Should Youth Athletes Strength Train?

Should youth athletes engage in strength training? STACK Expert Tammy Kovaluk surveys the research and presents her conclusions.

Young girl lifting weight

Is strength training safe for younger athletes? Is it effective? Will it help or harm your child? Young athletes can benefit from proper programming and technique, but safety must be their main concern.

Youth Strength Training and Stunted Growth

With appropriately designed and supervised strength training programs, there have been hardly any reported cases of fractures or growth plate injuries. The few cases that have been reported resulted from unqualified supervision and improper training.[1] Those two factors can contribute to injury at any time—not just during strength training. In fact, growth plates in prepubescent children are strong and resistant to shearing forces, one of the main causes of injury in the weight room.[1]

On the farms, before machines took over, everyone performed manual labor—including kids. The wheelbarrow was the Deadlift, bailing hay was the Power Clean, and carrying milk buckets resembled modern-day Farmer's Walks. Despite the physical labor, the vast majority of these young adults suffered no ill effects associated with stunted growth.

Will Strength Training Cause Injury?

The majority of bodybuilding, weight lifting and power lifting injuries are associated with haphazard training routines, not with competent strength training programs.[1] Documented injuries were most prevalent in the 1990s, when the strength and conditioning profession was new and training was done predominantly by unqualified people prescribing improper technique and excessive loading.

A great deal of documentation deals with the safety and effectiveness of child and adolescent strength training. The NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association), ACSM (American College of Sports Medicine), AAP (American Academy of Pediatrics) and AOSSM (American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine) all support children's participation in appropriately designed and competently supervised strength training programs.[1] Supervision by a qualified professional is key to minimizing injury risk.[1]

Benefits of Strength Training for Youth Athletes

Proper strength training programs can benefit young athletes in many ways.

Reduced Injury Risk

A well-designed, properly supervised program can prevent injuries by reducing muscle weaknesses and imbalances, and improving sport-specific movement patterns.[1] Injuries caused by overuse can occur in any repetitive activity (e.g., running, throwing or swimming). However, most overuse injuries result from weakness or imbalance. For example, youth athletes should be able to perform a proper Squat or Lunge without their knees collapsing inward. Without sufficient strength, they risk knee injuries and chronic ankle instability.[1],[2],[8]

Teaching fundamentals and developing solid movement patterns pay off big as children get old enough to lift heavier weights. If a child has developed proper form for complicated lifts, he or she is one step ahead of kids who may be new to weight training.

Better Sports Performance

Outside of simply building muscle and improving coordination, strength training has a large carryover in a youth's sport of choice. Developing more power and enhancing related motor skills help young athletes perform on the playing field with a competitive edge. Numerous studies have looked at the effects of soccer training versus a combination of strength and conditioning along with soccer training. In all studies, only the players in the latter group improved their vertical jump. There were no improvements in the soccer-only training group.[5]

Improvements in Self-Esteem and Confidence

Improvements in self-esteem and confidence are important and often overlooked.[1] Gaining a mental edge is often the difference between performing your best and turning in a subpar performance. By mastering exercise techniques, setting personal bests and achieving goals, young athletes can build confidence through strength training.

Better Health

Keeping kids active enhances their immediate health and can establish good behavior that lasts a lifetime. Finally, strength training can help lower cholesterol and has a favorable effect on blood lipid profiles, making it ideal for fat loss and weight maintenance in overweight children.[1]

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[1] Benjamin, H. J., & Glow, K. M. (2003). Strength training for children and adolescents. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 31(9).

[2] Distefano, L. J., Blackburn, J. T., Marshall, S. W., & Padua, D. A. (2009). Gluteal muscle activation during common therapeutic exercises. Journal of Orthopaedic & Sports Physical Therapy, 39(7), 532-540.

[3] Dufek, J.S. and B.T. Bates. The evaluation and prediction of impact forces during landing. Med. Sci. Sports Exerc. 22:370-377, 1990.

[4] Faigenbaum, A.D., Kraemer, W. J., Blimkie, C. J., Jeffreys, I., Micheli, L. J., Nitka, M., & Rowland, T. W. (2009). Youth resistance training: Updated position statement paper from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(5), S60-S79.

[5] Harries, S. K., Lubans, D. R., & Callister, R. (2012) Resistance training to improve power and sports performance in adolescent athletes: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Science and Medicine in Sport, 15, 532-540.

[6] Malina, R. (2006). Weight training in youth: growth, maturation, and safety: An evidence-based review. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 16(6), 478-487.

[7] Marsh, D. (2010). Little league elbow: Risk factors and prevention strategies. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 32(6), 22-37.

[8] Presswood, L., Cronin, J., Keogh, J. W. L., & Whatman, C. (2008). Gluteus medius: Applied anatomy, dysfunction, assessment, and progressive strengthening. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 30(5), 41-53.

[9] Valovich McLeod, T. C., Decoster, L. C., Loud, K. J., Micheli, L. J., Parker, J. T., Sandrey, M. A., & White, C. (2011). National athletic trainers' association position statement: Prevention of pediatric overuse injuries. Journal of Athletic Training, 46(2), 206-220.

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