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Strength training and its impact on youth athletes

Strength training and the impact it has on children is a topic that’s been researched and debated for decades. There are many beliefs surrounding the effects of youth strength training—most notably, that it will stunt a child’s growth. But where did this idea come from and why has it stuck around for so long?

What does the research say?

It turns out that this concern started in the 1970s and 1980s after studies of data from the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS) showed increases of epiphyseal injuries (injury to growth plates) in youth lifters (1). After being reviewed more recently, it was determined that a significant number of the injuries that had been identified were the result of poor instruction and coaching.
So, does there appear to be a risk of growth being stunted?

Yes—if a child takes part in strength training in an unsupervised setting or receives poor / bad coaching, their risk of experiencing an injury to their epiphyseal areas may increase. If this happens, the bone may experience growth related issues. Even then, in most cases the injured plate will heal and continue developing normally into adulthood.
Otherwise, if a child strength trains in a safe, supervised setting with satisfactory mechanics their risk of injury remains similar to that of adults taking part in comparable training.

Consequently, it has become generally agreed upon by medical professionals that a well-structured and supervised strength training program is not dangerous for children to participate in (2). It’s estimated that strength training injuries in children occur at a rate of 0.054 per 100 “participant hours”(3,4). For comparison, average injury rates of advanced adult bodybuilders were found to be 0.062 per 100 hours – slightly higher than the rates found in children (5).

When injuries in children did occur, the most commonly reported sites of injury were the back and the trunk. For the most part these injuries were not serious and resolved within a week.

What’s the takeaway?

The takeaway is that our fears related to children and strength training doesn’t seem to be backed up with evidence. The evidence we have suggests that with proper guidance a child will experience strength, power, and flexibility improvements without exposure to a significant risk of injury.
With that said, we should probably define what we mean by strength training.
First, let’s talk about what it doesn’t mean. Strength training for children doesn’t mean they will be performing Olympic lifts with a loaded barbell. Could they? Probably. Will they? Probably—but they need to gain other experience first.
Training with adolescents should start with movements related to their sport in order to develop strength in ways that will be directly transferable to the game.
Developing strength won’t necessarily improve sport performance—but engaging in exercises that incorporate sport specific stimulus will probably increase the benefit that the athlete experiences.

Conclusion

If you’re apprehensive about letting your child or teenager start strength training, your fears aren’t unsubstantiated. Strength training can be dangerous and needs to be performed safely in the presence of a well-trained fitness professional. Learning to move well and executing workouts with proper mechanics should be the focus when starting a program. Attempting to maximize the amount of weight or resistance is not important at this point of their athletic development.
Using this strategy, a child will develop a strong strength training foundation in a safe and effective environment.

 

 

1. Milone, Michael T, et al. “There Is No Need to Avoid Resistance Training (Weight Lifting) until Physeal Closure.” The Physician and Sportsmedicine, U.S. National Library of Medicine, Nov. 2013, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24393806/.
2. Myers, Allison M, et al. “Resistance Training for Children and Adolescents.” Translational
Pediatrics, AME Publishing Company, July 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5532191/#r13.
3. Lillegard WA, Brown EW, Wilson DJ, et al. Efficacy of strength training in prepubescent to early postpubescent males and females: effects of gender and maturity. Pediatr Rehabil 1997;1:147-57. 10.3109/17518429709167353
4. Sadres E, Eliakim A, Constantini N, et al. The Effect of Long-Term Resistance Training on Anthropometric Measures, Muscle Strength, and Self Concept in Pre-Pubertal Boys. Pediatr Exerc Sci 2001;13:357-72. 10.1123/pes.13.4.357
5. Keogh, Justin W L, and Paul W Winwood. “The Epidemiology of Injuries Across the Weight-Training Sports.” Sports Medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), U.S. National Library of Medicine, Mar. 2017, www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27328853.

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