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Strength Training for Youth

Updated: Mar 31, 2021




You may have heard that children should not strength train. I remember hearing in middle school that it stunted growth, caused injuries, and even the dreaded combination- that it injured the growth plates, therefore stunting growth! We all knew that person who was built like a bulldog at age 14 and then stayed that same height as the rest of us grew. It had to be the weight training, right (not the complex interplay of genetics, nutrition, sleep, etc)?

Well good news (bad news if you wanted an excuse not to encourage strength training for kids and adolescents)!

Research over the past 20+ years is solidly and resoundingly in favor of strength training for youth of all ages. Here is a research recap for you on the benefits of strength training for youth- both for sport performance and overall wellness- and a bit about when injury risk DOES actually increase.

Here is the cliff notes version:

-Physical activity and strength training is good for development of athletic skill and overall health

-Strength training: can improve strength in youth (thank goodness right)

: is shown to decrease risk of injury

: increases bone strength index

: improves metabolic profile in overweight youth and boosts confidence

-Rates of injury with strength training are low when properly supervised and done with correct form. Similar to adult rates and lower than rates of injury due to sports themselves.

-Things that do actually increase risk of injury include overuse, early sports specialization

So- now what the research says in a bit more depth:

In 2009, The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) released a position statement paper regarding long-term athletic development (LTAD). They recommended school-aged youth participate in 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity that is developmentally appropriate and enjoyable and involves a variety of activities (not just straight-line running or lifting weights daily). The benefits of this regular physical activity includes both developmental, normal growth and development, but also long term health, decreasing risk of some chronic diseases later in life. Their recommendations are for a combination of aerobic activities such as swimming, biking, and running, as well as resistance training, which offers unique benefits (more on that coming). Note, they do suggest strength training exercise be appropriately prescribed and supervised. Also note, these recommendations, including strength training, are appropriate for pre- and post-pubescent children. (1)

There are A LOT of benefits to strength training- for adults and children.. But since I am talking about the children today- let us stay on track… Strength training can refer to various training techniques (machine based, free weight, plyometric, complex and functional training) and progressively increasing resistive loads to achieve the desired outcome (muscle endurance, strength, power, or combo). Some benefits include increased strength (duh?), lower rates of sports-related injury, increased bone strength index, decreased risk of fracture, improved self- esteem and interest in fitness. The risks associated with strength training usually involve improper or poor training programs or form. Programs should involve personalization and supervision by a knowledgeable trainer. (2)

In 2019, two researchers agreed that strength training in children “still suffers from reliance on misguided notions claiming them as being ineffective and more conducive to injuries than in adults. Not only are those notions wrong, but children’s response to strength training is actually rather similar to that in adults, although they don’t gain as much muscle mass”. Their cited benefits include strength improvements, reduction in risk of activity related injuries in other sports. There is the added benefit in overweight youth of improving metabolic profiles and helping to manage conditions like diabetes and help mental health. (3)

Based on the NSCA’s 2016 update on LTAD, a few folks did a review of evidence and found the same benefits as listed above (more strength, less injuries, better health). They also found that with the right coaching and resources, stress-recovery imbalances can be identified two months before an athlete becomes overreached (over-stressed and leading to burn out and/or injury). This can help decrease overtraining, where most overuse injuries occur. They suggest that prior to puberty, much of the benefits of strength training come in the form of increased neuronal activation and adaptation. This can be gained focusing on agility, balance and coordination, and improve synaptoplasticity (the neural-muscle connection changes for the better). After puberty, muscle hypertrophy (increased size) is also a benefit. They conclude by saying the substantial proportion of youth injuries are preventable with correct coaching and education. (4)

So strength training is good for kids. And you should be getting the idea that it is also safe.

Faigenbaum and Myer (part of the NSCA group and authors of a really good textbook on resistance training in youth) did a literature review that found that the majority of injuries involving strength training and even power-lifting can be classified as accidental; usually involving lack of qualified instruction leading to poor technique or inappropriate training loads. When done correctly and supervised adequately, strength and resistance training can be a safe, effective, and beneficial practice for youth. This includes boys and girls as young as 6-8 years old in some studies. (5)

So what does cause injuries in youth? As I already said above- one of the leading causes of injury in youth is poor exercise technique compounded by inadequate supervision. However, technique can be the straw that breaks the young camel’s back, with the other large injury issues being specialization in a single sport. When a child commits to one sport too soon and exclusively, it can have a negative effect physically and psychologically. This leads to overuse injuries, as the athlete performs many many repititions of the same movements, utilizing less variety of muscles and potentially overusing some. (6)

Children who are early specializers are listed highest on the spectrum for injury risk, followed by physically inactive youth, then young girls. Fortunately, this risk can be reduced greatly! Resistance training for these at-risk populations has shown to reduce injury risk by up to 68% while giving the benefits already listed above. Children should partake in resistance training in addition to free play and other structured physical activity training (sports) to offset the impact of diminishing physical activity or early sport specialization. (7)

I know that is a lot of information to digest, but the short of it is- strength training, for youth as well as adults, is overwhelmingly beneficial and can be easily implemented once the correct foundation is set. I grew up playing and training year round (with a variety of sports and training techniques) and have worked with youth athletes throughout my athletic, coaching, and professional career. I am here to help your child, children, and sports teams stay healthy and enthusiastic while improving as an athlete and person.

1) Faigenbaum AD, Kraemer WJ, Blimkie CJ, Jeffreys I, Micheli LJ, Nitka M, Rowland TW. Youth resistance training: updated position statement paper from the national strength and conditioning association. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Aug;23(5 Suppl):S60-79. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31819df407. PMID: 19620931.

2) Myers AM, Beam NW, Fakhoury JD. Resistance training for children and adolescents. Transl Pediatr. 2017 Jul;6(3):137-143. doi: 10.21037/tp.2017.04.01. PMID: 28795003; PMCID: PMC5532191.

3) Falk B, Dotan R. [STRENGTH TRAINING IN CHILDREN]. Harefuah. 2019 Aug;158(8):515-519. Hebrew. PMID: 31407540.

4) Walters BK, Read CR, Estes AR. The effects of resistance training, overtraining, and early specialization on youth athlete injury and development. J Sports Med Phys Fitness. 2018 Sep;58(9):1339-1348. doi: 10.23736/S0022-4707.17.07409-6. Epub 2017 Jun 8. PMID: 28597618.

5) Faigenbaum AD, Myer GD. Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects. Br J Sports Med. 2010 Jan;44(1):56-63. doi: 10.1136/bjsm.2009.068098. Epub 2009 Nov 27. PMID: 19945973; PMCID: PMC3483033.

6) Brenner JS; American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. Overuse injuries, overtraining, and burnout in child and adolescent athletes. Pediatrics. 2007 Jun;119(6):1242-5. doi: 10.1542/peds.2007-0887. PMID: 17545398

7) Zwolski C, Quatman-Yates C, Paterno MV. Resistance Training in Youth: Laying the Foundation for Injury Prevention and Physical Literacy. Sports Health. 2017 Sep/Oct;9(5):436-443. doi: 10.1177/1941738117704153. Epub 2017 Apr 27. PMID: 28447880; PMCID: PMC5582694.

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