[This is a guest post by Kyle O’Toole is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with National Strength and Conditioning Association and a Corrective Exercise Specialist and Certified Personal Trainer with National Academy of Sports Medicine. Kyle recently completed the Athletic Development Mentorship  at Athletic Lab and you can reach him on Instagram @beyourownbest4life.]

There has been a growing interest in youth fitness programs and the training of younger athletes has become more common in the past few years. Along with this growing interest has come an abundance of new perspectives on how to best work with children. Although researchers have looked at the safety and effectiveness of youth exercise programs there is still plenty of misinformation, and many parents are left wondering what is safe for their child.To complicate things, obesity in children is the worst it has ever been in our country. According to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, between the years 1999 and 2000, child and adolescent (ages 2-19) obesity was at 13.9%. In 2015 and 2016 that number rose to 18.5% and now obesity affects more than 13.7 million children and adolescents in the US. What’s worse is that the prevalence of obesity in children increases as they get older. Childhood obesity is 13.9% from ages 2 thru 5, 18.4% from ages 6 thru 11, and 20.6% from ages 12 thru 19 (Hales, Carroll, Fryar, & Ogden, 2017).

There has never been a greater need for access to the correct information that will safely shift health markers, for your child, in the right direction. Here are the things you need to know about exercise and youth.

Early Sport Specialization

Although it currently has no standardized definition in literature, early sport specialization (ESS) can be considered as a year-round structured training regimen that focuses on the development of abilities in one specific sport at a young age. Despite today’s youth becoming increasingly less active, participation in youth organized sports is on the rise. An unfortunate side effect to this increased interest in youth sports is the onset of ESS. Counter to popular belief, ESS does not promote success in sports. Instead, it promotes overuse injuries, psychological stressors, and an increased potential of the child to withdraw themselves from the sport entirely (Jayanthi et al., 2013; Post et al., 2017).

The biggest issues with ESS are centered around the lack of development of movement patterns found in other sports and the decreased levels of sensory input that come from only playing a single sport. Physical and cognitive development go hand in hand. If you fail to stimulate one, then they both suffer. This is exactly what is happening with ESS. Children are being exposed to the same stimuli and same movement patterns while only training for one sport and this is potentially stunting cognitive growth (Abernathy, 2005; Klika, 2017).

Resistance Training and Bone Growth

Resistance training should not be confused with weightlifting. In weightlifting, an individual’s goal is to lift the most weight as quickly as possible to complete a lift. Resistance training is a method of exercise where the individual works against various loads with the goal of enhancing their health, fitness, or performance (Haff & Tripplett, 2016).

Most bone formation occurs in the diaphysis and epiphyseal plates. These two areas are the main areas where bone fusion occurs. As bones fuse, they become more mature and start ossifying. There is a myth that children and pre-adolescents should not perform resistance training until the bones have completely ossified because this potentially stunts their growth. If this were true it would mean that children could not start resistance training until they were in their early twenties. Between the ages of 22 and 25 is generally when the final ossification of our bones occurs.

Not to mention, when performed correctly, resistance training enhances bone strength along with neuromuscular efficiency, motor learning, psychosocial skills, and decreases the risk of injury while improving general sport performance (Dahab, 2009; Faigenbaum, 2009; Haff, 2016; Klika, 2017). The key to remember here is that your child needs to be working with a professional who understands the intricacies of youth development. Children do not all grow at the same rate. Because of the different rates of growth, things like technical competency and mental and physical development all play a role in how your child needs to be trained. Even at the same chronological age, children will need to be trained differently. This is why implementation of a safe and effective resistance training program by an experienced professional is so vital.

Children are Not Little Adults

It is important to understand that the correct training stimulus must be used when working with children. You should never impose adult periodization measures on a child when they first start resistance training. The focus should be on building a baseline of fitness that teaches correct movement patterns through a full range of motion before increasing loads. In fact, the initial strength gains seen in children who first undertake resistance training mainly come from neural adaptations not muscle hypertrophy. Research by Dahab and McCambridge (2009) showed strength gains in children as high as 30% to 50% within 8 to 12 weeks, that were due to increases in motor unit activation and synchronization and enhanced motor unit recruitment, not increases in the cross-sectional area of muscles.

Be smart about how and why you are introducing your child to exercise. Make sure you do your due diligence in finding a gym or trainer with a solid reputation in the industry. Being able to accurately assess a child’s biological age and prescribe the proper training protocols, provides them with enhanced physical capabilities, increased cognitive functioning, and positive psychosocial environments that keep them playing sports longer (Abernathy, 2005; Faigenbaum, 2017; Haff, 2016; Jayanthi, 2013).

Children are not miniature versions of us. Until they hit puberty their aerobic energy pathways are built much more efficiently compared to their anaerobic pathways. The anaerobic improvements seen during exercise are mostly due to increases in neuromuscular efficiency. They need to follow training protocols that focus on building general strength through multiplanar exercises. These kinds of exercise emphasize correct movement patterns and enhance their cognitive ability to activate muscles in a more coordinated manner. Take these considerations into account when getting children involved with fitness and set them up for long term success.


  • Abernethy, B., Baker, J., & Cote, J. (2005). Transfer of pattern recall skills may contribute to the development of sport expertise. Journal of Applied Cognitive Psychology, 1(19), 705-718.
  • Dahab, K., & McCambridge, T. (2009). Strength training in children and adolescents: Raising the bar for young athletes. Sports Health, 1(3), 223-226.
  • Faigenbaum, A. D., Kraemer, W. J., Blimkie, C. R., Jeffreys, I., Micheli, L. J., Nitka, M., & Rowland, T. W. (2009). Youth resistance training: Updated position statement paper from the national strength and conditioning association. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23, 60-79. https://doi:10.1519/JSC.0b013e31819df407
  • Haff, G. G., & Triplett, N. T. (2016). Essentials of strength training and conditioning (4th ed.). Champaign, IL: National Strength and Conditioning Association.
  • Hales, C., Carroll, M., Fryar, C., & Ogden, C. (2017). Prevalence of obesity among adults and youth: United states. National Center for Health Statistics.
  • Jayanthi, N., Pinkham, C., Dugas, L., Patrick, B., & Labella, C. (2013). Sports specialization in young athletes: Evidence-based recommendations. Sports Health, 5(3), 251-257.
  • Klika, B. (2017). Top 10 reasons children should exercise. Retrieved from https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/lifestyle/blog/6441/top-10-reasons-children-should-exercise.
  • Post, E. G., Thein-Nissenbaum, J. M., Stiffler, M. R., Alison Brooks, M., Bell, D. R., Sanfilippo, J. L., & McGuine, T. A. (2017). High school sport specialization patterns of current division I athletes. Sports Health, 9(2), 148–153. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738116675455