Should Young Runners Lift Weights?
Strength training for young runners and athletes remains a misunderstood area amongst many athletes, parents, health practitioners and coaches.
Erroneous beliefs, practices, ignorance, and misinformation around the realities and science of strength training for children and adolescents has resulted in strength and conditioning largely being neglected or not optimised in these age groups.
With a greater understanding of the benefits of strength & conditioning for young athletes continued participation in sport as children enter their teens and early adult years may be fostered. In addition to potentially continued sporting participation, achieve a higher level of physical sporting potential, and overall health benefits may also be unlocked through sound strength and conditioning practices in these age groups.
From a sports performance perspective, stronger young athletes will be better prepared to learn complex movements, master sport tactics, and withstand the demands of long term sports training and competition (1).
The World Health Organisation (WHO) now includes resistance training as part of the physical activity guidelines for children and adolescents. This is in light of WHO recognising that physical inactivity as being the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality for non communicable diseases. It also reflects that the youth of today are less active than they should be (2). Literature suggests that there is a declining muscular strength and fitness, and motor skill competence of school children (2).
Despite common belief and opinion, there is no harm to a young or adolescent athlete incorporating strength and conditioning work into their training.
For the purpose of being clear on the delineation of children and adolescents using the operational definitions as set out by The 2014 International Consensus Position Statement on Youth Resistance Training (2) will be useful:
Childhood: girls and boys generally up to age 11 and 13yrs respectively; having not yet developed secondary sex characteristics.
Adolescence: period between childhood and adulthood, although difficult to define with chronological age due to varying maturing rates, girls 12-18yrs, and boys 14-18years are generally considered adolescents.
Here are five reasons children and adolescents should perform regular strength and conditioning exercise as part of their training routines:
1. Youth resistance training does not ‘stunt bone growth’
Traditional and misinformed fears that resistance training may be harmful for a developing skeleton (ie injury to ‘growth plates’) have been replaced by evidence based findings that indicate that the opportune time to build bone mass and enhance bone structure by performing strength training is in fact during childhood.
One of the commonly cited concerns of children undertaking strength training was that it could ‘stunt growth’ through injury to growth plates. This concern has been nullified through a body of research which rather shows positive effects on the developing skeleton for the young athlete undertaking strength training (3). In fact it has been found that mechanical stress placed on the growth plates may actually be beneficial for bone formation, density, and growth (3).
Likewise long standing concerns that high intensity sports training in adolescents may negatively alter growth rates and eventual height in adulthood are not supported by cross sectional and longitudinal studies (3, 4).
Literature supports childhood and adolescence as key developmental periods for increasing bone mineral density, and that failure to participate in moderate to vigorous weight bearing physical activity during these stages of growth may predispose individuals to longer term negative bone health implications (3).
2. Youth resistance training can assist with avoiding early specialisation
Specialising in a given sport such as running through the developing years may increase injury rate, overtraining likelihood, and burnout. Over the decades there has been a heightened professionalism within youth sport, with some junior athletes being earmarked for future athletic success early in life through talent ID programs, and other incentives. Yet achieving success after specialisation of sporting activities throughout childhood is rare.
Research however suggests that youth should avoid early sports specialisation, as exposure to a range of sports and activities have been shown to enhance athletic development, reduce injury risk, and increase the likelihood of exposure to sports that they may really enjoy and excel at (3).
Youth resistance training can serve as a key addition and different stimulus to the developing body of a youth athlete, partially combatting some of the possible pitfalls of early specialisation.
3. Improves athletic ‘well roundedness’, robustness, and sporting performance
The performance benefits of adult strength training for sport are well known. Likewise the addition of regular resistance training throughout childhood and adolescence are also well documented in the literature.
Research demonstrates that resistance training programs can benefit youth of all ages, including children as young as 5-6yrs (3).
The primary mechanism underpinning strength gains pre puberty are primarily due to the neural adaptations. For late adolescence (post puberty) the effects appear due to additional gains in lean body mass and muscle cross sectional area, and further neural adaptations appearing to at this stage of development be consistent with those experienced by adults (2).
