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Kids and STRENGTH TRAINING. The facts you need to know

Written by: Nick Jack
Category: 2014
on 10 September 2014
Hits: 6434

This can be quite a controversial topic for many people to get their head around and for good reason. Usually you just have to mention the words ‘Strength Training’ and ‘children’ in the same sentence and most people will start giving you funny looks. It is just the perception of what strength training currently is and what it really is, is where the problem lies. Many people are aware of the benefits of a conditioning program for elite athletes, and we all know the benefits of starting training for their sport early, as you would see with the Roger Federers and Tiger Woods of the world. So if we know the fact that adult athletes can seriously enhance their their performance in sport if they adopt a structured resistance training program, a new question arises: is it too little too late? At what age can we start to introduce our young Ricky Pontings and Lance Franklins to resistance training? And what if you don't even play sport, does that have any relevance at an early age too?

These were both questions I pondered for many years and like most people I did not think it was a good idea to expose kids to training demands of resistance training. But that was when I was poorly educated and knew not much about how the body actually moves and functions. After 15 years of Personal Training of training over 1000 different people of all ages, spending thousands of hours reading books, attending courses, working with Osteopaths, Physiotherapists, Chiropractors and watching several complex DVD's and online videos I have wised up and discovered some amazing pieces of information I wish I knew many years earlier. This is an interesting point here too, I only really learned the information I was reading about properly when I started to talk about it, teach it and use it in a practical setting.

There is a great quote by Socrates that says " Knowledge without experience is philosophy, experience without knowledge is ignorance, knowledge with experience is wisdom". When trying to understand controversial topics like this it pays to listen to someone who has both. 

Firstly when people think of strength training or resistance training most people will picture images of some guy who looks like Arnie, a muscle-bound ironman pumping iron, either doing bench press or bicep curls.

For starters this is body building and we don't recommend this type of training to anyone, yet alone kids. And resistance training is a lot more involved than this. It simply is any exercise, which uses one or more types of training system. Methods include exercises using bodyweight, such as lunges, push-ups, jumping or medicine ball work, dumbbells and cables may also feature in resistance work. And in addition to strength you need to learn other skills such as balance, agility, co-ordination, endurance and speed, and more importantly than that MOVEMENT skills.

This is where we spend a lot of time with younger clients and this is the best time to actually learn them.

At What Age Is It Good To Introduce Resistance Training?

The earlier the better in terms of learning great movement skills. We all have met that person, who had coaching in a sport from an early age and they just seem to kick your butt later in life without even trying. That is because they learnt the perfect technique early on and it became automatic in their system forever, known as a Motor Engram. So even though it is good to start early for the purposes of this article I am mainly talking about children from the age of 11 and up. This is precisely this age group which many of the world’s most successful sporting nations are introducing to resistance training during school training programmes. 

About the age of 11 is a great time to introduce this however playing in the schoolyard is arguably resistance training anyway wouldn't you agree? If we get a kid coming to train with us at 11 years of age I can guarantee they will have incredible movement for the rest of their life.

Does Exercise Stunt Their Growth?

Exercise will neither stunt nor promote growth in terms of height. Instead, it thickens the bones by increasing mineral deposits (Wilmore & Costill, 1994), which is a positive benefit of exercise for children.

What you do have to be careful of is repetitive loading, as growing bones are sensitive to stress. This is why it is not good to get kids to do too much distance running at an early age. This is because bones grow out from a cartilage growth plate at the end of each shaft. These growth plates are called epiphysial plates, and they divide the calcified head of the bone, the epiphysis, and the calcified shaft, the diaphysis. The bone lengthens as cartilage is replaced by bone on the diaphysial border, thus lengthening the shaft.

At the same time, cartilage continues to grow on the epiphysial border, so the epiphysial plates retain a constant width of cartilage throughout. Growth ends when the plate eventually calcifies. (reference: Coaching Young Athletes by Peak Performance ). 

