Youth athletes are under increasing pressure these days to start a strength or resistance training program at an early age. But while it may be generally true that greater strength leads to better performance, the same cannot be said for athletes before the age of puberty. This is because children are, well, children, not mini-adults. Because the growth plates at the end of the major bones in a child's arms and legs are open, their muscles and bones are still developing, and because their hormone levels aren't the same as adults, an intense strength and conditioning program is inappropriate before skeletal maturity.
Strength and conditioning training goals
While there is little debate that "too much" strength and conditioning training at a young age is counterproductive, a light strength training regimen is okay, even at young ages, for three reasons:
- To satisfy the athlete's psychological need to maximize performance;
- To develop movement patterns that allow an athlete to maximize skills and muscle force while laying a proper foundation for the future.
- To educate a young athlete on proper strength training techniques.
Culture creates psychological need
There is an unfortunate belief in youth sports that more and earlier are better. More and more young athletes are specializing in a single sport at an early age, playing sports year-round with taking a season off to let the body rest and recover, and incorporating into their training techniques that are designed and only appropriate for professional athletes.
It isn't likely that the youth sports culture is going to change any time soon, if ever. It therefore may be better to allow young athletes to participate strength and conditioning training as nod to the culture and to satisfy a perceived psychological need for more training and focusing instead on making sure that the training is limited and age- and developmentally-appropriate.
An exercise program that includes un-weighted squats, lunges, push-ups, and pull ups, and strength routines for abdominal, lower back, and cardiovascular training can all promote strong core stability in the body without posing significant risk of injury to a child's growing body. At the same time, parents and coaches should try to keep young athletes from rushing into the gym to participate in Olympic lifting, heavy bench pressing, and a dozen set of biceps curls that can lead to overuse injuries and the development of bad training techniques.
Developing good training habits
A light resistance or strength and conditioning program can help young athletes develop good training habits early in their sports career that will make it more likely they will be active adults. Conversely, an athlete can get into bad habits without proper guidance. As a child progresses in sports, these "good" or "bad" movement patterns translate to success in throwing, hitting, catching, running, jumping, etc.
As athletes learn a task, such as throwing, the brain completes a "trial and error" method with every toss. The body essentially attempts to find the most efficient way to throw, while producing desired results (e.g. throwing faster, farther, and more accurately). Strength training that trains a child's neuromuscular system can therefore be beneficial, so long as it is not too intense.
An exercise, such a walking lunge, helps a child develop lower quarter strength and stamina with repetitions. Done appropriately, the exercise leads to better balance and increased core strength, both of which benefit a young athlete, regardless of the sport he is playing. Conversely, performing the exercise improperly (e.g. leaning significantly to one side, which usually is the result of trying to do the exercise too fast), can imprint bad movement patterns. The development of such patterns can lead to problems down the road, as a young athlete's skeleton matures and his body can handle more muscle, strength, and power.
Parents: caught in the middle
Thus, educating athletes, parents, and coaches about age- and developmentally-appropriate strength training is critical. Too often, athletes are influenced by what they see their older siblings doing or what they see on YouTube. Coaches will go to clinics where ex-professionals demonstrate their workout routines and preach how their particular training regimen contributed to their success. Parents can get caught in the middle between young athletes begging for a gym membership and coaches who claim to be the experts.
What everyone needs to always keep in mind is that the purpose of strength training is to maximize performance while reducing risk of injury. Too often, coaches and athletes are short-sighted in their approach to strength training, only looking at the immediate benefits. If a ten year old starts doing heavy sports training exercises, such as power squats and dead lifting, there will likely be immediate benefits. The athlete will demonstrate a little more power, speed, and general aptitude for their sport, such as hitting a baseball harder. While good in the short term, regular and escalating adherence to this workout philosophy slowly increases the risk of injury and exposure of growing body parts to damage. In the end, a young athlete peaks at 14 years old and begins to break down fast while in high school.
Appetizer, not main course
Again, keep in mind that the purpose of strength training in sports is to maximize performance while reducing risk of injury. Too often, the reducing risk of injury part is not highlighted enough because maximizing performance offers more immediate gratification. Remembering and working to achieve the three goals of youth strength training discussed above (psychological, neurological, and educational) are far more important than gaining muscle mass. As a child ages,his bones and muscles mature and be better able to handle the increased stress a heavy strength training program places on his body. Focusing only on the benefits of the now may end up putting the future potential of an athlete at serious risk.
In the end, strength and conditioning training is more of a youth sports appetizer adjunct to youth sports, not the main course. Keep the focus on the fun and utilize age appropriate training and the young athletes of today have a chance to become the sports stars of tomorrow.
Keith J. Cronin is a physical therapist in the St. Louis, Missouri area and a MomsTeam expert.
Created May 12, 2010; updated January 4, 2012