It has been widely proclaimed that today’s youth will be the first generation with a shorter life expectancy than their parents. This has been largely attributed to a sedentary lifestyle dominated by what my father in law calls “the square box”…meaning anything with a screen (phone, Ipad, computer etc.). It would seem that kids play far less than they used to and that activity is now by appointment only (2 hours of dance/week and, other than that, absolutely no unnecessary movement!). The most recent ParticipACTION Report Card on Physical Activity for Children and Youth echoes these sentiments as Canadian youth scored a B- for organized sport and physical activity participation with 75% of 5-19 year olds participating in some organized sport or activity. In spite of this, however, only 9% of 5-17 year olds in Canada get the recommended 60 minutes of daily (yes, every day!!) moderate to vigorous intensity activity. Our kids scored a D- in overall physical activity!!
A sedentary lifestyle during childhood and adolescence can increase the risk of developing heart disease, diabetes, osteoporosis and other chronic diseases and conditions later in life. Childhood obesity rates have doubled over the past 30 years. The need for increased activity levels in our youth is undeniable.
Though my focus today will be on strength training and youth, simply encouraging our kids to play outside in non-structured ways (free play) would go a long way to improving their prognosis.
So let’s jump right in by addressing the elephant in the room…
Safety of strength training for kids/youth
I recently had a young, small (but very strong) 14 year old boy doing some hex bar deadlifts with almost double his body weight (and with impeccable form I might add). He told me that one of his classmates told him he should stop lifting weights because it would…drumroll…stunt his growth! I told him so long as he wasn’t smoking while he lifted, he would be fine (though I couldn’t guarantee him he’d ever be a 6 footer!).
On this matter, I defer to Avery Faigenbaum (google him if you haven’t heard of him…he is the world’s pre-eminent expert on strength training in kids and youth). In a recent paper published in Pediatric Exercise Science, he states that no injuries have ever been reported in studies using 1 rep max testing (that’s as heavy as weightlifting can get!!) and that “there is no evidence to suggest that resistance training will negatively impact linear growth during childhood and adolescence”. In fact, “the mechanical stress from heavy resistance training…may actually be beneficial for bone formation and growth during childhood”. The caveat to all of this is that the exercise programs must be appropriately and professionally designed and monitored.
Strength training in children and youth is endorsed by CSEP, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the ACSM, ACE, the British Association for Sport and Exercise Science, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, the NSCA, the International Federation of Sports Medicine, and the NCAA (along with many other organizations!!).
Not only is strength training safe for kids it can be very effective for…
Movement pattern and subsequent strength and neuromuscular training can reduce injury risk substantially by up to 2/3 particularly for common sport related injuries like hamstring and ACL strains and tears.
Strength training can help to promote balanced muscular development which can be a problem in kids who specialize in one sport early (a whole other topic!). It can also improve sport skill components such as power, speed, balance, coordination, agility and reaction time. Without muscle strength, it is simply not possible to maximize speed and power (2 of the universally agreed upon determinants of athletic performance). Those who engage in appropriate pre-adolescent neuromuscular training actually raise their ceiling for neuromuscular performance potential in adulthood vs those that start training later or not at all (thanks again to Dr. Faigenbaum for this research).
Health and wellness
Participation in an appropriately designed and monitored youth strength training program can have favourable effects on body composition, musculoskeletal health, chronic disease risk, cardiorespiratory fitness, psychological well being, and performance. Bone architecture and health can also be improved by engaging in appropriate resistance exercise in childhood and adolescence (especially in girls). If there was a vitamin that would do half of these things for our kids, we would all buy it and make them take it every day with their kale and quinoa smoothies!
What youth strength training is and what it is not…
Youth strength training is not bodybuilding…your children need not worry about doing 8 sets of concentration curls to max their bicep peaks! Reluctantly, I am going to use one of my least favourite overused fitness industry buzzwords in stating that youth training is “functional” (I cringed as I wrote that). A good youth or kids program should be planned and structured and resistance should be appropriately progressed using a variety of exercise modes that could include body weight exercise, elastic bands, medicine balls, free weights, and numerous other “functional” apparatus (this does NOT mean doing everything on a Bosu ball!!).
Most importantly, youth resistance training should be fun…these are kids after all!
Stronger really is better!
Drew Burton, MKin, CSCS
Strength and Conditioning Coach at Performance 104, Edmonton