Weighty Matters for Young Athletes

Allana Jones of Clayton was somewhat reluctant to try strength training, but the fast-growing preteen was suffering so many injuries from her cheerleading regimen that she and her family decided to give it a try under the close supervision of a personal trainer who had experience working with children. Today, mother and daughter say the decision was one of the best they ever made.

“Allana is very tall and very, very thin,” says her mother, Megan Jones. “She didn’t have enough muscle mass to wrap around her body, so that’s why she went to the gym.”

Jones and her daughter, who is now 14, say they would recommend strength training to anyone having issues with muscle mass keeping pace with growth.

Michelle Tefft, the owner/manager and a certified personal trainer at Fitness Together in Raleigh, remembers Allana’s case well. “Allana came in because she was 5-feet, 6-inches [tall] or so, and she was doing cheerleading and tumbling. She kept getting hurt because she was having a growth spurt, and she just wasn’t strong enough to take on all her body was doing.”

Allana, who was 12 at the time, says she would cheer for a little while and then sit on the sidelines because her knee would start to hurt. “It would get really tired, and I wasn’t able to stand on it very much,” she says.

After several months of strength training, a routine that included crunches, free weights, cycling and the treadmill, Allana progressed from lifting 20 pounds to being able to press her own weight, a skill she needed to continue in her sport without risking further injury, Tefft says.

Youth strength training has been gaining in popularity, and many medical and fitness organizations support this activity while also emphasizing the importance of a safe, professionally designed program. The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Orthopaedic Society of Sports Medicine and the National Strength and Conditioning Association support participation in youth resistance training, according to the 2003 President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports.

What is strength training?

Strength training is defined by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) as resistance training that includes using free weights, weight machines, and resistance from elastic tubing, medicine balls or your own body weight.

Strength training challenges the body to handle more weight. It is not, however, the same as bodybuilding or competitive weight lifting. “Strength training is slowly increasing the ability of the muscles to do more work and lift heavier loads,” says Cathy Busby, a Raleigh physical therapist with a master of science and physical therapy.

How old do kids need to be to start?

There is no magic age when children are ready for strength training. Children who are mature enough to participate in structured team sports are typically able to strength train under the direction of a qualified professional.

“Everybody used to say kids shouldn’t strength train at all,” says Busby, who has noted an increased interest and acceptance of resistance training. Most of her clients at Physical Solutions are 11 years old or older.

Bonita Marks, Ph.D., and a Fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine, says age has been “a controversial issue over the years, but the general consensus now is to pay more attention to biological age rather than chronological age when determining when to begin strength training and how.” Since kids mature at different rates, one child might be more athletic or able to focus on a structured activity and take direction while another child of the same age may not, explains Marks, who is also an associate professor of exercise physiology and director of the fitness professional track in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at UNC-Chapel Hill.

Do children need strength training?

Not all children need strength training, but local fitness experts say two specific groups of children in particular can clearly benefit from strength training: sedentary and/or overweight children and children involved in intense athletic activities.

“Even though aerobic exercise is typically prescribed for decreasing body fat, current findings suggest that overweight children can benefit from regular participation in a strength training programs,” states the AAP 2003 Section on Sports Medicine and Fitness.

The report also notes there is “compelling evidence” that resistance training can induce strength gains during childhood and adolescence. “Strength gains of roughly 30 percent to 50 percent are typically observed in untrained youth following short-term (eight- to 12-week) training programs. In general, it appears that percentage-based strength gains made by children and adolescents are similar to gains made by adults who resistance train,” the report says.

Strength training is not a must-do activity for all children. “If you are an average kid playing on the playground and in the backyard and doing P.E. at school, maybe doing some recreational league baseball, I’m not sure you need strength training,” Busby says. Overweight youth, young athletes and high school athletes who want to “bulk-up” may have different goals and considerations.

Does strength training prevent injury?

Each year in the United States, approximately 30 million children and teenagers participate in organized sports. At times, that physical activity can tax a growing young body not quite equipped to handle the intensity and frequency of the sport.

“Now we have 10-year-olds who are in these intense physical activities, and you might think if you just train three times a week doing your sport you will be strong enough to do it, but most sports practices are spent learning the skills of that sport, especially at younger ages,” Busby says. “That training doesn’t necessarily make you stronger, so whatever inherent weakness you started out with you will probably continue to have.”

More overuse injuries are occurring at younger ages. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adolescents 10 to 14 years of age have the highest rates of sports- and recreation-related injury. More than 3.5 million sports-related injuries in children younger than 15 are treated each year in the United States, according to the National Electronic Injury Surveillance System of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission.

“Many of these overuse injuries could be reduced with strength training,” Busby says. “The other benefit is that kids will also perform better at their sport by running faster, kicking harder.”

How can kids strength train safely?