Interestingly participation in organised youth sports alone does not necessarily ensure that young athletes will attain a level of muscular fitness that will optimise sporting performance and reduce injury risk. Leek et al (6) reported that many youth sports do not provide sufficient time at the moderate to vigorous intensity range required for daily recommendations. This led Faigenbaum et al (1) to conclude that ‘an integrative training program grounded in resistance training combined with sports may help fill the critical need for young athletes to maximise athletic performance and maintain injury free competition’.
4. Improves child and adolescent health
There is a compelling body of scientific literature that supports the regular participation of youth resistance training for positive health and fitness gains.
Evidence indicates that resistance training can positively affect (2):
- body composition
- Reduce body fat
- Improve insulin sensitivity in overweight adolescents
- Enhance cardiac function in obese children
- Enhance bone mineral density
- Improve overall skeletal health
- Reduce sports related injury risk
- Psychological health and wellbeing of children and adolescents
The British Journal of Sports Medicine in the 2014 International Consensus paper (3) stated that: an appropriately designed resistance training program should be viewed as an essential component of preparatory training programs for aspiring young athletes, further adding that youth who do not participate in activities that enhance muscle strength and motor skills early in life may be at increased risk for negative health outcomes later in life.
5. Capitalises on the ‘window of opportunity’ to develop new skills & movement patterns
During childhood and adolescence there exists a large capacity to develop new movement skills and enhance muscular strength and fitness. Each sport requires maximal force and resistance training can be fundamental to athletic development and performance.
Young athletes who do not address muscular strength deficits early in life are more likely to sustain a preventable sports injury, and less likely to achieve high level performance (1).
Muscular strength is important for effective motor skill performance (3). Resistance training has been shown to be effective in improving motor skill performance; jumping, running, and throwing tasks (5). Motor skill performance for school age children can and should be optimised through the inclusion of progressive resistance programs early in life. By incorporating resistance training at a young age the child’s high level of neural plasticity is available.
Key considerations for youth resistance training
While resistance training should be included in the programs of all young athletes sessions should be supervised by a qualified coach, with a focus on technique refinement and the quality of movement.
The International Olympic Committee released a 2015 Consensus Statement for youth athletic development and they stated that young athletes should be encouraged to participate in regular varied strength and conditioning programs that are suitably age based, quality technique driven, safe and enjoyable (4).
Youth should be encouraged to participate in resistance training year round in order to maintain training derived gains in muscular strength (2).
The below infographic summarises the 5 key benefits of youth resistance training:
Hopefully this blog outlines the manifold benefits of including resistance training into the programs and weeks of adolescents and children.
A follow on blog will detail training principles for prescription for youth resistance training.
If you know an athlete, coach, or health practitioner who could benefit from this blog post please hit the below social buttons to share
Brad Beer (APAM)
APA Titled Sports & Exercise Physiotherapist (APAM)
B.Physio/ B. Ex. Sc
Author ‘You CAN Run Pain Free!’
Founder POGO Physio
Host The Physical Performance Show
Featured in the Top 50 Physical Therapy Blog
- Faigenbaum AD, Lloyd RS, MacDonald J, et alCitius, Altius, Fortius: beneficial effects of resistance training for young athletes: Narrative review. British Journal of Sports Medicine 2016;50:3-7.
- Lloyd RS, Faigenbaum AD, Stone MH, et alPosition statement on youth resistance training: the 2014 International ConsensusBritish Journal of Sports Medicine 2014;48:498-505.
- Bergeron MF, Mountjoy M, Armstrong N, et al. International Olympic Committee consensus statement on youth athletic development. Br J Sports Med 2015;49:843-851.
- Malina RM. The Young Athlete: biological growth and maturation in a biocultural context. In: Smoll FL et al, eds. Children and youth in sports: a biopyschosocial perspective. 2nd Edn. Dubuque, IA: Kendall Hunt, 2002: 261-92.
- Behringer M, Vim Heede A, Matthews M, et al. Effects of strength training on motor performance skills in children and adolescents; a meta-analysis. Pediatr Exer SCi 2011; 23: 186-206.
- Leek D, Carlson J, Cain KL, et al. Physical activity during youth sports practices. Arch Pediatr Adolsec Med 2010; 165:294-9.