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Strength Training For Youth Fitness



Most people are aware that North American boys and girls are experiencing epidemic levels of obesity, and that this problem is in large part associated with physical inactivity. However, the standard recommendations for more aerobic exercise and less high-calorie food intake may not be the best advice for overweight and underactive children.

Although we are not qualified to discuss youth nutrition/dieting, we have observed that very few boys and girls choose to spend 20 to 30 minutes in continuous endurance exercise regardless of the benefits or incentives to do so. On the other hand, children typically play hard or run fast for 30 to 60 seconds, rest a minute or two, then repeat their performance, alternating brief bouts of vigorous exercise with longer recovery periods.

Benefits of Strength Exercise for Children

Ideally, children should have access to exercise programs that meet their physiological needs and match their personal activity patterns. Fortunately, it is possible to provide such an exercise program, and the beneficial effects exceed most people’s expectations. The activity is sensible strength training and the following list presents 10 reasons for boys and girls to perform regular resistance exercise.

  1. Stronger muscles
  2. Stronger bones
  3. Stronger tendons
  4. Stronger ligaments
  5. more muscle
  6. Less fat
  7. Higher metabolism
  8. Greater physical capacity
  9. Greater self-confidence
  10. Lower ijury risk

Strength training not only offers many advantages over other types of exercise, it fits the youth activity preference alternating brief bouts of high-effort movement with longer periods of rest/recovery. Strength training also provides visual reinforcement to the exerciser, showing how much weight is being lifted and how much progress has been made. 

One of the best features of strength training is the success experienced by overweight boys and girls. Because weight lifted is positively related to bodyweight, heavier children typically train with heavier weightloads than their lighter peers. Unlike most athletic activities in which extra bodyweight is undesirable (e.g., running, jumping, soccer, basketball), strength training actually favors larger youth and gives them a much needed sense of physical achievement.

Unfortunately, many people mistakenly believe that strength training is an inappropriate and unsafe activity for youth. Conceptually, this does not make sense.  If strength training is safe and effective for frail elderly, how much more so for healthy young people who have full movement capacity and plenty of energy. 

Indeed, there has never been a reported serious injury in any prospective study on youth strength training. To the contrary, according to the American College of Sports Medicine (l993), 50 percent of preadolescent sports injuries could be prevented in large part by youth strength and conditioning programs. We have conducted regular strength training classes for 6 to 12 years old for the past 17 years without an injury.

You may have heard that strength training is detrimental to bone development in children, but this misconception has never been demonstrated.  On the contrary, strength training has been shown to enhance bone development. In a 10-month study with 9 to 10 year old girls, those who did strength and aerobic exercise increased their bone mineral density by about 6.2 percent, compared to about 1.4 percent for those who did not strength train (Morris et al. 1977).

You may have also heard that calisthenics exercises are safer for children than strength training. This is also untrue. Most children, and especially those who are under-fit and over-fat, cannot complete a single pull-up, bar-dip or push-up, making these calisthenics maximum-effort exercises that result in failure.  However, when using resistance equipment, the weightload can be adjusted as necessary for each child to perform 10 to 15 controlled repetitions of every exercise.

Finally, some question whether children can gain strength and enhance muscular development due to low levels of testosterone. However, if this were true, then women and elderly individuals would also be unresponsive to strength training, and this is clearly untrue.  In fact, studies have revealed significant increases in muscle strength and mass in preadolescent boys and girls (Faigenbaum et al. 1993, Morris et al. 1997, Pikosky at al. 2002, Westcott et al. 1995), and these strength training effects are relatively long-lasting (Faigenbaum et al. 1996).

Youth Strength Training Guidelines

Although there are certain similarities between optimal strength training protocols for adults and children, we have discovered some notable differences, especially in the area of sets and repetitions.

Training Sets

Our best research results were obtained using the DeLorme-Watkins strength training protocol in which the first exercise set is performed for 10 repetitions with 50 percent of the 10 repetition-maximum (10-RM) weightload, the second exercise set is performed for 10 repetitions with 75 percent of the 10-RM weightload, and the final exercise set is performed for as many repetitions as possible with the 10-RM weightload. 

When 15 repetitions can be completed a higher 10-RM weightload is determined and the training protocol is continued. After eight weeks of training, the 10-year old boys and girls who followed this program increased their overall muscle strength (5 exercises) by 74% compared to a 13-percent strength gain for the matched control subjects (Faigenbaum et al. 1993).

A follow-up study with the more challenging Berger strength training protocol – 3 sets of 6 repetitions each using the 6-repetition maximum (6-RM) weightload produced less improvement (47 percent strength gain) over the same 8-week training period (Faigenbaum et al. 1996). 

These comparative results suggested that three high-effort sets of each exercise may not be necessary for strength development in preadolescents.  Due to time constraints, our youth strength studies over the past six years have incorporated one set of each resistance exercise with excellent results and no injuries.

