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Strength Training for Kids

by Kelly Shires

Moms and Dads always have the best intentions

photo: Matt Ware

Weight Training for the Pre-Teen Racer
Despite increasing acceptance of strength training for preadolescences, some parents, coaches and instructors, concerned with children's physiological and psychological well-being, are skeptical that strength training offers benefits without causing harm. Myths and misinformation have helped persuade many to disapprove of preadolescent strength training. This is changing, however, as new knowledge replaces old misconceptions.

Facts About Strength Training
Preadolescent boys and girls can see meaningful gains in strength with proper training.  It has been documented that adults and adolescents can achieve significant improvements with strength training, but training gains for children have been questioned. The argument that led to the false belief that children couldn't benefit from training was based on two presumptions. First, it was considered unlikely that notable changes in muscular strength and endurance could occur prior to puberty, due to lower levels of circulating androgens (e.g., testosterone). Second, children naturally become stronger as they grow, and strength gains beyond that were thought improbable. Previous studies, which seemed to support this, were often limited in study design and research methodology (such as low intensity, low volume or short duration training protocols); these data seemed to suggest that resistance training was ineffective in the very young population.

A growing body of scientific evidence in support of children's strength training has arisen within the past 15 years. The literature provides strong documentation that both male and female preadolescents can improve strength significantly with well-designed resistance-training programs. Strength-training studies performed on adult subjects augment understanding of children, and have demonstrated that neural adaptations occur with training. Although muscle hypertrophy (muscle growth) in children still remains a possibility, the majority of recent findings suggest that improvements in strength are independent of changes in muscle size. The benefits of strength training in preadolescents deserve more attention. The preadolescent population can derive numerous benefits from strength training, which can outweigh any possible risks. These include, but are not limited to, improved muscular strength, endurance and flexibility; prevention of bone loss and osteoporosis; improved self-image, confidence and well-being; improved motor coordination and sports performance; decreased risk of injury; lowered blood pressure and cholesterol levels; weight maintenance; neuromuscular therapy and physical rehabilitation; promotion of lifetime physical activity; and improved aerobic capacity.

The extreme heat at Loretta's can take its toll on young riders

photo: Matt Ware

Strength Training Increases Bone Mass
One of the most promising benefits of strength training may be increased bone mass. Bone mass, or bone density, continues to increase throughout growth and development, but a peak in bone mass, called the peak bone mineral density (PBMD), and is reached at a young adult age. Attaining a higher peak bone mass as a young adult may delay the age at which a loss of bone from aging occurs. Children who strength-train should follow a structured program that is taught and supervised by qualified instructors. Children are affected by interacting components such as musculoskeletal growth and sexual maturation. Therefore, borrowing exercise prescriptions from adult strength-training programs is inappropriate. For example, pushing to failure and performing forced repetitions or exaggerated eccentric contractions may be dangerous. Prepubescent children should not be expected to respond -- either physically or psychologically as adults do. Exercise prescriptions must be tailored to their individual needs, and program supervision must be exceptional. Optimal prescription parameters, such as the number of sets and repetitions, have yet to be defined for the preadolescent population. It is recommended that children use the minimum dosage of training that produces beneficial improvements in strength and health without undue risk. Of all of the strength-training parameters, exercise intensity seems to be the key determinant of an effective program. Present guidelines suggest that intensity be moderate (approximately 10 to 15 repetitions) and that preadolescents avoid maximal lifts.

A child should begin a program with one set of little or no weight and concentrate on learning proper form. Once proper technique is demonstrated, a resistance can be selected that allows approximately 10 repetitions to be performed. The number of repetitions is slowly increased until the maximal number (15) can be completed. Resistance is then advanced in small increments of one to three pounds. As the child advances, one to three sets can be performed as tolerated. To achieve balance between agonist and antagonist muscle groups, or what is the push and pull exercises, 8 to 10 exercises should be performed, with at least one exercise for each major muscle group. The sequence of exercises should progress from larger muscle groups to smaller ones, legs to upper body. This frequency of training can start at two days per week, and advance to three, as long as at least one day of rest is permitted between each training session. Workouts of approximately 30 minutes should be preceded by an appropriate warm-up and finished with a cool-down. Proper training techniques, such as lifting in a controlled manner, must be demonstrated and consistently emphasized throughout the program.

