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When Teenagers Should Start Lifting Weights

01/28/2001

Question:

How old should a teenager be in order to start lifting weights?

Answer:

This exact question has been addressed in the recent publication of the American College of Sports Medicine`s Certified News (Volume 10, Number 3, December, 2000). The following information is quoted directly from that publication. The reluctance of fitness professionals to suggest resistance training for pre-adolescent children is due largely to a concern for injury. This concern has grown from several reports that demonstrate an increased risk of injury in children lifting weights, with the primary injuries occurring to the epiphyseal growth plates. However, many of these injuries occur in children lifting maximal or near maximal weights, and competing in weight lifting programs. Several more recent studies have demonstrated that resistance training can be safely performed by children. One study found that 12 weeks of progressive resistance training in 52 pre-adolescent children was associated with only one injury. The American College of Sports Medicine, the National Strength and Conditioning Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all propose that strength training can be safely performed by pre-adolescents. In fact, research suggests that resistance training may help reduce the risk of injury and improve performance in other sports and in recreational activities, although this has not yet been scientifically demonstrated. Another reason resistance training has not been recommended for children may be due to the assumption that children would not respond with an increase in muscular strength, endurance, or hypertrophy. Recent research, however, has dispelled this myth and shown that children can significantly increase muscular strength and endurance with resistance training, although their ability to increase muscle size through hypertrophy is somewhat limited. The increase in strength is thought to occur primarily through neural factors instead of an increase in muscle cross sectional area. As with other sporting activities, children should be required to undergo a physical examination prior to beginning a resistance training program. This will help assure that no preexisting health conditions exist which might alter the program. Once medical clearance has been given, program goals should be established. Some pre-adolescents set unrealistic goals such as gaining weight through increased muscle mass. However, the following general goals can likely be acomplished through a properly designed resistance training program: 1) improve muscular strength, endurance, and coordination; 2) improve the ability to jump, run, or throw; 3) reduce the risk of sport injuries. Once the goals are established, a program is designed to meet these goals. When starting out with the pre-adolescent child, proper technique should be the primary focus. No external weight should be added until the individual has mastered the proper technique. In fact, many strengthening exercises can be performed without the use of an external load. Exercises such as push-ups, abdominal crunches, and heel raises can be done with the individual`s body weight as the sole resistance. In this case, the weight of the individual is somewhat proportional to the present level of strength and therefore less likely to cause injury. To increase the available number of exercises, and to add variety, exercise tubing can be used. Children, who have developed a moderate amount of strength with exercise tubing, or by using their body weight for resistance, may be ready to advance to a more traditional resistance training program. Initially, it is still appropriate to use minimal resistance until proper technique is mastered. As individuals are able to successfully perform each exercise, they can gradually increase the resistance. Although the tendency may be to attempt to lift as much weight as possible, a more moderate weight with a greater number of repetitions is safer and likely more effective. A recent study with children between the ages of 5 and 12, found that a single set with a moderate load of 13-15 repetitions, two days per week, produced greater gains in muscular strength and endurance than a similar program using a heavier load with 6-8 repetitions. Two concerns are inherent with strength training equipment: 1) Most strength training machines are large and made for adult use. It is therefore critical to adjust the machine to properly fit the child by adding a pad behind the back, or altering the machine`s range of motion. If a piece of equipment cannot be modified to fit the child, it should not be used. 2) Machines are typically designed with large increments in weight (10-15 lbs). If a child is to use a particular machine, external weights need to be added in small increments (2.5-5 lbs) to alleviate overuse injuries. When working with pre-adolescents, the fitness professional must be creative with the training program to maintain the children`s interest. Occasionally a child needs to spend time away from the weight room and enjoy active rest. This will help prevent boredom and avoid overuse injuries that are a concern with children. Of utmost importance, fitness professionals must remember that children are not simply small adults. They are growing, and we must be careful not to expose them to unnecessary risks. In addition, children should only participate in resistance training if they demonstrate an interest in this activity. An unmotivated child is not likely to adequately follow directions, which can lead to injuries. Finally, as with any activity, exercise should be fun, not a chore.

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Response by:

Carolyn   Nickol, RD, MEd Carolyn Nickol, RD, MEd
Director
Fitness Center at CARE\Crawley
University of Cincinnati