Guest Author: Jon Easdown (Founder: Universal Health and Performance)
Despite a rise in popularity in recent years, youth resistance training has been a topic of major controversy, with concerns primarily towards its efficacy and safety. This is largely due to misunderstandings regarding the potential harm that may occur physiologically (8), and concerns towards the safety of children. Resistance/strength training refers to the use of equipment such as weight machines, free weights (barbells and dumbbells), elastic resistance bands, medicine balls, kettlebells and bodyweight exercises in order to increase strength and fitness.
Perhaps the most common misconception is the belief that youth resistance training will stunt growth via damage to the epiphyseal plates (growth plates) at the ends of long bones, thoughts which are based on flawed retrospective case reports published in the 1970’s and 80’s (2). Contemporary research actually indicates that childhood and adolescence is in fact the most opportune time for bones to respond to the compressive and tensile forces experienced during weight-bearing exercise (4), and regular participation in resistance training can augment gains in bone mineral density and total bone mass (8). Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that resistance training will have a negative impact on growth and maturation (2, 4).
It is also known that physical activity promotes natural growth and maturation, and when combined with well-planned and supervised resistance training offers numerous other health and well-being benefits, including musculoskeletal strength, improved body composition, reduced cardiovascular risk factors, coordination and movement competency, and psychosocial well-being (3, 9). An international consensus statement on youth resistance training even goes so far as to say that youth who do not engage in activities that enhance musculoskeletal strength and motor skill early in life may be at increased risk for negative health outcomes later in life (7).
Given the increased incidence of childhood inactivity and obesity in recent years, resistance training may offer an alternative means to increase fitness and reduce total weight and levels of body fat. The common prescription in schools of cross-country, or low intensity, distance running may place undue stress on joints in children who are overweight, while an appropriately designed and supervised resistance training program may offer an opportunity for overweight children to improve not only their strength and coordination, but also increase their confidence in their perceived abilities to be physically active (7).
Safety is perhaps the primary, and also most warranted concern relating to youth resistance training. Several studies and subsequently numerous position stands (1, 3, 6, 7) do however indicate that when appropriately designed and supervised, youth resistance training is a very low-risk activity in which to partake (4). In fact, a number of reviews and studies of injury type and rates relating to both resistance training and sport participation show that the incidence and severity of injuries experienced during supervised resistance training are less common and less severe than injuries seen in common sports such as American football, basketball, soccer, rugby, athletics and gymnastics (see figure 1) (5, 8, 10). In fact, numerous studies have shown that incorporating resistance training into the physical development programs for youth athletes actually reduces the incidence and severity of sports related injuries, and reduces the time spent in rehabilitation when injuries do occur (7).
Recent position stands from both the National Strength and Conditioning Association (3) and the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology (1) concluded that the sport of Olympic Weightlifting was deemed to be safe, and with proper coaching and good planning there is no reason to keep children from participating.
Indeed, injuries are generally the result of poor technique, excessive loading, overly fatigued training, poorly designed equipment, or lack of qualified supervision (8), all of which can be controlled for under the appropriate guidance of qualified professionals.
It is also interesting to note that common playground games involving jumping, landing, accelerating, decelerating, and hopping involve high force, high velocity muscular contractions and place considerable load on the musculoskeletal system, with ground reaction forces of up to 5-7 times bodyweight (7). This is seen as part of natural development and rightly so. However, children are commonly restricted from taking part in resistance training until certain ages (typically 16-18) despite such training offering a much more controlled and systematic environment, given appropriate supervision and instruction. In fact, childhood presents an opportune time to develop coordination and motor skill competency, as it is during these formative years that the neuromuscular system is most susceptible to change (7). Exposing children to a variety of movement demands aimed at the development of fundamental movement skills during this stage of brain maturation is considered crucial for success in athletic pursuits as well as setting children up for life long exercise related physical activity.
In light of the current scientific literature, it is safe to conclude that youth resistance training offers many benefits that far outweigh any potential risks, what is absolutely essential is that suitably qualified professionals design and supervise age appropriate programs that are consistent with the needs, goals and abilities of younger populations.
- Behm DG, Faigenbaum AD, Falk B, and Klentrou P. Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology position paper: resistance training in children and adolescents. Applied physiology, nutrition, and metabolism33: 547-561, 2008.
- Cardinale M, Newton R, and Nosaka K. Strength and conditioning: Biological principles and practical applications.John Wiley & Sons, 2011.
- Faigenbaum AD, Kraemer WJ, Blimkie CJ, Jeffreys I, Micheli LJ, Nitka M, and Rowland TW. Youth resistance training: updated position statement paper from the national strength and conditioning association. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association23: S60-79, 2009.
- Falk B and Eliakim A. Resistance training, skeletal muscle and growth. Pediatric endocrinology reviews: PER1: 120-127, 2003.
- Hamill BP. Relative Safety of Weightlifting and Weight Training. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research8: 53-57, 1994.
- Lloyd R, Faigenbaum A, Myer G, Stone M, Oliver J, Jeffreys I, Moody J, Brewer C, and Pierce K. UKSCA position statement: Youth resistance training. Prof Strength Cond26: 26-39, 2012.
- Lloyd RS, Faigenbaum AD, Stone MH, Oliver JL, Jeffreys I, Moody JA, Brewer C, Pierce KC, McCambridge TM, and Howard R. Position statement on youth resistance training: the 2014 International Consensus. British journal of sports medicine: bjsports-2013-092952, 2013.
- Lloyd RS and Oliver JL. Strength and conditioning for young athletes: science and application.Routledge, 2013.
- Stodden D, Langendorfer S, and Roberton MA. The association between motor skill competence and physical fitness in young adults. Research quarterly for exercise and sport80: 223-229, 2009.
- Stone MH, Fry AC, Ritchie M, Stoessel-Ross L, and Marsit JL. Injury Potential and Safety Aspects of Weightlifting Movements. Strength & Conditioning Journal16: 15-21, 1994.
Jon Easdown is the founder of Universal Health and Performance, a Brisbane based business offering strength and conditioning and personal training services to athletes and general population clients.
He is an accredited strength and conditioning coach through the United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Association, holds a bachelor’s degree in Sport and Exercise Science, and is currently completing his master’s degree in Strength and Conditioning through Edith Cowan University.
Jon is also an Olympic weightlifting coach and has a keen interest in the biomechanics of the sport, as well as methods of testing, monitoring and developing neuromuscular strength and power.
Jon can be contacted at: