Adolescent strength training

As the sports season changes and our student athletes move indoors for more exercise and training, I am often asked by parents of adolescents and pre-adolescents, “should my child be lifting weights?” This is an excellent question, as parents and coaches worry about the risk of injury to the young athlete by “overtraining”.  Current research in the world of strength and conditioning is demonstrating the safety of resistance training in youth, however there are risks.

Two of the main concerns for anyone beginning a strength training routine are quality of the movements performed and intensity of load applied.  This combination of variables is even more important when discussing training protocols for adolescents and pre-adolescents as developing bones with un-fused growth plates are at risk for damage if the load or intensity applied is too high.  With regard to form, often young athletes, especially pre-adolescents, do not have the training experience or muscle maturity to perform complex movements with free weights without guidance of coach or professional.

A safe place to start with any young athlete is performing body weight training, using complex movements such as squats, pushups, pullups, walking lunges, plyometrics and light free weights.  The most current research is showing that healthy children,  cleared by their doctor to participate in sport activities, are safe to begin resistance training between the ages of 10 and 12 years old.

Searching on the internet will likely give you an endless number of professionally designed routines for youth strength training, but simple adherence to a few principals should be universal to any program.  Anyone starting a weight or resistance based program in this age group should be screened by a trainer, strength coach, physical therapist, or experienced coach to look for proper movement patterns and form while squatting, jumping, and performing pressing maneuvers with the upper body.  Second, the routine should be designed to accommodate the sport season if participating.  Third, with youth and beginner strength training, the workout days should be designed around a few basic lifts for the upper and lower body that involve multiple muscle groups (ie:  squats, deadlifts, standing shoulder press, lunges etc.)  Once exercises are chosen, adolescent and pre-adolescents should be performing no less than 8-10 reps on a particular set, allowing the weight to be far less (less than 60% of a 1 repetition maximum.)  This allows the body to focus on building endurance, proper form, and reduce the chances of overloading the developing growth plates.  Lastly, frequency should be kept to 2-3 days per week to allow the body to fully recover and avoid overtraining, as rapidly growing bones increase the likelihood of strains and tendonitis.

As with any program involving weight training, if pain or discomfort persist beyond a normal 48-72 hour period from the time of completion extra rest should be given and the load/intensity should be reduced.

–By Shawn Tuthill, MSPT, CSCS


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