by Ryan Ketchum
The commonly held belief that strength training for kids is dangerous to the growth plates is simply not accurate provided that appropriate guidelines are followed with respect to, specifically, exercise execution. In fact, improved sport performance, increased muscular endurance and enhanced bone strength are all likely benefits of resistance training for children.
Moreover, an increased need for correct kids fitness programs due to the rigors of a typical soccer, football or baseball game place far more of a strain on the structures of kids than does a well-executed lift. In fact, Mel Siff in his book Facts & Fallacies of Fitness suggests that “stresses imposed on the body by common sporting activities such as running, jumping and hitting generally are far larger (by as much as 300%) than those imposed by Powerlifting or Olympic Lifting.”
The real crux of this issue stems from the argument of which type of resistance training is most safe or suitable. In North America, we tend to buy into the concept that fitness machines are most safe due to their static nature and fixed paths which remove our need to stabilize during a movement – which would be fine if the body actually worked like that, but it doesn’t! This is why I am so outspoken
against ‘youth sized’ strength training machines. To the uneducated eye, they certainly appear more safe and prudent than training with free weights, especially in dynamic movements such as Olympic lifts… but are they? Should kids stay away from dynamic strength training exercises like the Olympic lift?
If there is not a fully qualified an exceptionally experienced coach involved, then yes – without question. However, can the Olympic lifts actually be beneficial for younger athletes… let’s examine that.
While machine-based strength training for children has been shown clinically to be positive, it does not appear that the clinical evidence supports anything other than the fact that isolated strength has increased. Moreover, due to their static nature, it can certainly be concluded that machine-based strength training does not positively impact coordination or movement skill – something that is extremely crucial for young athletes.
On the other hand, North American research has never sought out to prove whether or not Olympic Lifts are dangerous for young athletes; it has always just been assumed so. Furthermore, according to Mel Siff in Facts & Fallacies of Fitness, “Epidemiological studies using bone scans by orthopedists have not shown any greater incidence of epiphyseal damage among children who lift weights.
On the contrary, bone scans of children who have done regular competitive lifting reveal a significantly larger bone density than those who do not lift weights – In other words, controlled progressive competitive
lifting may be useful in improving the ability of youngsters to cope with the rigors of other sports and normal daily life”. In addition, because of their dynamic nature, Olympic Lifts are actually quite ideal for aiding in the development of coordination and movement skill.
I try whenever possible to make sure that physicians, parents and coaches here in North America don’t become too dogmatic with respect to their viewpoints on how children should exercise. Although North Americans view Olympic lifting as entirely unsafe for pre-adolescents, they have been adopted as part of a physical education curriculum in sections of Europe.
– The essence of systemic strength training is found in basic activities such as running, jumping and throwing. Be sure to have younger athletes use both sides of their bodies equally when learning unilateral skills.
– From a motor skills perspective, I have always found that children around the ages of 8 – 10 are best suited to start learning the form and function of basic lifts. Start with body weight positioning, but don’t be afraid to teach ‘bar skills’ and patterning with light pre-weighted bars (5 – 8 pounds) or brooms.
– Reps and sets are an interesting topic… as opposed to conventional theory (3 sets of 15 – 20 reps), I have always found more success in teaching appropriate lift functioning by making the sets high (8 – 10) and the reps low (3 – 5). In this set/rep range, kids are first taught the basics of set up and movement and then asked to re-produce the lift a minimal number of times per set. This aids in developing quality motor sequencing and doesn’t afford the opportunity of developing poor habits during the multiple reps set.