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Strength training – why youngsters should work out with weights

Parents and coaches continue to express concern about the suitability of strength training for children and adolescents despite mounting evidence that it is both safe and beneficial. Paul Gamble, strength and conditioning coach to the London Irish Rugby Football Club, homes in on the advantages for youngsters. Here are some extracts:

The benefits of youth resistance training are well documented and almost universally accepted among health professionals, particularly in the United States.

However, public recognition of these benefits has tended to lag behind and misunderstanding and misconceptions abound. Concerns about youth resistance training stem from a perceived risk of potential damage to growth plates and consequent interference with normal growth.

In fact, such damage has never been documented in connection with youth strength training programs administered and supervised by qualified professionals. Studies using appropriate youth resistance training report a very low incidence of any type of injuries.

The most frequent causes of injuries to young people working out with weights include incorrect lifting technique, attempts to lift excessive loads, inappropriate use of equipment and absence of qualified supervision.

But these factors should not apply with properly administered training.

It is now recognized that young people can derive the same benefits from strength training as adults. Previously, the presumption had been that strength training before puberty was not viable or effective. But now it is known that pre-pubescents exhibit scope for strength gains far beyond those attributable to normal growth and maturation.

Relative strength gains from resistance training in prepubescent subjects are of similar magnitude to those seen in adolescents, although the latter seem to exhibit greater absolute strength gains.

Improvements in various motor performances have been observed following resistance training in children. These include vertical jump, standing long jump, sprint times and agility run times.

Further benefits: resistance training has also been recommended as a preconditioning aid for youngsters. Habitual levels of physical activity in children are declining, reflecting changes in modern lifestyles.

As a result, the physical condition of many children leaves them ill prepared for competitive sport. Resistance training prepares them for participation in other sports and recreational activities, thereby also preventing overuse injuries.

This injury prevention aspect of youth resistance training is an important consideration for young athletes.

Strengthening muscles via resistance training will increase the forces they are capable of sustaining, making them more resistant to injury, while improved motor control and coordination will also improve balance and joint stability.

For adolescent athletes in particular, structural adaptations to resistance training are key to injury prevention. These effects include increased strength of supporting connective tissues and passive joint stability, as well as increased bone density and tensile strength, which are particularly useful in collision sports.

As well as protecting against injury, youth resistance training also seems to accelerate rehabilitation after injury, with evidence that young athletes recover more rapidly and return to training sooner than those who do not use this kind of training.

Strength training workouts: the strength-training workouts we provide are suitable for beginners, intermediate and experienced youngsters. Documented benefits include:

• Significant strength gains, particularly in adolescents
• Improved motor performance
• Injury protection
• Preconditioning preparation for sports participation
• Beneficial structural adaptations, including increased bone density
• Accelerated rehabilitation after injury
• Potential to enhance growth
• Health benefits, including reduced risk of heart disease and diabetes
• Favourable effects on body composition
• Enhanced self-esteem