Today, numerous research papers show the benefits children and adolescents could gain from participating in strength training. Many of these research paper have proven the misconceptions and myths about youth strength training to be incorrect.
Just as there is an abundance of myths about strength training for the youth, there is an abundance of research on how and youth strength training should be practised for optimal results. The participation of children and adolescents in various form of resistance training has been debated for the last couple of decades. There have been discussions about how resistance training could stunt growth, that children aren't able to build strength due to their lack of testosterone, and how they'll injure their "un-fused" growth plates.
Today, numerous research papers showing the benefits children and adolescents could gain from participating in strength training. Many of these research paper have proven the misconceptions and myths about youth strength training to be incorrect.
Although there is plenty of evidence to suggest that strength training is beneficial for the younger population, there is still some debate on the most optimal method that strength training should be practised. Despite there being a lack of evidence indicating the method of best practises, the literature does provide an extensive and profound foundation regarding the general guidelines of safe practice for the youth.
Since children age at different rates, biological age, it's difficult to say that a specific chronological age is appropriate to start strength training. Therefore there have been made some basic guidelines on certain abilities a child has to possess, so to speak, before given the green light to undergo strength training. Children should have a fundamental competence too:
Accept and follow instructions
Understand basic safety instructions
Understand basic levels of balance and postural control
From there the use of bodyweight training, machine-based training, free weights, and elastic band based training can be implemented. More experienced and more biological developed children, typically older children, can train with higher intensity, greater volume, and higher frequency. Where the less experienced and less developed children will train will lower intensities, less volume, and lower frequencies.
The intensity a child which is either new to strength training or is lacking behind in their biological development will typically do sets of 15+ repetitions, where children who are well biologically developed and have been training for a while can use intensities as low as 6 repetitions. That being said, there is evidence to supports that a greater time under tension is a better method for increasing strength in children, compared to overall load. Therefore higher repetition based training will have better results. Although there are methods of training where the loads are higher, repetitions are lower, yet time under tension is considerably higher, there is lacking evidence for this sort of training method for children and adolescents.
Children are rapid adaptors and can adapt close to anything you throw at them. But for more optimal long term development it's important to look at the big picture. Strength training once a week will definitely have its benefits, but more would achieve greater benefits (up to a point). Now, children will often be playing several sports or be active in doing several different activities. That has to be taken into consideration as for when and how often they should be strength training. For children who do other sports more than 3 times per week, one session of strength training on the side would be greatly beneficial, however, adding another strength session might not be the best idea as this adds to the total volume of training they have to recover from. The same principles apply with frequency as it does with intensity, the better-developed child will be able to handle higher frequencies than the lesser developed child.
With intensity and frequency determined, the volume is another factor that needs to be understood for optimal results. How much total work per session/week needs to be done to achieve the greatest amount of benefits. Volume is most often quantified as the total number of sets done in a single session. With the literature being a bit sketchy on this part, the general recommendations range from 9 - 12 sets per session.
For optimal performance between sets and between exercises, rest periods of three minutes are considered to be a minimum. There is a low to no increase in performance when rest periods go above three minutes. Moreover, rest periods under 2 minutes have a significant impact on performance. Rest periods are also a good time for a coach to give some feedback to improve faulty or sub-optimal technique.
It is through the last couple of decades that research has narrowed down on how to make the overall best athlete. A big chunk of that research has been on topics such as strength training for children for long term performance and early versus late sport specialisation. The research on this is very interesting, especially on the topic of early versus late sport specialisation.
Kids who specialise in one specific sport early on tend to become good at the sport they specialise in, however, their overall sporting career also tends to be shorter in duration. These are kids who usually are considered very talented early on and can compete in youth national teams, even international events at an early age. Although they are very talented individuals, with what seems to be a bright future in their given field, the majority of these kids will cut their career short due to either injury, loss of interest, or even due to the pressure to perform.
On the contrary, kids who specialise later in their career, typically the ones who are average performers through their younger years in the variety of sports they participate in, tend to bloom at one of their sport of choice later in their youth. These kids, because they have a broader range of athletic skills at hand from all the different sport they have practised over the years, have a stronger foundation to build sport-specific skills on when they are at the peak of their youth and through their 20's.
On top of this, research has proven that kids can increase their overall body strength with the use of strength training. Furthermore, there are strong correlations between strong athletes and athletic performance, injury reduction, and overall sports success.
This all being said, there are obviously individual considerations to take into account. Such as, female gymnasts typically peak between late teens and early 20s, where football players, both male and female, tend to peak later early to mid-20s. But interestingly enough athletes who participate in strength type sports, powerlifting, strongman/female, bodybuilding, crossfit, and even Olympic weightlifting to some extend, have successful careers all the way into their 30s.
With all of the above mentioned, whether someone goes through their youth playing a greater variety of sports or if they specialise early, strength training will unquestionably have a tremendous impact on their physical potential. Whether we're talking about strength, speed, agility, power, or size.
Despite previous health concerns, today, strength training among children and adolescents is widely-accepted. This is due to the growing body of research in and around youth strength training, proving its benefits, such as a decrease of cardiovascular diseases, greater bone density, improvement of psychological profiles across all ages, decrease the risk of musculoskeletal injuries, and improvements of motor skills and coordination, just to mention a few. Along with proving the benefits of strength training, this recent body of research has also proven the misconceptions of strength training to be incorrect, such as it stunting growth in children and increases the risk of epiphysis type injuries.
With proper supervision and understanding what type of training applies to children and adolescents at different maturations, strength training is by no means considered dangerous, quite the contrary.
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