[Brandon Gremillion is a student at the University of Mount Olive majoring in Exercise Science. He is currently an Athletic Development Intern at Athletic Lab.]

You may not think to use resistance training with weights in preadolescents, but there are many benefits to implementing it into a workout regime. A preadolescent is someone who usually falls between the ages of nine and twelve years of age. Utilizing weights during training for these individuals has not always been supported “because of the concerns for injury and the questionable efficacy of this type of training to improve strength” (Sibte, 2003). However, it has been shown that the combination of resistance training and cardio in regards to preadolescents can have long term health benefits (Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness [CSMF], 2001).  This belief has further been backed up with research that has shown that, “strength training, when properly structured with regard to frequency, mode (type of lifting), intensity, and duration of program can increase strength in preadolescents” (Sibte, 2003).  

Resistance training with weights increases the risk of muscle strain and compression, but that risk is not as significant as the risk of injury associated with sports and recreational activity. In regards to preadolescents and resistance training the most common injuries seen are muscle strains, low back injury, and growth plate injuries (CSMF, 2001).  Tendonitis can occur when a child is tasked with the high demands of competition and training without proper rest and recovery. Another issue that can arise is a diminished flexibility and muscle-tendon strength mismatches which in turn could cause injury (Sibte, 2003).  The good thing is that “most of these injuries are uncommon and are largely preventable by avoiding maximal lifts, improper technique, and improper supervision” (CSMF, 2001).Studies have even found that growth plates are not negatively affected by resistance training so long as poor technique, excessive loading, and performance of bouncy activities with rotation are avoided (Sibte, 2003). In fact, there are no known cases of growth plate injuries occurring under professional guidance and instruction. (Faigenbaum & Myer, 2010). Research does show that a child with hypertension may experience further elevation of blood pressure from the isometric demands of strength training, but there is no evidence to support that resistance training will stunt “linear growth or long term cardiovascular health (CSMF, 2001).

The risk of injury during weight training is not any more dangerous than the risk of injury while practicing a sport (Sibte, 2003). Preadolescents should weight train for few reasons. Practicing safe and appropriate weight training has been proven by many studies to aid in the strength development of preadolescents, and may even promote bone growth (Sibte, 2003).The strength gains that come from resistance training in preadolescents are a result of motor learning and the nervous system, rather than hormones. Strength gains have improved over thirty percent in preadolescents who have engaged in an eight to twelve week program (Sibte, 2003). This can be somewhat accounted for because, neuromuscular learning increases the number of motor neurons that activate with each muscle contraction which allows for the force output to increase (CSMF, 2001). This plays hand in hand with the fact that strength training can also increase the muscle enlargement that normally occurs during puberty in both males and females (CSMF, 2001).

Even with all of these benefits, it is wise for a preadolescent to have a medical exam prior to resistance training. A medical exam can identify possible risk factors for injury and outline expectations. All training sessions should include a warm-up and cool-down to reduce the child’s risk of injury. Power lifts (squat, bench press, and deadlift) and Olympic lifts (snatch and clean & jerk) should be taught with little or no resistance until proper technique is learned. Technique should be the primary area of focus.

In some cases, it will be necessary to start with body weight alone. Once the technique of a movement is good the child can gradually increase resistance. From an injury standpoint, it is safer to underestimate a child’s strength and start with light loads than to quickly push heavy resistance on them. If eight to fifteen reps can be completed with good form then slightly increasing resistance is safe (Sibte, 2003).

The child will benefit most from exercises that target all of the major muscle groups and require a full range of motion. “To achieve gains in strength, workouts need to be at least 20 to 30 minutes long, take place a minimum of two to three times per week, and continue to add weight or repetitions as strength improves” (Sibte, 2003). The use of weight training more than four times per week will not lead to greater strength gains in preadolescents (Sibte, 2003). It will only reduce the child’s recovery time and possibly overload their body. Preadolescents who are trying to juggle school, training, and competition may easily overlook recovery, so planned rest days are important (Sibte, 2003). Ideally, resistance training for preadolescents should not take place one day after the other. Separating sessions by 48 hours will allow for some recovery to take place.

Progressive overload has been effective in increasing the strength of preadolescents. This refers to “the practice of continually increasing the stress placed on the muscle as it becomes capable of producing greater force or has more endurance” (Sibte, 2003). Three common ways to progressively overload include “increasing resistance, increasing volume (more reps/sets, longer sessions), and increasing training frequency (more sessions per week)” (Sibte, 2003).  According to Sibte the “10% rule” is a reasonable guide for progressive overload by limiting increases in resistance and volume to no more than 10% per week.

Effective program design for pre-adolescents will have some focus on intensity. Generally, moderate volumes of 10 to 15 reps are effective (Sibte, 2003). Using higher rep schemes will give the child more time to practice form, but one rep max testing can be done safely to identify max strength. It should be noted that “many of the forces that youth are exposed to in sports and recreational activities are likely to be greater both in duration and magnitude than properly performed maximal strength tests” (Faigenbaum & Myer, 2010). Velocity based training (VBT) can also be used to predict max strength if one prefers not to do a one rep max test. VBT tracks the speed at which a given weight can be moved over a set number of reps in order to predict a one rep max. If someone does not have access to VBT, maxes can still be estimated through submaximal testing. For example, a three rep max test could be used to predict the child’s one rep max. Of course this method is less accurate than a true one rep max test or VBT predicted max.

All in all utilizing resistance training in preadolescents has numerous benefits ranging from neuromuscular adaptations to overall greater strength. Things to keep in mind should always be timing, weight, rep schemes, and proper rest days along with a medical examination prior to program. Preadolescents with high demands for training and competition can use resistance training as a way to adapt to high physical stress.

References

Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness. (2001). Strength training by children and adolescents. American Academy of Pediatrics, 107(6), 1470-1472.

Faigenbaum, A. D., & Myer, G. D. (2010). Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(1), 56–63.

Sibte, N.(2003). Weight training – preadolescent strength training – just do it. Australian Sports Commission. Retrieved from http://www.ausport.gov.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0009/145971/Article_weight_training_preadolescent_strength_training_Narelle_Sibte.pdf