Part 2: Designing a Program
The NSCA’s Position Statement on youth weight training argues that if children are ready to participate in sports, they are ready to engage in some type of resistance exercise. In Part 1, the safety and benefits of weight training were highlighted. Part 2 summarizes of the authors’ recommendations for designing a weight lifting program for young participants. The overriding importance is designing a program that is age-appropriate, safe, enjoyable and effective in achieving realistic goals.
General Guidelines: The authors emphasize that a medical exam should precede any training to make sure that there are no issues that might prevent the child from exercising. This is common place as a medical exam should precede participation in any sport or strenuous exercise program. The most important aspect of a youth resistance training program is that it be supervised by a qualified trainer who has experience working with children and young adolescents. Proper instruction should be given early on. Kids need to be taught proper weight room etiquette, lifting and spotting techniques, use of machines, and handling weights (medicine balls, barbells, dumbbells, plates, etc). It is important that these instructions be presented in a way that children will understand them. The emphasis should be on a safe environment.
Trainers should discuss realistic goals and outcomes with each participant. These will vary from one child to another so it is important that each kid have reasonable expectations. Trainers should encourage self improvement and focus on individual performance. Discourage competition between participants, especially in beginners. Overall, create an environment where the children enjoy training, look forward to exercising and are excited about their individual gains.
Warm-Up and Cool-Down: There is quite a bit of debate on the effectiveness of warm-ups and what type of activities should be included. Much of this research was performed using adult subjects so the implications for kids are not clear. The authors of the Position Statement argue that a well designed, dynamic warm-up is appropriate for young lifters. It should include 5-10 minutes of hops, skips, jumps, etc. Light jogging or cycling could also be used. The rationale is that dynamic activity will prepare the body for training and help focus attention on the day’s session. After lifting, a cool-down period that includes stretching and calisthenics should be used. This is also an ideal time for the trainer and participants to reflect on the workout and re-emphasize instructions and safety issues.
Types of Exercises: Beginning lifters should start with relatively simple, single-joint exercises and slowly progress to more complex, multi-joint movements. Include body weight exercises, medicine balls and dumbbells. Begin with light to moderate loads and emphasize technique. For example, use 1-2 sets of 10-15 reps with a weight that can be comfortable handled. If technique falters late in the set, reduce the amount of weight. Introduce new exercises early in the workout session when there is less fatigue. At this time, technique can be better emphasized. Even in experienced lifters, new exercises should use the low weight – high rep approach. As technique improves, the load can slowly be increased and the number of reps reduced.
More experienced lifters can train using greater loads and fewer reps (e.g. 3 sets of 6-8 reps). These athletes can also begin to use more complex, multi-joint exercises. Free weight bench press, squats and even power cleans are appropriate in kids who have mastered simple exercises and who have developed both strength and skill. Plyomtrics are also appropriate for these athletes. When using heavier loads and free weights, it is critically important that proper technique be used. This means constant supervision of each lift. IT also means critically evaluating each participant to insure that he or she is ready to attempt more difficult exercises. If the athlete cannot execute the lift with proper technique, reduce the load and focus on skill. Poor technique when lifting heavy loads is a key cause of weight room injuries.
It is also a good idea to vary the types of exercises used. Changing the types of lifts every 4-6 weeks can prevent boredom and keeps kids interested in their workouts. Periodization can also be used with more experienced lifters a part of a pre-season program.
Other Comments: After reading the NSCA’s Position Statement, there are few more points that should be mentioned. First, during the course of training, kids may often develop muscle soreness. When this occurs, scale back on the intensity of the training session or take a day or two off. Also, if the participant experiences any sort of acute or chronic pain, stop training immediately and have them visit their physician. Young athletes should never be encouraged to “work through” any sort of pain or discomfort. It also makes no sense to jeopardize an athlete’s health for short-term gains. Time off to recover from injury is far more important than immediate goals.
Second, progression should not be rushed. Again, a long-term perspective is essential. Over training a 12 year old is of no benefit if he or she risks injury or burned out by age 18. Young athletes have plenty of time to develop strength. There is no need to push someone’s limits for short-term success.
Finally, kids should look forward to a trip to the weight room, not dread it. Create an environment that is safe, effective and enjoyable, especially with young lifters. Be firm enforcing safety issues and weight room etiquette but encourage and praise kids for their efforts and improvements. Remember, resistance training is a life-long activity.
Concluding Remarks: Despite misconceptions and concerns, a overwhelming body of research shows that youth resistance training is both safe and effective. All of the evidence indicates that a properly supervised weight training program can offer numerous health benefits to children and young adolescents. Whether the child is an athlete or simply interested in improving fitness, weight training programs can be designed to achieve individual goals and to promote a life-long enjoyment of physical activity.
Faigenbaum AD, Kraemer WJ, Blimkie CJR, Jeffereys I, Micheli LJ, Nitka M, Rowland TW (2009) Youth resistance training: Updated position statement from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23: (supplement 5) / S60-S79.