Youth Resistance Training Essentials: What you need to know from our expert, Loudovikos Liossis

By Loudovikos-Dimitrios Liossis
MSc in Applied Sports & Exercise Science
MSc in Sport & Leisure Management
DEREE, The American College of Greece
Fitness Center Supervisor
Strength & Conditioning Coach

 For Hellenic Daily News

Introduction

Qualified professionals in the medical, fitness, and sport industry are widely recognizing the importance of resistance training in the youth population. Resistance training can be beneficial to children and adolescents as long as it is appropriately prescribed and adequately supervised. However, it seems vital to create a framework upon which resistance training can improve health, fitness, and sports performance of the youth population in a safe and effective manner.

NSCA’s Position Statement and Focus

The National Strength  and Conditioning Association’s (NSCA) position statement states that a safe and properly designed resistance training program for the youth trainees improves muscular strength and power, cardiovascular risk profile, motor skill abilities, sports performance, psychological integrity/social interactions, reduces injury susceptibility and encourages long term involvement with exercise and training in the later stages of life. NSCA focused on four major areas regarding youth resistance training: risks and concerns regarding youth resistance training, benefits associated with this type of training, types and volume of resistance training required, and program design components for maximizing training adaptations.

Age & Sexual Maturation

Prior to discussing the key areas of youth resistance training, it is advisable to differentiate between preadolescence (11 years in girls, 13 years in boys-Tanner stages 1 & 2 of sexual maturation) and adolescence (12-18 years in girls, 14-18 in boys-Tanner stages 3 & 4 of sexual maturation). Moreover, it is advisable to consider that at the time (7-8 years old) children are able to participate in sports activities, they are equally ready to begin resistance training.

Risks and Concerns Associated with Youth Resistance Training

The most important concern associated with resistance training in the youth population is the risk of damage to the growth cartilage found at three specific sites in the human body: growth plates at the ends of long bones, articular cartilage, and points at which tendons insert to the bones-apophysis (less likely to occur in pre-adolescents). Risks of that nature are minimized and may be eradicated when proper lifting technique is ensured, maximal lifting to failure is avoided, and qualified professionals are supervising the exercise sessions. Moreover, there is no evidence that resistance training can adversely affect growth and maturation during childhood and adolescence.

Research studies have demonstrated that resistance training carries a low risk of injury in children and adolescents if they follow training guidelines compatible with their age. Participation in any form of physical activity, including resistance training, may cause musculoskeletal injuries. However, the incidence of occurrence is no greater and even less than sports participation itself. Microtraumatic soft-tissue injuries that may occur from repetitive use in a weight lifting environment are not always diagnosed and evaluated, making it hard to estimate their actual occurrence.

However, lower back injuries are very common in the youth population and need to be taken under careful consideration given the inadequate strength, endurance, and stability in the core musculature of many adolescents. Resistance training and core activation exercises can serve as a preventative measure of lower back pain in the youth population.

Benefits of Youth Resistance Training

Well-designed resistance training programs for children and adolescents can significantly increase strength levels beyond strength increases associated with normal physical growth and development. Training induced strength improvements in children are primarily associated with neural mechanisms (motor unit activation, recruitment, firing rates, synchronization) and not muscular hypertrophy factors (due to inadequate levels of serum testosterone at that particular age group). However, during puberty training induced changes are associated with muscle hypertrophy factors because of increases in testicular secretion of testosterone and subsequent hormonal interplay. In females, human growth hormone and insulin like growth factors seems to be partially accountable for muscular hypertrophy.

Another significant benefit of resistance training is that it can greatly improve body composition and serve as a helpful tool to face the prevailing threat of obesity in childhood and puberty, which can further progress to health issues such as Type II diabetes. Moreover, resistance training may reduce hypertension and improve blood lipid profile in children and adolescents as long as submaximal loads are used and proper training instruction is provided (changes in body composition and nutritional habits must be also considered for optimizing results in that area). A strong osteogenic (bone formation) stimulus in youth and improvements in bone mineral density and content have also been observed as a result of youth resistance training especially when multi-joint, moderate to high intensity resistance & plyometric (stretch-shortening cycle-rapid stretching and contracting of muscles to increase power output) exercises are utilized.

Improvements in mental health have also been observed and documented but seem to be most prominent in youth trainees who begin training and possess below average indices of strength and psychosocial well-being. Moreover, the psychological immaturity of youth in comparison with adults makes it hard to extrapolate such observations and proceed to definite conclusions. It is prudent to stress the benefit of resistance training to socialization and mental discipline parameters in children and adolescents. Such elucidations may be observed in the attitudes built towards team spirit, physical fitness and long-term adherence to a fit and healthy lifestyle adopted by children and adolescents.

The best results in motor performance skill improvement have been observed when resistance and plyometric training are used in combination enabling the benefits of synergy to come into effect. Motor performance skills have exhibited even greater improvements when the principle of specificity in exercise selection and muscle action is applied when designing a training program. Despite of the potential of resistance training to improve sports performance in the youth population, further research seems imminent in order to validate such allegations.

