1. ‘Resistance Training is ‘unsafe’ for children’
In the 1960’s and 70’s there was a substantial body of research which condemned youth strength training; deeming such activities as dangerous due to a high risk of injury. This research was poorly designed and produced data which was largely mis-interpreted 9. As a result, strength training got tarnished with an unfair reputation which stuck for more than three decades 37.
Although this research lead the ‘American Academy of Pediatrics’ to claim that strength training was generally ‘unsafe’ for children, contrasting research and experimental data - in support of youth weightlifting - was readily available in English ever since the 1970s. This data consistently showed little or no support for the American Academy of Pediatrics advisory proscription of weightlifting.
Fast forward to more recent times, and you’ll find an enormous body of support for youth weightlifting. In addition to recent updates of the American Academy of Pediatrics (2008); position stances from both the NSCA14 and Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology7 suggest that there is no reason to keep children from participating in weightlifting.
Current recommendations for safe practice dictates that there must be sufficient supervision and appropriate planning of programmes10. In the opinion of some experts in the field - based on the proviso that appropriate exercise selection, developmental understanding, and qualified supervision are enforced - a child can effectively participate in resistance training from the age of 5 or 6 years. Strong evidence supports the use of resistance training for all stages of maturation, it is one of the corner stones of long-term youth physical development 22.
As with any training programme or exercise instruction, to help ensure safety; there are guidelines that should be followed when planning a youth strengthening programme. Firstly, Behm et al (2008) suggest that children with known medical conditions should have a medical examination prior to commencing the programme. In addition to child supervision, further considerations should include; delivery of appropriate warm ups, teaching of gym room etiquette; providing a safe training environment that is free of hazards; choice and order of exercises, training volume and intensity; rest intervals; load lifted and exercise technique; programme frequency and training variation13.
When regular habitual activities are supplemented with appropriate resistance training, numerous health benefits are likely to be observed; improved musculoskeletal strength, cardiovascular health, body composition, movement competence as well as psychological and social well being 35.
Regardless of the outdated and since disproved sources into the appropriateness and effectiveness of youth strengthening programmes. There is now a substantial body if literature which advocates the proper inclusion of resistance training in the child and adolescent populations. There is a ‘call to action’ from the authorities in the field for coaches, teachers and medical professionals who work in youth sport to recognise and safely implement these programmes, with the aim of reducing injuries, aiding bone health and stimulating muscular strength.
Future research should concentrate on obtaining data from the youth sport population, which measures long term adaptations to training programmes for various sports and activities.
2. ‘Strength Training is more dangerous than team sports’
Evaluation of current research findings suggests that incidence and rate of injury in weightlifting appear to be relatively low, with severe injuries being uncommon13. Further, children who follow appropriate strength training guidelines have consistently been found to show low rates of injury occurrence 14. An example of this is a study performed by Rians, Weltman and Cahill (1987), who showed that 14 weeks of strength training resulted in neither musculoskeletal injury or muscle necrosis.
Myer et al (2009) studied the data from US emergency rooms and found that children had lower incidences of joint and muscle damage due to strength training than adults. Strength training related injuries that do occur, appear to be preventable injuries which could have been avoided with better child supervision and coaching (17). It’s therefore crucial to ensure the individual coaching your child is appropriately qualified with experience training young people.
Stone et al (2014) argue that strength training activities can greatly enhance injury prevention. Additional research has suggested that up to 50% of injuries within youth sports could have been prevented if appropriate preparatory conditioning had been implemented (29,41).
It is important for young athletes to engage in year round resistance training to decrease injury risk, especially overuse injuries (22). Some reports suggest that overuse injuries could be reduced by 15-50% , simply by identifying risk factors and structuring a suitable programme to target them (27).
Faigenbaum and Myer (2010) note that, unfortunately, some previous reports had incorrectly suggested that traditional forms of training were safer than weightlifting movements. This has since been disproven as there is no current evidence to suggests that injury occurrence in weightlifting is high that other sports, in fact the research is contradicting this very notion; with numerous sources reporting fewer injuries in strength training than in football, basketball and gymnastics (37,38).
In addition Hamill (1994) devised a retrospective study, in which he evaluated injury rates in adolescents and found significantly fewer injuries were reported as a result of strength training compared to many other sports in which youths regularly participate. One of these sports was rugby; Hamill highlighted that the injury rate per 100 participant hours in strength training was just 0.00120 and 0.0013, compared to a significantly higher rate in Rugby - 0.8000.
Additional benefits of strength training are improved resting heart rate, functional movement skills and physical work capacity 12 . Due to a child’s great ability to refine motor control so efficiently; this stage of development is the most crucial time for one to develop correct movement patterns and motor skills which a crucial components to high level sport.
Practical recommendations suggest that parent education and the circulation of research evidence are important practices that must be set up in. Parents and some coaches must be re-assured of the value in youth resistance training if we are going to be able to utilise its many benefits.
3. ‘Strength Training may ‘stunt growth’
Historically, concerns with resistance training have revolved around the idea of weightlifting exercises damaging growth cartilage, the thought process behind this idea was that growth cartilage - ‘pre bone’ - is weaker than the connective tissue it is attached to, and therefore more susceptible to damage to repeated micro trauma (27).
This idea evolved from a few retrospective case reports from the 1970/80’s (17, 20, 33, 34), however it was later discovered that injury documentation in these studies was due to either; maximal lifts, improper technique or unsupervised training. There is currently no evidence to conclude that strength training will have any negative effects on the growth and maturation of children as there have been no reports of growth cartilage injury in any prospective study into youth resistance training since the 70’s/80’s (16,26).
In my experience, this subject is one of the most frequently talked about misconceptions amongst parents, a perception which has been categorically disproven by research, which suggests that frequent participation in a well designed, age appropriate and well supervised strength programme can be beneficial to bone health in youth (24, 44) .
Studies in to bone health of the adolescent population has shown that 50% of peak bone mass is developed before onset of puberty 25 , and although this is primarily influenced by the athletes genes; French, Jones and Kraemer (2014) claim what regular participation is resistance training can lead to both increased bone mass and bone mineral density. Research also shows that the formative years in ones life present the most opportune period for the body to respond to the tensile and compressive forces of weight bearing exercises 5,19, also resulting in improvements to bone health (38).
In addition, McKay et al (2005) found that bone mass of the weight bearing femur increased after a period of bodyweight jump training. In support of this research, both Conroy et al (1993) and Virvidakis et al (1990) found that young weightlifters had far superior levels of both bone mineral density and bone mineral content than untrained counterparts.
As the bone mass and bone mineral density increase, there are also associated adaptations to lean muscle mass and muscular strength. These adaptations allow for higher forces to be generated and withstood by the skeletal system, which can initiate favourable osteogenic responses (31).
The research supporting the inclusion of strength training in the weekly programme of young people is overwhelming. So then it seems even more surprising that there is still a large degree of uncertainty amongst certain populations, despite the apparent lack of any form of clinical research for these views; many parents and amateur coaches still advocate the exclusion of resistance training for children. Certainly, as with any form of activity; weightlifting could certainly be dangerous if the athlete is left unsupervised or is poorly coached. It is hoped that the circulation of information such as this article will stimulate some interest in the population, and act as a sensible guideline to help young athlete reach their potential in the safest, most effective way possible.
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