Strength and Conditioning for children is a topic that lies very close to my heart as it is something I intend on dedicating the rest of my professional career to. The intention of this article is to communicate that strength and power activities for children have an incredibly advantageous effect on their development, so long as the person implementing it has sufficient experience and knowledge on how to prescribe and periodise for maximum results with minimum risk.
How do I know this?
As a professional athlete, I experienced four season-ending injuries, which, undoubtedly led to the demise of my professional football (soccer) career. Knowing what I now know, I can confidently say that had I performed the correct strength and power training as kid; I may still be playing today. That is a fairly bold statement, however drawing upon research from various well-respected people in this field; it becomes very hard to see it any other way. I will reference the content I am talking about throughout the article, and I welcome my readers to push past this, and read the research I present, as they are quality, peer reviewed papers (if you read my last blog you will understand how important independently review articles are, especially in this area).
A (brief) history.
Coaches who encourage children to participate in various forms of resistance training have met controversy throughout the short history of investigation into the practice. I would like to highlight the positives associated with this particular area of training. Research indicates that the positives far outweigh the negatives associated with strength training (for kids) and is going even further toward suggesting that it is essential in achieving high levels of motor development, skeletal strength, co-ordination, connective tissue strength, behavioural benefits and reduction in negative anthropometric values.
Resistance training for non-athletes is relatively new in regards to implementation and research. Furthermore, much conjecture shadows resistance training for unambiguous populations – like children. This type of training has been a taboo issue for children due to a variety of generalised and subjective opinions that associate resistance training with a variety of effects including the stunting of growth, fractures, growth abnormalities, higher risk of injuries and lack of adaptations due to a lack of hormone production. Many studies have been presented illustrating the benefits that resistance training has on athletic performance however, there is now research on that proves the transfer to non-athletic populations is proving beneficial.
Following this, specific populations such as children and the elderly are now the focus of a lot of research in order to explore the feasibility that this specific type of training has significant advantages for these alternative, non-athletic populations.
What about aerobic training?
Due to an absence of conjecture surrounding the benefits of aerobic training in children as compared with resistance and plyometric training, aerobic training is often prescribed to address the adverse body compositions of modern children (Baranowski, Mendlein et al. 2000). While aerobic training is affiliated with reduction in fat, more and more evidence is pointing towards the execution of resistance-based exercises in children could be the answer to address the social issue of ‘overweight kids’.
Addressing a social issue.
There is acceptance amongst research and national bodies (Pediatrics 2001); (Medicine. 2006.); (Faigenbaurn, Outerbridge et al. 1996); (Golan 1998) (Smith 1993) along with many review articles: (Avery D. Faigenbaum. Lyle J 2000) (Falk 2003) suggesting that resistance training has benefits for pre-adolescent children. In their articles, weight training indicated improvements in:- Strength- muscular endurance- maintenance of lean fat-free mass- improved capacity in sports performance (motor skills)- increased bone density- decreased injuries- better attitude and possible increased connective tissue strength.
Together, these attributes provide the child a substantial advantage in maintaining a healthy weight whilst providing a great rehabilitation platform for various conditions like cystic fibrosis and osteopenia (David G. Behm 2008).
To date, no research has identified significant increases in muscle mass as a response to resistance training in children (so kids looking like Arnold Schwarzenegger is out of the question).
In saying this, and before you go joining your kids up to the local gym, much emphasis must be put on proper technique and detailed periodisation (planning and progression). Confounding variables like duration and type of resistance protocols has to be assessed when it comes to children in order to achieve optimal outcomes (David G. Behm 2008). Resistance training modules must take in to account age, gender, health status, physical fitness and chid maturation for successful adaptations to occur.
The importance of proper periodisation and technique correction whilst performing resistance training (in particular Olympic lifting and plyometric exercises) is well documented through the research. It illustrates that these activities, even though they are incredibly complex in nature, provide reduced injury incidence when compared to other popular children’s sports. Under proper instruction, the risk of injury whilst performing an Olympic lift during training or competition is relatively low (Hamill 1994; Pierce K 1999; Byrd R 2003). For example, (Hamill 1994) evaluated injury rates in adolescents who participated in a variety of sports and concluded that weightlifting was up to six times less likely to injure a child in comparison to other sports, including soccer and rugby. In support of these findings, Byrd et al. and Pierce et al. evaluated the incidence of injury in young lifters and concluded that competitive weightlifting is safer than generally thought, provided that age appropriate training guidelines are followed and competent coaching is available (Chu. D 2006).
The risk associated with plyometric (explosive training jumping, bounding etc) training also coincides with many myths, in which some observers still suggest high growth plate fractures are seen in children participating in plyometric activities comparative to other forms of training. However, recent research suggests this to be untrue and that children are actually found to have a lower risk of growth plate fractures due to increased strength in childhood as opposed to later in adolescence (Chu. D 2006). Often, children perform common playground activities every day, including jumping, hopping and throwing, which provide a base in plyometric activities, suggesting that plyometrics isn’t foreign to children just because they lack physical development. In summary, it is pivotal in their neural development and is safe if performed in conjunction with a well-rounded physical program (Maffulli 1992).
These explosive types of exercise are now fundamental in increasing fitness and sports performance in children (Chu. D 2006). If these types of training are incorporated in a well designed program, it will help reduce the risk of injury and also provide a foundation for significant gains in muscular power and strength in adulthood.
I know this is a lot of science jargon however what I am trying to communicate is that if your children intend on playing sport, or even if they intend of living a long, injury-free life, do not be hesitant to put your kids in a resistance program. The evidence strongly suggests that strength and power activities in children have an incredibly advantageous effect on their development. The take home message is: “Make sure the person implementing it has sufficient experience and knowledge on how to prescribe and periodise for maximum results with minimum risk.”
Intent on delivering successful physical outcomes by providing a performance program that focuses on improving self-esteem, self-confidence, independence and motivation, in the coming months I intend on launching ‘Strong Kids’. I can’t say too much more than that now, but watch this space…
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