Trust the Process Resistance Training and Kids
As a young child with athletic dreams and aspirations I learned and became madly aware that lifting a weight in my prepubescent years was equally blasphemous as feasting from the garden of eden. For many years, the idea of young children and adolescents engaging in resistance training was often frowned upon by many doctors, ﬁtness professionals and was considered a sentence for dwarﬁsm in the eyes of many parents. Is this really the truth or just some ﬂimsy guesswork? Perhaps the birth of this mythical hypothesis was due to a shortage of professional attention in addition to insufﬁcient scientiﬁc resources including depth surrounding the subject matter. In reality, these dogmatic beliefs and assumptions may have been fabricated out of fear creating an instinctive knee-jerk reaction failing to seek the truth through further investigation.
As health awareness has grown, knowledge in the realm of ﬁtness along with advances in research have evolved in recent years. This has allowed health professionals to reassess their stance on the overall impact and physiological effects that resistance training has on young children. The attitude seems to have shifted from detriment to beneﬁt. Nonetheless, much apprehension remains in communities across the nation when mixing weight training with kids.
Recent studies have indicated that many of the beneﬁts associated with adult resistance training programs are attainable by children and adolescents. According to The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), there a multitude of undying myths that refuse to quit and appear to be lingering into the 21st century. ACSM recognizes and attempts to lessen the fear within the youth population by debunking the ﬁction and expressing the truth involving children and resistance training.
Faigenbaum and McFarland conclude:
· Myth: “Resistance training will stunt the growth of children”
“No scientiﬁc evidence indicates that participation in a supervised resistance training program will stunt the growth of children or damage developing growth plates (7). Childhood may actually be the opportune time to engage in weight-bearing activities that enhance bone mineral content and density (1). In all likelihood, regular participation in a well-designed resistance training program during the growing years will have a favorable inﬂuence on bone growth and development.
· Myth: “Resistance training is unsafe for kids”
“The risks associated with youth resistance training are not greater than other recreational and sport activities in which youth regularly participate (6,7). Although accidents can happen, the key is to provide qualiﬁed instruction in a safe training environment and sensibly progress the program based on the skill set and exercise tolerance of the individual child. Furthermore, it is paramount that each child become educated on weight training room etiquette, individual goals and realistic outcomes within the scope of the program.”
· Myth: “Youth need to be at least 12 years old to lift weights”
“Although there is no evidence-based minimum age for participation in a youth resistance program, all children should be able to follow directions and assume safety rules.” Kids under the age of 12 years old have safely engaged in supervised strength training programs (6). Most boys and girls are ready for some level of a well-rounded resistance training program as early as the ages of 7 or 8, conventionally when they are ready for competitive sport participation.
· Myth: “Girls will develop bulky muscles if they lift weights”
“Training-induced gains in muscular strength during childhood are primarily due to neuromuscular adaptations and skill development. Although boys may develop larger muscles during the growing years because the effects of anabolic hormones would be operant, girls can get stronger throughout childhood and adolescence while gaining all the beneﬁts of strength training without the acquisition of bulky muscles” (7).
· Myth: “Resistance training is only for young athletes”
“Regular participation in a well-designed resistance training program offers observable health and ﬁtness value for all children and adolescents (7). In addition to performance enhancement and injury reduction, resistance training can improve musculoskeletal health, enhance metabolic function, and increase daily physical activity. Resistance training may be particularly beneﬁcial for overweight youth who often are unwilling and unable to perform prolonged periods of aerobic exercise” (8).
Generally speaking, recommendations on youth physical activity suggest that children and adolescents should accumulate at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous activity daily through organized school and community functions. Leisure sports including aerobic exercise along with the participation in strength-building activities should be incorporated into the weekly routine of the school-aged youth (7,10). Recent studies indicate that a growing number of youth are not meeting physical activity requirements paving the way for a sedentary lifestyle and increasing the risk for obesity. Child obesity, a thriving epidemic in itself. Perhaps a topic for another post.
Having discovered the safeness and beneﬁts regarding young children engaging in resistance training, it may be prudent to periodize or systematically plan out training workout sessions. This will ensure youth are receiving adequate volume and intensity of exercise to maximize a speciﬁc goal while minimizing fatigue and the potential for injury or overtraining. Planned rest and recovery periods are equally important.
Similarly to adults, there is no perfect “one size ﬁts all” singular program for young children and adolescents to reap the beneﬁts of strength training (7,8). Muscular adaptation to speciﬁc stimuli and external forces (weights) may vary from child to child and will depend on such variables as genetics, diet, sleep and alacrity of the individual. The right dose (intensity and volume) of resistance training is ultimately determined by the ﬁtness coach. That said, youth resistance training programs should be supervised by certiﬁed ﬁtness professionals consistent with the needs, interests and abilities of younger populations. Moreover, youth ﬁtness instructors should provide an opportunity for all participants to have fun, make friends and learn something new.
