Strength and Conditioning for Children and Adolescents

By: Dale J. Buchberger, PT, DC, CSCS, DACBSP

As the competitive fall sports season progresses I am fielding an increased number of questions about the safety of “weight-lifting” for the preadolescent and adolescent age groups. Most of these questions are from concerned parents whose best recollection of weightlifting was from their high school football coach or what they may have picked up in the grocery line from the many unscientific periodicals prior to checkout. Fortunately, time has been our friend and science has provided us with sound and verifiable answers to questions regarding safety.

Two notable organizations, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) have done a tremendous amount of research to answer the question, “Is strength training safe for children and adolescents?” On the surface the answer is yes, but with a list of qualifiers. This article will attempt to make sense of the “qualifiers” and provide guidance for athletes, parents, coaches and sports administrators when making decisions involving strength training programs in the preadolescent and adolescent age groups.

Terminology is very important today when it comes to strength programs. Strength or resistance training programs encompass several different types of training. For instance, weight training is a type of strength training. Strength training programs may include all or some of the following: free weights, weight machines, suspension training, elastic resistance or even the athletes own body weight. So when athletes, parents and coaches communicate they should be very specific as to the type of strength program that is being performed or questioned.

There are many benefits to strength training in the preadolescent and adolescent populations that have been well documented in the scientific literature. The most common benefits include improved cardiovascular fitness, body composition, bone density, blood lipid profiles, mental health, strength and sports performance. Additionally, children involved in strength programs have displayed improved motor skills, reduction in sports-related injuries and enhanced weight control. All of these factors make a compelling argument to increase the participation of children and adolescents in organized strength training programs. While strength training is beneficial, “lifting weights” is not always the appropriate strength format. The appropriate type of strength training is dictated by age, goals, sport, and body type.

The majority weight/strength training injuries fall into the muscle strain category. The hands, lower back and upper trunk are the most commonly injured areas of the body. Most of these injuries occur when the child is using a home exercise device, does not possess the ability to practice safe behavior and the activity is unsupervised. When the activity is appropriately supervised (more on this later) and proper technique is utilized, injury rates are lower than other sports or general recess play during the school day.

The scientific research currently supports the safety and efficacy of strength training for children. However, it is not necessary or even appropriate for every preadolescent or adolescent athlete. Children should have achieved an above average level of skill proficiency in their sport and possess an age appropriate level of balance and posture control in order for a strength program to be of value. Skilled supervision and good technical performance of the strength training exercises has been shown to significantly reduce injury rates during strength training programs. Adequate supervision is defined as an instructor to student ratio of 1:10, the supervising adult possesses a nationally recognized strength training certification and a level of knowledge that approximates a college degree in physical education, exercise science or a related field. To meet the instructor to student ratio less experienced assistants can be utilized under the direct supervision of the certified supervisor.

Between the ages of 12-14 young athletes start to show characteristics of loose, normal or stiff muscles, tendons and joints. What athletes, parents, coaches and strength coordinators need to know is that each of these individuals needs to be trained differently. Using standard weight-lifting methods with a loose-jointed individual will either create injuries or actually train the athlete to compete slower, defeating the purpose of the program. For example, a swimmer that displays tissue characteristics that are excessively loose should not use traditional weight-lifting methods. A program that emphasizes joint control and stability with very controlled movement patterns concentrating on strengthening the inherent weaknesses found in swimming would be more advantageous. What this illustrates is that programs need to be modified for specific individual characteristics and the supervisors need to possess the background to make these decisions.

Strength training is safe for children and adolescents when the program follows the previously outlined guidelines and is supervised by individuals possessing a national certification and corresponding experience. If your child is participating in a strength and conditioning program and is complaining of pain, a sports medicine practitioner should assess them. To see the AAP position statement on strength training, please go to;107/6/1470.pdf.