with weights.
For beginners, training often means doing exercises disguised as games. We will have younger children do things like mimic animals in order for them to strengthen important muscle groups. For instance, jumping like a kangaroo, or walking like a bear, can be a fun way for kids to get stronger without even knowing they’re exercising. Once a young athlete progresses in these exercises and builds strength, we can then add external sources of resistance like balls or weights.
To put this idea in perspective, if a child started in a strength training program at age 7, they could be ready for these more advanced weight room exercises by the time they are ten. But, it’s important to remember that each child is different and the proper age to start a more advanced training program can fluctuate depending on the individual.
When we talk about training age we’re referring to how many years a child has been in a training program. For example, if a 16-year-old is just starting a training program he or she has a training age of 0. The 16-year-old will start with exercises very similar to what a much younger child would do, who is also just getting started.
Compare that scenario to a 10-year-old who has been training since they were seven and has a training age of 3. Even though the 10-year-old is obviously younger than the 16-year-old, they may be ready for more advanced high-load, high-demand, sport-related activities because they have more strength training experience. That added training experience will help the 10-year-old be more prepared for athletics and hopefully avoid injury because their body is ready for these physical demands.
To put it in a more traditional context. Think of training age in tiers. The first tier is play based, the second tier incorporates external sources of resistance, and the third tier includes more traditional weight room activities.
If you have a child who is interested in sports, or already participating, I highly encourage you to get them started in a strength training program. Do your homework and find a qualified strength training instructor, who understands the fundamental principles of pediatric exercise science to help them be successful.
At Cincinnati Children’s we offer Dynamic Neuromuscular Analysis (DNA) training programs for youth. This is a highly individualized and customizable program for aspiring, young athletes. DNA is targeted at athletes who are looking to optimize physical performance to meet athletic goals. Other potential options include your local YMCA or Next College Student Athlete. Regardless of the programming it is never too late to get your child into a structured strength training program to enhance the lifelong benefits of stronger bones and muscles.