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Guidelines on healthy strength training for children and adolescents

By Doug Haltom, M.D.

In today’s society, sports are becoming more and more competitive. Athletes at younger and younger ages are starting to play year-round competitive sports and train specifically for those sports.

Strength training is becoming more common in sports in which size and strength are important. If designed and supervised properly, strength training in youth is safe and effective, and research has shown that it does not have adverse effects on skeletal growth or flexibility.

The following recommendations for strength training in children and adolescents are accepted by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the leading sports medicine organizations:

  • The child needs to be 7 or 8 years of age before starting any resistance training. At this age, the child should have the proper balance and postural control to safely perform the exercises.

  • Preadolescents and adolescents should avoid power lifting, bodybuilding and the one-repetition maximum lift or “maxing out” until skeletal maturity is reached.

  • Under no circumstances should the athlete take performance-enhancing substances or anabolic steroids.

  • Athletes should have a pre-participation exam before starting a strength-training regimen. Children with congenital cardiac disease should see a pediatric cardiologist before any strength-training exercises.

  • The program should be a minimum of eight weeks, and each session should be 20 to 30 minutes long. Three times per week is believed to be the most effective.

  • Strength-training exercises should be learned first with no load (no resistance). Once the technique is mastered, then resistance (free weight, machine weight, therabands and balls) can be added. Repetitions can also be adjusted, with higher repetition and lower-weight exercises as the goal. Emphasis is on proper technique and form.

  • Exercises should include the core muscles (abdomen, gluteal muscles and lower back) and all major muscle groups.

  • Increases in weight should be introduced slowly in increments of 5 to 10 percent.

  • The program should include a 10- to 15-minute warm-up and cool down.

  • Athletes should have adequate fluid intake and proper nutrition, both of which are important in maintaining muscle energy stores, recovery and overall performance.

  • Close supervision by a qualified instructor is critical for safety.

If these guidelines are followed, then strength training in this age group can be safe, effective, health producing and enjoyable.