Training Repetitions

Because the children in these studies appeared to respond better to higher repetition training, we conducted a more specific repetitions study (Faigenbaum et al. 1999). Half of the children performed one exercise set to muscle fatigue using 6 to 8 repetitions and the other half performed one exercise set to muscle fatigue using 13 to 15 repetitions. 

The average strength improvement for the lower repetition group was 18 percent compared to 29 percent for the higher repetition group. These results were consistent with our previous studies and supported higher repetition strength training protocols for preadolescents.

Training Frequency

With respect to training frequency, we have observed similar strength gains for children who exercise two or three non-consecutive days per week, which is consistent with our research on adult trainees (Westcott and Guy 1996). 

We recommend beginning with two weekly strength workouts with the option of adding a third training session if so desired by the participating youth.

Training Progression

While there are no hard and fast rules for increasing the exercise resistance, we follow a double progressive protocol to reduce the risk of doing too much too soon. For example, we begin with a weightload that the child can perform for 10-13 repetitions. 

When 15 repetitions can be completed we increase the resistance by as little as possible (typically 1 to 5 pounds), and not more than five percent (e.g., 20 lbs to 21 lbs; 40 lbs to 42 lbs). The child trains with the higher weightload until 15 repetitions can be completed, then again increases the resistance slightly. Gradual progression is the key to successful youth strength training, facilitating safe workouts that are both challenging and reinforcing.

Training Technique

Training technique includes movement speed, movement range, correct breathing, and proper posture during the exercise performance. We prefer controlled movement speed, with about two seconds for each lifting movement and about two seconds for each lowering movement. In this manner a set of 15 repetitions can be completed in approximately 60 seconds, which represents an appropriate bout of high-effort, anaerobic exercise.

We generally recommend full movement range on simple exercises (e.g., biceps curl, triceps extension) and moderate movement range on complex exercises (e.g., leg press, chest press) in which excessively stretched starting positions may be problematic.

Correct breathing technique requires exhaling during lifting movements (concentric muscle actions) and inhaling during lowering movement (eccentric muscle actions). Proper posture facilitates correct breathing and exercise performance, and is typically characterized by standing or sitting tall, keeping the head up, shoulders square, torso erect, and hips level, as well as avoiding twisting, turning and squirming actions.

Youth Strength Training Exercises

Our experience indicates that preadolescents should perform between 6 and 12 strength exercises each training session. The exercise program should address all of the major muscle groups, including the quadriceps, hamstrings, gluteals, spinal erectors, abdominals, pectoralis major, latissimus dorsi, deltoids, upper trapezius, biceps and triceps.  If children have access to youth-sized resistance machines we recommend the following exercises.

Youth Exercise Machines Major Muscles Addressed Key Points For Safe And Effective Performance
Leg extension Quadriceps Knee joints must be aligned with machine axis of rotation.
Leg curl Hamstrings Knee joints must be aligned with machine axis of rotation.
Leg press Quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteals Knee joints should not be flexed more than 90 degrees, and should not be extended to lockout position.
Trunk extension Spinal erectors Trunk should be extended about 30 degrees beyond neutral (straight) position.
Trunk flexion Abdominals Trunk should be flexed about 30 degrees beyond neutral (straight) position.
Chest cross Pectoralis major Shoulder joints must be aligned with machine axes of rotation.
Seated row Latissimus dorsi and biceps Chest should contact front pad throughout the exercise.
Shoulder press Deltoids, triceps and upper trapezius Back should contact seatback throughout the exercise. Hand should be above shoulder level in starting position.
Arm curl Biceps Elbow joints must be aligned with machine axis of rotation.
Arm extension Triceps Elbow joints must be aligned with machine axis of rotation.

Although child-sized resistance equipment is well suited for smaller framed boys and girls, most preadolescents can train safely and productively on adult machines that use linear (pushing or pulling) movements. For example, the following adult resistance machines are appropriate for most boys and girls.

Adult Exercise Machines Major Muscles Addressed Key Points For Safe And Effective Performance
Leg press Quadriceps, hamstrings, and gluteals Knee joint should not be flexed more than 90 degrees, and should not be extended to lockout position. Feet should be placed at bottom of foot pad.
Bench press Pectoralis major and triceps Hips, back and head should contact bench throughout the exercise. Hands should be above chest level in starting position.
Pulldown Latissimus dorsi and biceps Torso should remain relatively erect throughout the exercise. Elbow joints should not be fully extended.
Shoulder press Deltoids, triceps and upper trapezius Back should contact seatback throughout the exercise. Hands should be above shoulder level in starting position.
Weight-assisted bar dip Pectoralis major and triceps Torso should remain erect throughout the exercise. Elbow joints should not be flexed more than 90 degrees.
Weight-assisted chin up Latissimus dorsi and biceps Torso should remain erect throughout the exercise. Elbow joints should not be completely extended.

Resistance machines are particularly useful for overweight children because bodyweight is supported. However, if resistance machines are not available, children can exercise safely and effectively with free-weights (dumbbells rather than barbells) or elastic bands, as long as they comply with the strength training guidelines.

