Physical activity in young children
As a personal trainer, I get constantly asked by parents if it is safe for their children to start resistance training. Most of their concerns understandably centers around whether resistance training can hamper their child’s growth. There are beliefs that resistance training can damage the growth plates causing the premature closing of epiphyses (Malina, 2006). Epiphyseal plate fractures have been reported in adolescents, but these occurred as a result of performing heavy overhead lifts under unsupervised settings (Haff & Triplett, 2016). It has been found that through proper nutrition and exercise programming, resistance training can increase the bone mineral density of youths (Kenny, 2015). This can drastically reduce fracture risk in the future. This can also be helpful for girls in preventing osteoporosis later in life.
Another concern for parents is the safety for performing resistance training exercises since weights are being moved. Under supervised settings, it has been found that resistance training is a safe and effective means for developing strength (Malina, 2006). Although I personally have not done this, 1-repetition maximum (1RM) has also been proven safe as long as proper training guidelines are followed (Haff & Triplett, 2016). Prior to training, children should be screened for any injury or illness to ensure safe participation.
There are plenty of benefits to exposing resistance training in young children. With the increase in obesity, obese children seem to prefer resistance training as it is not aerobically taxing (Haff & Triplett, 2016). This can serve as a motivating tool for obese children to be physically active. Training at this age should focus primarily on techniques which can help reduce injury risk in the future. For example, when teaching complex Olympic weightlifting movements, start learning with a wooden stick or PVC pipe.
Resistance training is safe and effective for children under supervised settings. Training should be fun and focused on techniques. Being physically active can help reduce children obesity and help them develop a healthy lifestyle which they can carry over to adulthood.
There is another side to the coin when it comes to promoting training programs to children. Sports specialization is an intensive year-round training in a single sport while excluding participation in other sports (Matzkin & Garvey, 2019). This route is taken by many coaches and parents in hopes of putting their young athletes in an advantageous position to reach elite-level athletic status. The common reasoning is that sport specialization will increase the frequency and duration of practice needed to be proficient at the required skill for the sport (Wiersma, 2000). This logic was popularized by Malcom Gladwell “10,000 hours” rule to be successful at a skill. Since the career of athletes is short, there is an urgency to specialize early.
While sports specialization encourages activity and reduces early on-set obesity and cardiac disease in young children, there are many risks associated with it. Specializing early will not allow athletes to develop neuromuscular skills properly which can increase injury risk due to the lack of diverse activity (Matzkin & Garvey, 2019). The repetitive movements and high training volumes coupled with less time to recover can also cause overuse injuries (Matzkin & Garvey, 2019). With high training volumes and the increasing pressures to win, a burnout can occur. A burnout is when a previously fun activity causes emotional and physical stress and exhaustion (Wiersma, 2000). At an age where children are encouraged to be social, rigorous training schedules can cause social isolation (Wiersma, 2000).
Sports specialization can thus hamper sports success in young athletes. Young athletes should be allowed to diversify and try different sports to help them develop foundational motor skills. This can help reduce injury risk. With athletes who do decide to specialize in a sport, close monitoring of the training volume, overuse injury, and burnout should be required (Myer et al., 2015). Periodized strength and conditioning training should be prescribed and should compliment their progress (Myer et al., 2015).
Haff, G.G., & Triplett, N.T. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics.
Kenney, W. L., Wilmore, J., & Costill, D. (2015). Physiology of sport and exercise (6th ed.). Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics
Malina, R.M. (2006). Weight training in youth – Growth, maturation, and safety: an evidence-based review. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 16(6), 478-487.
Matzkin, E., & Garvey, K. (2019). Youth Sports Specialization: Does Practice Make Perfect? NASN School Nurse, 34 (2), 100-103.
Myer, G.D., Jayanthi, N., DiFiori, J.P., Faigenbaum, A.D., Kiefer, A.W., Logerstedt, D., & Micheli, L.J. (2015). Sports Specialization, Part II. Alternative solutions to early sports specialization in youth athletes. Sports Health, 8(1), 65-73.
Wiersma, L.D. (2000). Risks and benefits of youth sport specialization: Perspectives and recommendations. Pediatric Exercise Science, 12(1), 13-22.
Posted by Suraj Gurung, Founder/Strength and Conditioning Coach