Strength training can result in serious injury if not done properly, which is why a well-designed and professionally structured program is so important. The most common strength training injuries reported to the CDC are low-back strains.

Children are not simply mini-adults. According to the American College of Sports Medicine, “Adult strength training guidelines and training philosophies should not be imposed on youngsters who are anatomically, physiologically or psychologically less mature.”

Children should train on nonconsecutive days. A routine of two to three days a week, 20 to 30 minutes at a time, is plenty for a child. “The general rule of thumb is, if the child can’t lift eight reps of a given weight stack with proper form, then it is too heavy,” says Marks at UNC. “Establishing the weight stack load is basically one of trial and error, trying to find a load the child can lift eight to 15 times. If he or she can do far more than 15 with correct form, then the load is probably too easy.”

One of the main concerns with strength training “too early” is the potential to damage growth plates during growth spurts, Marks notes. She says this phenomenon has been documented in animals but not conclusively in humans.

Mark Forsythe, a personal trainer at Physical Solutions in Raleigh, says it is usually a lot slower working with children, and that children are typically working toward sports goals.

All children should have a complete physical prior to beginning resistance training.

How do you find an appropriate trainer?
Select a personal trainer with care. Ask trusted coaches or parents for referrals, interview a trainer and ask for references. Verify an individual’s training certification, educational background and experience with children. Also check to be sure the person is not a known pedophile or criminal.

A trainer with a formal background in physical education is ideal, Marks says, since experience with a child’s psychosocial and physical development is coupled with a physical education background.

Visit the following professional Web sites and look for certification directory listings:
– American College of Sports Medicine, www.acsm.org
– National Strength and Conditioning Association, www.nsca-lift.org
– National Academy of Sports Medicine, www.nasm.org

Are nutritional supplements necessary?

If a child’s lifestyle includes a nutritionally balanced diet, experts say nutritional supplements are unnecessary. But when a child does not eat a well-balanced diet, parents may want to discuss nutritional needs with a child’s physician. Hydration is a key factor during strength training.

Where do children train?

Nearly 4 million children in this country work out at a health club or gym as part of an exercise routine, according to the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA). The IHRSA also reports that health club memberships for the 18 and under crowd have risen nearly 200 percent since 1987. This boom has led to kid-friendly gyms sprouting up across the country.

These gyms may have pint-sized equipment specifically geared toward children, something highly recommended by Marks at UNC.

“One of the big mistakes with youth in strength training is that people sometimes use adult equipment, and adult bodies are equipped to handle single-joint movements, and that puts a large amount of force on one joint,” explains Kelly B. Duffey, owner and operator of Fitwize4kids, which opens this spring in Cary with equipment designed for kids’ bodies. These machines typically require the use of several groups of muscles and joints in tandem, which puts less pressure on a single joint, according to the company’s Web site.

“It is just as healthy for kids to do strength training and fitness programs as adults,” says Duffey, who has a bachelor’s degree in physical education and experience as a physical education teacher and personal trainer. “At a young age, I think it is important because we are setting habits for the future, and these kids are much more likely to be fit for life.”

Carol McGarrahan is Triangle-area freelance and science writer.

Guidelines for Kids

The following guidelines are from the American Academy of Pediatrics Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness, 2000-2001:

* Strength training programs for preadolescents and adolescents can be safe and effective if proper resistance training techniques and safety precautions are followed.
* Preadolescents and adolescents should avoid competitive weight lifting, power lifting, bodybuilding and maximal lifts until they reach physical and skeletal maturity.
* When pediatricians are asked to recommend or evaluate strength training programs for children and adolescents, the following issues should be considered:
* Before beginning a formal strength-training program, a medical evaluation should be performed by a pediatrician. If indicated, a referral may be made to a sports medicine physician who is familiar with various strength training methods as well as risks and benefits in preadolescents and adolescents.
* Aerobic conditioning should be coupled with resistance training if general health benefits are the goal.
* Strength training programs should include a warm-up and cool-down component.
* Specific strength training exercises should be learned initially with no load (resistance). Once the exercise skill has been mastered, incremental loads can be added.
* Progressive resistance exercise requires successful completion of eight to 15 repetitions in good form before increasing weight or resistance.
* A general strengthening program should address all major muscle groups and exercise through the complete range of motion.
* Any sign of injury or illness from strength training should be evaluated before continuing the exercise in question.

Benefits of Strength Training

– Improved muscular strength
– Increased bone density and joint strength
– Injury prevention
– Injury rehabilitation
– Improved self-esteem
– Increased metabolism
– Weight loss
– Enhanced overall health

“Despite previous concerns, a wealth of scientific evidence indicates that
resistance training can be an enjoyable, beneficial and healthy experience for children and adolescents provided that established training guidelines are followed and qualified instruction is available.”
— Avery D. Faigenbaum, Ed.D.
Department of Exercise Science and Physical Education
University of Massachusetts, Boston
(2003 President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports)