The idea of strength training for youth athletes was controversial for a long time. There was an idea that it was harmful to do strength training in a pre-pubescent age due to issues with development of the growth plates.
The debate is over. Nowadays, it is widely accepted that the benefits outweigh the risks of strength training in youth athletes. The most dangerous thing regarding strength training for youth athletes is a negative mindset that may be harmful and holding an athlete back because of a fear that is not warranted.
BENEFITS OF STRENGTH TRAINING FOR YOUTH ATHLETES
Learning how to move the body.
Movement literacy is the ability to plan and execute basic motor skills, like running and jumping. Kids tend to move awkwardly, especially boys. Teaching youth athletes efficient ways to move will improve their movement literacy, which will transfer into higher level athletic skills.
Building tissue resilience.
The tissues in the body (i.e. muscles, tendons, bones, etc.) become more resistant to injuries from strength training. This can help reduce overuse injuries and also help athletes better handle contact injuries. A balanced strength training routine can also help with combating imbalances you may see with someone who specializes in a sport at a very young age.
Fighting chronic diseases.
Literature shows that interest levels in sports are declining in our youth. On top of that, the typical diet is packed with all sorts of processed, unhealthy “foods.” Strength training at a young age can help fight exercise deficiency disorder, which is defined as a disproportionate ratio of lack of movement and an increase in chronic diseases.
Kids who are involved in sports and strength training feel physically and mentally better than those who are not involved in sports. Mental health is so important. Anything we can do to tip the scales towards better mental health, we should do.
The benefits of strength training far outweigh the cons. It is much riskier to not have your child participate in sports or a strength training program. CrossFit gyms do a great job in offering kids programs to help them learn the fundamentals of how to squat, how to hinge from the hips, and how to properly push and pull. This helps kids learn how to move their body and sets them up for success down the road.
When form is good, we can look at adding heavier loads. However, there are many ways to increase the challenge of movement without adding load. Tempo (slow and controlled) squats are an incredible way to learn how to squat well. You can implement isometric holds for resistance without adding an external load.
As their movement literacy improves and their body awareness is matured, then adding load is a safe and effective way to maximize the benefits of training. For a youth athlete, you should consider aiming for a submaximal load of 50-75% of a predicted 1 rep max. This honestly isn’t too far off from an adult’s weight range for hypertrophy training, but maybe a little less relatively.
Get the kids out there. Let them play. Show them how to move. Keep them healthy by leading them towards a healthy lifestyle.
Corey Hall, PT, DPT