Program Design Considerations

Each training session must be started with a 5-10 minute dynamic warm-up (marching, hopping, skipping, jumping, dynamic stretching, upper- and lower body movement-specific exercises) in order to increase core body temperature, improve motor unit excitability and kinesthetic awareness as well as optimize active range of motion, enhance neuromuscular function, and boost power. It is advisable to start resistance training with relatively simple exercises and gradually progress to more advanced multi-joint ones. Moreover, light loads and focus on the appropriate technique are encouraged before progressing to heavier weights. As strength increases, load increases of 5-10% are advisable. Youth trainees normally perform total body training regimens that activate all major muscle groups in each session. Exercises that target large muscle groups should be executed before the ones that target smaller muscle groups while multi-joint exercises should be performed before single-joint exercises. Exercises that are highly taxing for the neuromuscular system (weightlifting movements, plyometric exercises) should better be performed early in the workout, when trainees have not developed excessive fatigue. Some of the types of resistance training that may be used with children and adolescents may incorporate child- and adult-sized selectorized machines, free weights (dumbbells, barbells, & kettlebells), elastic bands, medicine balls, and calisthenics. Adequate cool-down and static stretching shall be used at the end of the workout to relieve muscle tension and improve flexibility.

Program design considerations for the youth population include the performance of a total volume of 1-3 sets of 6-15 repetitions (reps) of upper and lower body strength exercises. However, beginners may start with 1-2 sets of 10-15 reps and then progress to 6-10 reps especially in large muscle group exercises. It is important to consider that multi-joint exercises can include 3 sets of 6-8 reps with heavy weight while single-joint ones can incorporate 2 sets of 10-12 reps with moderate resistance especially for experienced trainees. Moreover, the inclusion of 1-3 sets of 3-6 reps on various upper and lower body plyometric-power exercises may also be considered. However, it is recommended that plyometric exercises as well as Olympic weightlifting should include sets in a rep range of 6-8 or lower because they are highly intense and require a high degree of technical skill.

A total volume of 8-12 exercises has been validated as a general guideline, although individual differences must always be taken into account. Rest intervals of around 1-minute are encouraged between sets since children and adolescents can resist fatigue to a higher degree compared to adults. However, when higher levels of power and skill are needed, rest intervals may increase to 2-3 minutes. Youth trainees are encouraged to utilize a moderate repetition velocity unless the exercise executed requires explosiveness. Regardless of the velocity, all exercises must be executed in a controlled manner. Two-three exercise sessions per week performed on non-consecutive days are considered a good starting point as far as training frequency is concerned. By doing so, adequate recovery is provided between sessions (48-72 hours), which can induce strength and power increases in children and adolescents. Professionals must always take into account the fitness status, biological maturity, and weight training background of each individual before devising any training program. It is imperative to consider inter-individual variability in youth sport and resistance training.

Youth trainees must focus on core strengthening (abdominals and lower back region) in order to create a solid base for advancing their training regimens as well as safeguard a very sensitive area that is prone to injury due to lumbar spine compressive forces. Moreover, symmetrical muscular development and balance around joints should be encouraged to reduce injury susceptibility and optimize performance. It is vital that appropriate exercise progressions are utilized and that such progressions are always compatible with needs, goals, and skill level of each individual in order to maximize safety and musculoskeletal adaptations. A last consideration is the provision of adequate recovery with healthy nutrition, adequate hydration and sleep to optimize the benefits of resistance training and maximize performance improvement.

Finally, professionals need to apply the periodization principle on training programs to avoid plateaus and ensure performance optimization for youth trainees. The goal of any periodization model is to prioritize training goals and subsequently create a long-term plan for a specified training period. By varying the intensity, volume, frequency, rest interval, exercise selection, the risk of overtraining and associated complications may be minimized, the occurrence of overuse injuries reduced, training plateaus avoided and training adaptations and performance increments maximized. Periodization will challenge the body to adapt to greater demands given the new stimuli presented in every training cycle.

Conclusion

Concerns and risks regarding the safety and effectiveness of youth resistance training seem to be invalid since scientific and clinical evidence have demonstrated that youth resistance training can provide children and adolescents with health and fitness related benefits as long as training guidelines are followed to the letter and qualified professionals always supervise the training sessions. Teachers, coaches, and parents need to become cognizant of the potential involved in youth resistance training for improving health, fitness and performance while decreasing injury susceptibility. This information needs to be communicated to all relevant parties and presented in specialized settings with the ultimate goal of promoting resistance training for children and adolescents while eliminating doubts and outdated concerns against it.

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Source: YOUTH RESISTANCE TRAINING: UPDATED POSITION

STATEMENT PAPER FROM THE NATIONAL STRENGTH

AND CONDITIONING ASSOCIATION

AVERY D. FAIGENBAUM,1 WILLIAM J. KRAEMER,2 CAMERON J. R. BLIMKIE,3 IAN JEFFREYS,4

LYLE J. MICHELI,5 MIKE NITKA,6 AND THOMAS W. ROWLAND, 7