Should young and adolescent athletes participate in weights and resistance training? This is a commonly discussed and often controversial topic debated within sports and exercise circles. In my role as a physiotherapist in a sports medicine practice, questions commonly arise regarding the risks/dangers and value of adolescent strength training. The common notion is that it stunts paediatric growth, is dangerous and unnecessary, has the potential to damage growth plates or is not as important as athletic based training. These beliefs are common in parents, coaches and those involved with adolescent sport, as well as some medical professionals. However, significant recent research has shown that strength training is very safe and applicable in paediatric populations, and these outdated opinions need to change!
Recent evidence suggests that resistance exercise is safe and worthwhile, provided it is done in a supervised manner with age-appropriate instruction and safe training guidelines1. In fact, rather than being dangerous, structured and specific resistance exercise programs have a beneficial effect and may reduce injury risk in active children1. Injuries related to resistance exercise most commonly occur through accidents in training, or poor technique that is not corrected effectively1. Furthermore, no adverse effects relating to the growth plates or bony structures have been found with the delivery of a suitable and specific strength program2. Additionally, there has been no adverse effects on development or maturation reported when delivered in an appropriate manner under supervision1,2.
Importantly, not only are there minimal adverse events of strength training, there are numerous benefits, resulting in strength training becoming a recommended component of many youth training programs3. The benefits of adolescent strength training include; improved strength, increase in bone density, increased speed and power as well as decreased fat and increased lean muscle mass3. Along with these physical changes, it has also been shown to play an important role in the physical and emotional development of active children/adolescents, as well as improving self-esteem3. With the highly competitive nature of today’s youth sporting environment, incorporating resistance exercise can help accelerate the development of a more rounded athlete, both on and off the field. Along with the obvious physical benefits, overall athletic skills have also been found to benefit from strength, speed and complex training sessions4. This improvement in physical function and skill has also been linked to a better transition from domestic/local to elite training and competition4. Essentially, incorporating some form of bodyweight or strength training can help improve the overall development and maturation (in a sporting sense) of paediatric and adolescent athletes.
It is important to understand youth bodies are not adult bodies, and what works for an adult will not work for a 12-year-old. Exercises and activities need to be fun, enjoyable and engaging with the youth athlete, standing in a gym doing exercise for 40 minutes is rarely going to work with a child. With this in mind, there remains much debate surrounding the appropriate volume and training parameters for youth athletes, as due to varying developmental timelines, it is hard to generalise between ages. Below is an example of age-appropriate volume parameters for different age groups (Figure 1).
There are many considerations that need to be made with adolescent athletes and why it is important that training is supervised by a professional. For instance; total load varies significantly between kids, and as such, school sport and other outside interests must be factored in when designing a training program, as one of the biggest injury risks is from overload3. Further, the difference in age and physical maturity (including puberty) needs to be accounted for, as a child must be physically mature and ready for resistance exercise. Importantly, both parent and child should be educated about the reasons behind the training program and goals should be specific to the child’s interests. However, with this in mind, as long as general guidelines are followed (Figure 2.), there should be no issues with application of resistance training.
Overall, strength training and progressive resistance training should not be based off chronological age alone, rather maturity, development (height/weight), education and strength and fitness levels should all be taken into account2. Strength and resistance training is safe and effective in adolescent athletes, and if undertaken with suitable instruction and education, can be extremely effective in the management of younger athletes.
A D Faigenbaum. (2010). Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(1), 56–63.McEntyre, A. S. (2018). Strength Training for Children and Adolescents: A Progression to Future Health and Performance. Journal of Australian Strength & Conditioning, 26(5), 48–71.Lloyd, R. S., Faigenbaum, A. D., Stone, M. H., Oliver, J. L., Jeffreys, I., Moody, J. A., … Howard, R. (2014). Position statement on youth resistance training: the 2014 International Consensus. BRITISH JOURNAL OF SPORTS MEDICINE, (7), 498.Winwood, P. W., & Buckley, J. J. (2019). Short-Term Effects of Resistance Training Modalities on Performance Measures in Male Adolescents. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, (3), 641.