When Should Youth Start Resistance Training?

We all know that parent who wastes no time in getting their 3 year old fitted for that sport:  golf, soccer, tennis, or racing.  Thanks to the likes of Tiger Woods, the Williams sisters, and let’s not forget those young Olympic athletes, in which the minimum age for participation in the youth events is 13. At some point, kids must be introduced to a strength training program to help their bodies adjust and adapt to the stresses of resistance training and to help teach proper technique.

So, why does weightlifting get such a bad rap, you ask?

FACT vs. FICTION – YOUTH RESISTANCE TRAINING

As a bodybuilder and a mother of two VERY active teenage boys, I will admit that I may be biased towards encouraging a well-balanced and targeted weightlifting program.  During the first couple of years of my Exercise Science degree the very elusive answer to the most commonly debated question: “What’s the earliest age to start a weight lifting program?” was answered in a plethora of schools of thought ranging from the psychological to the physiological.

After asking the many gurus within the curriculum of my ES degree, the motor development subject matter expert insisted to take my cues based on how well the child learned other skills.  The bio-mechanical subject matter expert insisted we wait to train a child until the right amount of musculoskeletal growth has occurred.  It wasn’t until I inquired of the exercise physiology subject matter expert that I received an answer that I didn’t expect to have little to do with the physiology of the child … he simply said: “Wait until the child is emotionally mature enough to take instruction.”

I’m thinking:

  • Wait what?
  • No physiological or biological explanations?
  • No motor or bio-mechanical contraindications?

Here’s why he said that over half the battle is taking cues from the child in how well he/she emotionally handles following instruction and authoritative coaching: SAFETY.  If a child can’t or won’t follow simple teaching, he/she likely won’t take proper care in how they are lifting the weight or why the way they are lifting the weight is important to safety.

This response intrigued me greatly because that meant that if children can learn the golfing swing pattern, the repetitive soccer dribbling drills, or a master front and back hand tennis swings, after years of early childhood coaching instruction, drilling, and practice, why can’t they learn to properly perform a basic weightlifting movement with a free weight or their own body weight?

So, here’s the deal: several fitness studies were released along with a statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) back in 1983 disapproving weightlifting for children and discouraging the activity due to high injury rates and the possibility of irreversible damage to growth plates, ligaments and tendons, resulting in stunted growth.  And coming from a highly regarded pediatric medical source, it’s easy to see why people believed, and continue to believe to this day, the dangers of preteen weightlifting.

In 2000, Clinical Sports Medicine published a study written by a pediatric exercise scientist, Avery Faigenbaum, professor at the College of New Jersey, Ewing, NJ wrote:

“If appropriate training guidelines are followed, regular participation in a youth strength-training program has the potential to increase bone mineral density, improve motor performance skills, enhance sports performance, and better prepare young athletes for the demands of practice and competition.”

Fast forward to 2010, and the AAP not only affirms Faigenbaum’s findings but then publishes their own review supporting the benefits of weightlifting for kids and revised their policy statement based on 60 years’ worth of research of, boys and girls ages 6-18, and weightlifting analyzed from Cologne, Germany from the Institute of Training Science and Sports Informatics.

Now you’re probably asking: How and where do we start?

YOUTH RESISTANCE TRAINING – GETTING STARTED

Well, we start where we’d start any other skill … by introducing youngsters to body weight exercises and free weights when they’re capable of following simple instruction.  The benefit of youth resistance training, when executed properly, can and will increase muscle tone, build strength, and boost performance; especially for children under 8 years old and for those who are just starting their training program.

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