A controversial issue among parents, coaches, and educators is the age at which young athletes, and children in general, should begin strength training. You may have heard that pre-adolescent children and young adults should not lift weights because such training puts too much strain on growing muscles and connective tissue. You also may have heard that training with weights can cause injury to the growth center of developing bones, or that it simply doesn’t work with pre-adolescents because they lack levels of the specific hormones needed to stimulate muscle development. Studies conducted over the past couple of decades leave little doubt that these notions are false. Research findings clearly demonstrate that pre-adolescent boys and girls will benefit from a properly designed, age-appropriate strength training program. The most obvious benefits are increased strength and improved body composition. Strength gains in teenagers have also been shown to promote increased levels of physical activity, enhance self-esteem and improve self-confidence. For boys and girls involved in athletic activities, strength training can reduce the risk of muscle imbalance and overuse injuries.
Although it may be true that pre-adolescent boys and females of all ages lack the testosterone levels required to develop large muscles, both girls and boys can improve muscular strength and endurance through progressive resistance training. This is possible because strength development is in part associated with neuromuscular factors and is not dependent entirely on hormone levels. Progressive resistance exercise is a method of training in which the weight being moved or lifted (‘the resistance”) is increased in small amounts as the individual becomes stronger to facilitate muscular adaptation to the increased weight. This type of training is essential for building muscle, losing weight and getting stronger.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), a leader in the fitness and wellness field, supports strength training as a safe and effective activity for pre-adolescents provided that the programs are properly designed and competently administered. Supervision should be provided by qualified professionals to ensure that strength training programs are consistent with the needs, goals and abilities of each participant. The ACSM contends that children and adolescents can participate in strength training programs once they have the emotional maturity to accept and follow directions.
Your son can also improve strength and power though body-weight training exercises. This age-old form of training uses a person’s body weight as the resistance to be moved. Push-ups, pull-ups, dips, sit-ups, and lunges are examples of body-weight exercises. As with free weight exercises, body weight training can be a safe and effective method of improving strength provided that the exercises are performed correctly. One potential drawback of body weight training is the difficulty of adjusting the resistance (weight) to match an individual’s present level of strength. For example, a teenager who has never trained before may not be able to perform even one pull-up but is not able to adjust body weight to match present levels of strength.
Dr. Wayne Wescott, a leading authority on fitness and strength training who has conducted strength-training programs with children as young as 6 years of age, has reported that all participants enrolled in his programs achieved significant strength gains while none experienced a training-related injury. Programs conducted specifically with 13– to 15-year old boys and girls showed that those who strength trained over a period of several months experienced significantly greater strength gains and improved body composition when compared with those who did not train. The exercisers added more muscle mass and lost more body fat than the non-exercisers. Wescott also emphasizes the need for adequate supervision by persons who are knowledgeable about strength training and suggests the following guidelines when designing an age-appropriate program for teens:
- Workouts should begin with a warm-up and conclude with a cool-down. Include low intensity aerobic exercise and stretching in both.
- All exercises should be performed through a full range of motion.
- Two or three workouts per week for 20 to 30 minutes per session is recommended.
- Choose six to 10 exercises that address all major muscle groups.
- Do not add resistance until the child can perform the exercise with correct form.
- Perform six to 15 repetitions per set and one to three sets per exercise.
- As training progresses, two or three sets of eight to 12 reps per exercise may be advisable.
- No maximum lifts should ever be attempted.
In summary, major health research organizations like the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), and the National Athletic Trainers Organization (NATA) have all endorsed age-appropriate resistance training for youth. The key word here is age-appropriate. If age-related guidelines are followed, then strength training can be an enjoyable, beneficial and healthy experience for your son.