For gradual progression in dumbbell exercises, one-pound magnetic add-on weights may be used. Consider the following dumbbell exercises as alternatives to machine strength training.

Free Weight Equipment Major Muscles Addressed Key Points For Safe And Effective Performance
Dumbbell squat Quadriceps, hamstrings and gluteals Hold dumbbells by sides. Squat to just above thighs horizontal position.  Keep torso erect and knees almost over feet.
Dumbbell bench press Pectoralis major and triceps Hips, back and head should contact bench throughout the exercise. Dumbbells should  always be above chest level.
Dumbbell bent row Latissimus dorsi and biceps Keep knee on bench and back horizontal throughout the exercise. Keep elbow close to torso during lifting and lowering movements.
Dumbbell shoulder press Deltoids, triceps, and upper trapezius Use incline bench for back and head support.  Dumbbells should always be above shoulder level.
Dumbbell biceps curl Biceps Keep torso erect throughout the exercise.  Keep elbows positioned against sides during lifting and lowering movements.
Trunk extension Spinal erectors Trunk should be extended about 30 degrees beyond neutral (straight) position.
Trunk flexion Abdominals Trunk should be flexed about 30 degrees beyond neutral (straight) position.

Supervision

Without question, the most important aspect of safe and successful youth strength training is qualified adult supervision throughout each exercise session. Proper instruction with appropriate performance feedback and positive reinforcement is essential for children to develop competence and confidence in this activity, as well as to increase participant satisfaction and reduce injury risk.

The hundreds of boys and girls who have participated in our strength training programs over the past 17 years have had a 90 percent compliance rate and a zero percent injury rate. When properly designed and carefully conducted, strength training may very well be the most safe and physiologically beneficial activity children can do.

Conclusion

Keep in mind that muscles are the engines of the body and that good engines are essential for active lifestyles. In the past childhood represented the most active time of a person’s life, but our sedentary society has changed that. Most children are preoccupied with inactive pastimes, and very few do enough resistance exercise to develop strong musculoskeletal systems.

Fortunately, there is a simple solution. Children should do about 20 minutes of well-designed and carefully supervised strength training (ideally sandwiched between 10 minutes of warm-up and cool-down activities), two or three nonconsecutive days a week. Research confirms that sensible strength training will help children look better, feel better and function better, as well as develop an activity pattern that should serve them well throughout their lives.

In addition, as children gain strength and confidence, they are more likely to participate in a wide variety of physical activities and sports for enhanced fitness and enjoyment.

Summary of Youth Strength Training Guidelines

Sets: Perform one challenging set of each exercise, which may or may not be preceded by one or two warm-up sets.
Repetitions: Perform 10 to 15 repetitions for each exercise set.
Frequency: Train two or three non-consecutive days a week.
Progression: Increase the resistance by five percent or less (typically 1 to 3 pounds) when 15 repetitions can be completed.
Technique:
Speed: Use two seconds for lifting movements and two seconds for lowering movements.
Range: Use full movement range on simple exercises and moderate movement range on complex exercises.
Breathing: Exhale during lifting movements and inhale during lowering movements.
Posture: Stand or sit tall with head up, shoulders square, torso erect, and hips level, without twisting, turning or squirming.

References:

American College of Sports Medicine. 1993. The prevention of sport injuries of children and adolescents. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise; Suppl., 25 (8): 1-7.

Faigenbaum, A., et al. 1993. The effects of a twice-a-week strength training program on children. Pediatric Exercise Science, 5:339-346. style=”FONT-SIZE: 8pt”

Faigenbaum, A., et al. 1996. The effects of strength training and detraining on children. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 10 (2): 109-114 style=”FONT-SIZE: 8pt”

Faigenbaum A., et al. 1999. The effects of different resistance training protocols on muscular strength and endurance development in children. Pediatrics. 104 (1): 1-7.

Morris. F. L., et al. 1997. Prospective ten-month exercise intervention in premenarcheal girls: positive effects on bone and lean mass. Journal of Bone and Mineral Research, 12 (9): 1453-1462.

Picosky, M., et al. 2002. Effects of resistance training on protein utilization in healthy children. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 34 (5): 820-827.

Westcott, W., et al. 1995. School-based conditioning programs for physically unfit children. Strength and Conditioning, 17: 5-9.

Westcott, W. and Guy, J. 1996. A physical evolution: Sedentary adults see marked improvements in as little as two days a week. IDEA Today, 14 (9): 58-65.

About the author:

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is fitness research director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. Avery D. Faigenbaum, Ed.D., is associate professor of exercise science and physical education at the University of Massachusetts, Boston. They have conducted many years of research on children’s strength training and authored two books on this topic – Strength and Power for Young Athletes (Human Kinetics, 2000) and Youth Fitness (American Council on Exercise, 2001). Both serve on the Massachusetts Governor’s Committee for Physical Fitness and Sports, the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation and the National School Fitness Foundation.

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