Terrible training programs with an emphasis on too much load or too many repetitions will cause problems. Emphasis MUST be on quality of movement. This is true for adults as much as kids.

How Does This Work For Kids?

But you may find yourself asking: how can a boy who has yet to go through puberty (and has therefore yet to have testosterone coursing though his body) possibly experience gains in strength. Surely, gains in strength are related to muscle growth, which is influenced, by the amount of testosterone in the body? Recent studies have shown that strength can be improved even in the absence of muscle size growth.

The question is: how?

Well kids are not just mini adults and the mechanisms which bring about an increase in strength in adults are different for children. So how can children improve strength if testosterone is not responsible? Testosterone does not start to increase until mid to late puberty, effectively ruling out the male hormone’s contribution to strength gains in young performers. And, given that girls (who, of course, don’t produce much testosterone) can also improve their strength, that very fact points us in the direction of a different explanation.

Activate The Nervous System

Firstly I would highly recommend watching the video above as I explain exactly what type of movements you need to learn before trying to hammer a kid with strength training. This is true for adults too. You MUST MOVE WELL before you can move more! I also suggest reading one of our previous articles on why Movement skill training is better than isolation weight training. It is not even a new concept, in fact is very old. Just unfortunately it is not common knowledge.

Evidence from old studies by the Pioneers in movement skills and PNF movements and recent research prove that strength increases in line with the development of the nervous system, which is of primary importance to the body in terms of muscular strength.

The 3 biggest factors of strength gains are:

  1. Improved motor-skill coordination;
  2. Increased motor-unit activation;
  3. Neurological skill adaptations such as balance and agility etc.

Many of these studies and my own clinical experience has confirmed that strength gains in children are more easily and safely attained by using exercises that try to increase neuromuscular activation.

Neuromuscular activation is highest when the body performs complex functional movements that use the upper and lower body simultaneously. This is the basis for functional movement as explained in the video below.

Summary

The need to teach kids how to move cannot be ignored and we must educate parents and people in the community to the value of moving well. Today we are witnessing a steady progression of obesity and injuries in adults that could have easily been prevented if some of the things we have discussed in this article were taught to them when they were children. If kids are playing sports the need for strength training is even more important as the incidence of serious injuries like ACL tears are rapidly on the rise. I hope this article gives you some better information as to how to treat exercise with children more effectively.

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About The Author

Nick Jack is owner of No Regrets Personal Training and has over 15 years’ experience as a qualified Personal Trainer, Level 2 Rehabilitation trainer, CHEK practitioner, and Level 2 Sports conditioning Coach. Based in Melbourne Australia he specialises in providing solutions to injury and health problems for people of all ages using the latest methods of assessing movement and corrective exercise.

References:

  • Functional Anatomy of the Pelvis and the Sacroiliac Joint - By John Gibbons
  • The Vital Glutes - By John Gibbons
  • Movement - By Gray Cook
  • Corrective Exercise Solutions - by Evan Osar
  • Diagnosis & Treatment Of Movement Impairment Syndromes - By Shirley Sahrman
  • Core Stability - by Peak Performance
  • Athletic Body in Balance - by Gray Cook
  • Anatomy Trains - by Thomas Meyers
  • Motor Learning and Performance - By Richard A Schmidt and Timothy D Lee
  • Assessment & Treatment Of Muscle Imbalance - By Vladimir Janda
  • How To Eat, Move & Be Healthy by Paul Chek
  • Scientific Core Conditioning Correspondence Course - By Paul Chek
  • Advanced Program Design - By Paul Chek
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Strength - By Peter Twist
  • Twist Conditioning Sports Movement - By Peter Twist
  • Functional Training For Sports - By Mike Boyle
  • Athletes Acceleration Speed Training & Game Like Speed - by Lee Taft
  • Knee Injuries In Athletes - by Sports Injury Bulletin
  • The ACL Solution - by Robert G Marx
  • Understanding & Preventing Non-Contact ACL Injuries - American Orthopaedic Society For Sports Medicine