|[ Strength Training for Youth Fitness ] [ Strength Training for Teens ]
Youth Strength Training: Why and
By Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D.
As our society becomes more sedentary and young people spend more of their time in
non-physical pursuits (television, video games, movies, computers, etc.), we see
progressively lower levels of physical fitness in increasingly larger numbers of boys and
girls. Over a 15-year period, childhood obesity has increased over 50 percent and
super obesity has more than doubled. As a result, Type II diabetes, formerly called
adult onset diabetes, has become prevalent in teenagers and even preadolescents.
Research has shown that strength training is the best means for improving body
composition in youth, as it addresses two major problems in many preadolescents, namely,
too little muscle and two much fat.
Public School Study
In one of our public school studies, the underfit and overfat fifth graders who
participated in a basic and brief strength training program gained significantly more
muscle and lost twice as much fat as a matched group of students who did not perform
strength exercise. Perhaps most important, the strength trained students made such
noticeable physical improvements that the strength exercises were subsequently included in
the standard physical education program.
The most critical time for developing strong bones is during the childhood years.
Recent research indicates that strength training is about six times more effective for
building bone in preadolescent girls that it is in young, middle-aged or older
women. Contrary to the myth that strength training is detrimental to young bones (no
such medical report has ever been documented), it is actually the best way to develop a
strong musculoskeletal system.
Because children have low levels of testosterone, some people assume that they cannot
increase their muscle strength or that any strength gains are temporary. Our studies
have consistently shown significant strength gains (15 to 100 percent) in preteens who
complete a two-month training program. Moreover, after two additional months of no
strength exercise, the strength trained youth retained 50 percent of their strength gain
and were still significantly stronger than their non-training peers. Children, like
women and seniors who also have low levels of testosterone, respond most favorably to
In our most recent study, female figure skaters (average age 10 years) did one or two
brief strength workouts a week. After 10 weeks of training, the preadolescent
participants increased their overall strength by 67 percent, their vertical jump by 13
percent, and their skating performance by major proportions according to their coaches.
The skaters performed one set of 10 basic strength exercises for 13 to 15 repetitions
each. We recommend using higher repetitions with moderate weightloads, as we have
found significantly greater increases in children's strength and endurance when training
with 13 to 15 repetitions compared to training with 6 to 8 repetitions.
After 15 years of youth strength training programs with no injuries, we are confident
that this activity is safe and beneficial (physically and psychologically) for
children. A sensible strength training program enhances musculoskeletal development,
encourages self-confidence and elicits a physically active lifestyle.
Youth Strength Training Guidelines
1. Select basic exercises for major muscles.
a. 4 exercises x
3 sets each
b. 6 exercises x
2 sets each
c. 12 exercises x
1 set each
2. Perform 10 to 15 repetitions per exercise.
3. Increase resistance by 1 to 3 pounds upon completing 15 repetitions.
4. Use slow movement speed (4 to 6 seconds per repetition).
5. Use full movement range.
6. Train 2 or 3 nonconsecutive days per week.
7. Train under adult supervision.
8. Train safely.
9. Train progressively.
10. Train consistently.
Bodyweight Exercises vs. Weight Machines
For most boys and girls, bodyweight exercises are not appropriate because their muscles
are unable to lift their bodyweight. For example, fewer than 50 percent of all
children can do a single pull-up and not many more can complete a properly performed bar
dip, push-up or sit up. With weight machines, however, every child can use a
resistance that permits 10 to 15 perfect repetitions. Most weight machines allow 1
to 3 pound increases that facilitate safe, systematic, and successful programs of
progressive resistance exercise.
Youth Strength Training Equipment
In our experience, boys and girls under 12 years of age appear to do better training on
youth-sized resistance machines. However, children 12 years and older can train
effectively on standard weightstack machines, especially when using pressing movements
(leg press, chest press, incline press, shoulder press, triceps press, assisted bar dip,
etc.) and pulling movements (seated row, pull-down, assisted chin-up, etc).
Youth under five feet tall have difficulty aligning their joint axes of rotation with
machine axes of rotation, so rotary exercises (leg extension, leg curl, triceps extension,
biceps curl, etc.) are not recommended.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., C.S.C.S, is Fitness Research
Director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. He is strength training consultant for
numerous national organizations, such as the American Council on Exercise, the American
Senior Fitness Association, and the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation, and editorial
advisor for many publications, including Prevention, Shape, and Club Industry magazines.
He is also author of 20 fitness books
including the new releases, No More Cellulite, Building Strength and Stamina, Strength
Training Past 50, Strength Training for Seniors, Complete Conditioning for Golf, and
Strength and Power for Young Athletes.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is co-author with Dr. Avery Faigenbaum of the new youth
strength training book, Strength and Power for Young Athletes by Human Kinetics
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