Written by Avery D. Faigenbaum, Ed.D., FACSM
School-age youth need to participate in 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity each day. Exercise should be developmentally appropriate, enjoyable and safe. While children have traditionally been encouraged to participate in aerobic activities such as swimming and bicycling, a compelling body of evidence indicates that strength training can also be a safe and effective method of exercise for children, provided that appropriate guidelines are followed.
Despite the previously held contention that children would not benefit from strength training due to insufficient levels of circulating androgens, research conducted over the past decade clearly demonstrates that regular participation in a youth strength training program can offer observable health and fitness value to boys and girls. The American College of Sports Medicine supports the 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans, which aim to increase the number of children who regularly participate in “muscle- and bone-strengthening” activities.
Nevertheless, some parents have lingering concerns about the safety of youth strength training and others question whether the potential benefits of youth strength training outweigh the risks. The purpose of this article is to address these concerns and dispel common misconceptions associated with youth strength training.
Myth: Strength training is unsafe for children.
Fact: The risks associated with strength training are not greater than other sports and activities in which children regularly participate. However, the key is to provide qualified supervision, age-specific instruction and a safe training environment because, as in many sports, accidents can happen if children do not follow established training guidelines. Children should not use strength training equipment at home without supervision from a qualified professional.
Myth: Strength training will stunt the growth of children.
Fact: There is no current evidence to indicate a decrease in stature in children who regularly strength train in a supervised environment with qualified instruction. In all likelihood, participation in weight-bearing physical activities (including strength training) will have a favorable influence on growth at any stage of development but will not affect a child’s genetic height potential.
Myth: Children will experience bone growth plate damage as a result of strength training.
Fact: A growth plate fracture has not been reported in any research study that was competently supervised and appropriately designed. Nonetheless, youth coaches, physical education teachers and fitness instructors must be aware of the inherent risk associated with strength training and should attempt to decrease this risk by following established training guidelines.
Myth: Children cannot increase strength because they do not have enough testosterone.
Fact: Testosterone is not essential for achieving strength gains, as evidenced by women and elderly individuals who experience impressive gains in strength even though they have little testosterone. When compared on a relative or percent basis, training-induced strength gains in children are comparable to those in adolescents and adults.
Myth: Strength training is only for young athletes.
Fact: While regular participation in a strength training program can enhance the performance of young athletes and reduce their risk of sports-related injuries, boys and girls of all abilities can benefit from strength training. For example, strength training can enhance the bone mineral density of girls, decreasing their risk of developing osteoporosis, and can spark an interest in physical activity in overweight children who tend to dislike prolonged periods of aerobic exercise. Due to individual differences in fitness experience and training goals, an advanced strength training program for a young athlete would be inappropriate for an inactive child who should be given an opportunity to learn proper exercise technique and experience the mere enjoyment of strength exercise.
In summary, the belief that strength training is unsafe for children is not consistent with the needs of boys and girls and the documented risks associated with this type of training. However, strength training is a specialized method of conditioning that requires qualified supervision, appropriate overload, gradual progression, and adequate recovery between exercise sessions. Furthermore, when designing youth strength training programs it is important to remember that the goal of the program should not be limited to increasing muscle strength. Teaching youth about their bodies, promoting safe training procedures, and providing a stimulating program that gives participants a more positive attitude toward strength training and physical activity in general are equally important.
View the full winter 2009 issue of the ACSM Fit Society® Page online.