ACSM strongly advises that each constructed youth workout plan embody speciﬁc criteria and fundamental principles to ensure that the objectives of the program are safe, effective and sustainable. These principles are expressed and understood through an acronym known as the PROCESS.
Please note that the goal of the program should not be limited to increasing muscular strength. It is important to know and remember that resistance training can enhance motor skill performance, increase bone mineral density, improve cardiovascular risk factors, facilitate weight control and prepare inactive youth for the demands of physical activity and sport (5,7,8).
Understanding the PROCESS…
This principle states that demands placed on the body be increased gradually over a period of time to achieve long-term gains in both muscular strength and development (7). This can be accomplished by altering training variables (volume, intensity, frequency) along with adding both simple and complex exercise movements in subsequent workout sessions. Failing to introduce a more challenging stimulus that is consistent with each individual’s needs and abilities, additional training-induced adaptations are unlikely. At the same time, it is encouraged not to increase volume or intensity too rapidly. This aggressive approach can not only slow progress and cause injury but may in fact impede growth and performance due to overtraining. Remember it is progression, not instant gratiﬁcation.
ACSM guidelines for optimal resistance training frequency are 2-3 training sessions per week on nonconsecutive days. That said, this prescription may be slightly tweaked depending on each participant’s goals and objectives. Rest and recovery are necessary to allow for muscular repair and synthesis while also protecting the body from lingering in a catabolic or destructive state. The axiom “use it or lose it” is applicable for resistance exercise because training-induced adaptations in muscular ﬁtness cannot be stored (6). It is paramount that the individual remains “regular” and consistent with their program to safeguard long-term gains in physical development throughout childhood and adolescence.
Overload is the fundamental doctrine of all resistance training programs. This principle is indispensable to enhance muscular ﬁtness and development. It involves applying higher than normal demands on the working musculature increasing the training stimulus beyond what the body is accustomed. This will maximize further training adaptation. Overload is often paired with the principle of progression to create the term progressive overload. Progressive overload can be manipulated by changing the variables of volume, intensity, frequency or exercise speciﬁcity (8).
The principle of creativity combines imagination and originality to help boost training-induced adaptation and enhance exercise adherence (9). Sensibly incorporating new exercises and training accessories such as medicine balls, resistance tubing or even kettle bells can enable kids to overcome barriers and retain interest in resistance training. Taking the fun outdoors to local parks and playgrounds would certainly add ﬂavor to the existing program. These dynamic methods are especially useful when designing programs for children with special needs or those performing at advanced levels. Lastly, the challenges of creative exercise can lead to signiﬁcant improvement in balance, agility and coordination.
For children and adolescents, enjoyment is a major determinant when engaging in organized sport and ﬁtness programs (9). Statistics have shown that individuals of all demographics who enjoy the experience of participating in exercise or sports activities are more likely to adhere to the program and reach training goals. Enjoyment can be deﬁned as a balance between skill and challenge (4). It is the ﬁtness professional’s acuity to determine the level of exercise tolerance for each subject while establishing an innovative variety of training with respect to exercise selection. Properly adjusting training volumes as well as preserving the freshness of the program will keep the individual from losing interest and feeling bored. These are vital constituents in any physical training program.
Organized exercise is a great opportunity for children to interact with one another creating a sociable and supportive environment. Group or “buddy” training can expose the competitive nature within each individual making it a valuable motivational tool. This will enable kids to feel connected to other participants as they gain conﬁdence and competence in their physical abilities working toward a common goal (9). Implementing the principle of socialization can make for a friendly, enjoyable and rewarding experience.
Qualiﬁed ﬁtness professionals are profoundly responsible for the safety and efﬁcacy of the program. This includes the supervision of all activities involved in addition to providing suggestive feedback for the duration of the session. This game plan will signiﬁcantly reduce the risk of injury and smooth the path for an effective, realistic rate of progression. Youth ﬁtness specialists must carry the prowess in the realm of pediatric exercise science with the ability to coach, progress and modify skill-based drills and exercises (3).
In the face of conventional fears and misguided concerns associated with youth resistance training, it is evident that regular participation in a supervised resistance training program can be a safe, effective and rewarding system of conditioning for children and adolescents (2,6,7). Due to its gaining popularity, modern insights have advertised that beginning a resistance training program during childhood can better prepare the individual for more advanced physical training and competition later in life. There is a thriving number of gyms, ﬁtness centers and private sport training clubs that offer youth resistance training programs across the country. It is obligatory that a certiﬁed ﬁtness training professional owns both the knowledge and passion when working with the younger population. Understanding and trusting the PROCESS will allow for safe and sustainable programs to produce realistic results.
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2. Behringer M, Vom Heede A, Matthews M, Mester J. Effects of resistance training in children and adolescents: a meta-analysis. Pediatrics. 2010;126(5):e1199-210.
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10. World Health Organization. Global Recommendations on Physical Activity for Health. Geneva: WHO Press; 2010. 58 p.