Strength and conditioning is a vital aspect for all young athletes performance and development.
There are often many questions asked when referring to a young athletes training regime, “when should they initiate a supervised strength and conditioning program?”, “Is it safe to do so?”, “Will their growth be affected?” These are all legitimate questions of concern to parents and caregivers.
The opportunity for children to participate in more competitive environments at earlier ages is a trend which has increased over the past years, driving the many questions around training, but more specifically, “when is too young to start an organised strength and conditioning program?”
The Australian Strength and Conditioning Association (ASCA), hold the position that if a child is ready to participate in organised structured sport that are generally ready to participate in a supervised resistance training program. It is of the opinion that the earliest a child should begin a structured strength program is 6 years old, this starting age is fluid and very much dependent on the ability of the child to follow clear instructions. Training intensity and loading protocols vary depending on age and development. A rough guideline for athletic development can be seen below.
6-9 years of age: modification of body weight exercises and light resistance
9-12 years of age: 10-15 RM; (maximal loading approximately 60% maximum)
12-15 years of age: 8-15 RM; (maximal loading approximately 70% maximum)
15-18 years of age: 6-15 RM; (maximal loading approximately 80% maximum)
The concept of this outline doesn’t differ much from the mindset and approach we would take with an adult, regardless of their training experience. We would still check to make sure the technique is sound, that everything is moving well and functioning as it should before adding any load. Yes, someone with more training experience will likely move through this stage faster but the concept remains, the only difference being recommended age brackets in regards to progressions when dealing with youth.
Injury Risk, Growth and Height
Touching back on the question of safety, the effect on growth and eventual height. Evidence suggests that the key growth and development phase in childhood and early adolescence may be the most beneficial time to implement weight-bearing activities. Such as during a time while the body is continually developing bone mineral density, mass, and structure. In regards to growth and height, there are no studies to indicated that resistance training will effect eventual height or cause injury to growth plates.
Youth typically have lower levels of joint and muscle sprains when compared with adults. Injury risk for youth in strength programs generally arise from unsupervised accidents either with equipment or from inappropriate training loads. This is where a qualified supervisor/coach becomes critical to the safety and effectiveness of a strength and conditioning program.
Let’s get onto the good stuff, the benefits!
A dynamic, multi-faceted approach to training has widely been shown to reduce injury risk amongst young athletes, very much similar to the effect it has on adults. It is vital to initially develop fundamental motor patterns in youth athletes that can then be transitioned over to competition or into the gym. Generally, athletes that regularly participate in a well-structured training program will often suffer fewer injuries and be able to recover faster from any injury sustained.
Benefits of resistance training in youth:
- Improvements in muscular strength
- Power production
- Running velocity
- Change-of-direction speed
- General motor performance
Integrative neuromuscular training (INT) is a conceptual training model that describes a training program that incorporates a range of general and specific strength and conditioning activities specifically designed to enhance health and skill-related components of physical fitness. Health-related components including flexibility, muscular strength, muscular endurance, body composition, and cardiovascular health. Skill-related components including coordination, speed, power, balance and agility.
By taking a multi-faceted approach for the athlete we are ensuring that they are physically prepared for all requirements of their chosen sport or activity.
The below graph represents the difference between the initiation of these integrative training techniques during pre-adolescence and adolescence compared to sport only and no sport.
The graph displays a clear benefit of initiating neuromuscular training during both pre-adolescence and adolescence stages of development. Neuromuscular training initiated earlier in the developmental stage likely leads to greater neuromuscular performance and greater capacity above mature performance potential.
Take home points
- If a child is ready to participate in organised structured sport, they are generally ready to participate in a supervised resistance training program.
- Resistance training initiated at an early age is beneficial to physical growth and development, while not being associated with growth abnormalities and increased injury risk.
- A multi-faceted approach to strength and conditioning (such as the integrative neuromuscular training model) is beneficial for injury prevention, performance enhancement, and motor development + capacity.