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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: 5356

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 10 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 severl 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.  Here is some of the great books on this topic I suggest you read.


Recently we have been training two younger clients who are aged 13 & 14 respectively, and both have achieved amazing results in a very quick time, using Strength Training as the pivotal part of their program. Now before you gasp and utter "you are crazy" let me give you some background information and then I will explain what I mean when I say "strength training for kids".

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.

Let's meet the two young kids who have been training with us for some time.

The first client is Jera Staley is an up and coming tennis star and came to us about 12 months ago to improve his co-ordination, posture and movement skills for tennis which he was already playing at a high level. Jera had also been experiencing weakness in his left shoulder which was not only hampering his tennis game but slowly becoming a problem all the time. His parents and he felt he needed to have a program that would improve his overall conditioning strength and ability to move around the court better and without pain. Jera is actually quite tall for his age, already 6 foot and although he is skilled at tennis his skills in movements such as lunges and rotation were not great. His posture could definitely be improved and his body's ability to know where it is in space ( pro-prioception ) also needed work. We tested him on agility and co-ordinated movements specific to throwing athletes and began putting a program in place to correct any faulty patterns and postural deviations. ( see picture of Jera below using a tornado ball )

The second client Olivia Kourmadias started training about 4 months ago for a completely different reason. She was suffering from severe knee pain that had developed into a chronic condition where she could not even walk without pain. She had seen numerous physios, chiropractors for no improvement and was at a loss for what to do. As with Jera, Olivia needed a lot of postural correction, core control, movement skill coaching and a better understanding of how to use her body to function for what she wanted to do. Her improvement was remarkably quick once we started resistance training that included a lot of stability and postural correction.

Check that out on the You Tube video below to see her interview and find out exactly how we assessed her, what exercises we used and more importantly what she is doing now.

Important point here is: In both cases their flexibility was incredible which you would expect from a kid of that age. Which is also why the traditional approach of trying to loosed up tight muscles rarely works for kids. Great for adults but terrible for kids as their system is over loosened if anything. In Olivia's case this is exactly the case.  A massive paradox of where we needed to tighten her up to loosen her up! Her knee flexion went from only 90 degrees on her original assessment to 190 degrees in only 6 weeks using very little stretching. The key was to use resistance training based on teaching perfect MOVEMENT SKILLS, which in turn improved their strength. For Jera this has improved his tennis, for Olivia this has helped her to be able to participate in PE at school and do what she wants to do without any pain. And also in both cases we applied the success formula approach with designing their program. Watch the video below for an example of this.

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. ( referemce: 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.

So 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, latest studies and also our own case study with Olivia 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 ar: improved motor-skill coordination; increased motor-unit activation; and varous other 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 (such as Jera & Olivia) are more easily and safely attaiined by using exercises that try to increase neuromuscular activation. Neuromuscular activation is highest when the body performs complex movements such as a squat and a 1 arm shoulder press and the strength gains or cable woodchop as opposed to body building exercises like leg extension and bicep curls. Improving Core Strength is another term that is thrown around a lot by not understood very well. Training the body using the Slings is critical in this stage as they are tied very much to the essential movements that are learned at this age. Click here to read our article about how to train the slings.

Using neuromuscular activation training is also great for adults who have suffered serious injury, especially brain injuries and need to relearn movements. I am currently working with an adult who has suffered a very life threatening brain injury and her progress is extremely fast using the same concepts I use with kids. Her brain is making very fast changes to her muscular system based on the stimulus provided by her training.


"Coaching Young Athletes by Peak Performance"

"Motor Learning and Performance" by Richard Schmidt & Timothy Lee

If you like this article and would like to know more about our Strength Training For Kids Programclick the image below.