Safety considerations in any preadolescent physical activity program include proper instruction and close adult supervision. Improper instruction can lead to poor technique, which can cause acute and chronic injury. Weight-training literature points out that many injuries are the result of accidents (often from using excessive weight in power lifting) and unsupervised training. To minimize the risk and maximize the benefits of strength training, health/fitness professionals and coaches must act responsibly by taking precautions before, during and after exercise sessions. It is imperative that they possess the background knowledge and experience to handle the preadolescent population.

Trained properly, mini riders can benefit from strength training

photo: Matt Ware

Fallacies about Strength Training
The prevailing fallacy is that lifting weights will cause harm and injury to a child's bones, muscles and joints .  Styles of Olympic and power lifting call for single-repetition maximum lifts, while bodybuilding is associated with high volumes of training to increase mass. These activities are competitive sports and should be highly discouraged in the growing child and adolescent. However, appropriate, safe and well-supervised strength-training programs in a school or health club that are intended to improve muscular strength and endurance can be an appropriate part of an overall physical activity program.

The concern about musculoskeletal injury and fracture may seem reasonable; a child's skeleton is maturing and damage to the bones and epiphyses, or growth plates, is potentially serious. More research is needed to determine the risk of injury from weight training, but current data suggest that the risk is no higher than that of participating in other sports. The risk of injury can be minimized with a properly designed training program and close adult supervision.


The Current (Updated) Position of the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)
It is the current position of the NSCA that:
  • A properly designed and supervised resistance training program is relatively safe for youth.
  • A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can enhance the muscular strength and power of youth.
  • A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can improve the cardiovascular risk profile of youth.
  • A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can improve motor skill performance and may contribute to enhanced sports performance of youth.
  • A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can increase a young athlete’s resistance to sports-related injuries.
  • A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can help improve the psychosocial well-being of youth.
  • A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can help promote and develop exercise habits during childhood and adolescence.
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is in Agreement
Comments made by the ACSM also suggest that adding generic strength and resistance training to athletic practice should significantly reduce sports-related injuries in children, as kids more frequently engage in sports-related activities at a increasingly younger age.

Basically, when your kid enrolls in a sport the coach or trainer should have them use resistance training exercises in addition to sport-specific training and skill-development, to better prepare them for the demands of competitive physical activity.

As the benefits of strength training become increasingly clear, it will undoubtedly become more popular among preadolescents. Nearly half of young people ages 12 to 21 are not vigorously active, and that physical activity declines during the adolescent period. Perhaps the most valuable lesson to teach the youngest generation is how to develop a lifelong habit of physical activity. Promoting a healthy lifestyle, maintaining the habit of activity throughout the school years and preventing sedentary behaviors in adulthood will benefit not only today's children, but also future generations to come. It is absolutely ok to get involved in a fitness program, just use your common sense, and have fun with it. (original 2/4/11)

Remove the Guesswork

At Virtual Trainer, we believe there is a right way to train for motocross. It starts with having a clear goal, finding expert instruction (on and off the bike), performing structured training and receiving immediate feedback throughout the process. Coach Seiji (Andrew Short's longtime trainer) has teamed up with Virtual Trainer to offer our audience an exclusive motocross community geared towards improving your performance on and off the track. The community offers motocross specific training plans designed by one of the best – to help you achieve your best performance. This is literally a one-of-a-kind training and conditioning experience for you, the motocross athlete.

About the Author: Kelly Shires, of, has been in the training business for over 20 years. Kelly specializes in extreme fitness training in sports like swimming, biking, running, and weight lifting, and has developed programs for motocross, supercross, arenacross, and road racing for the motorcycle athlete. He has even written a book, aptly named, Full Throttle Fitness, and is basically an encyclopedia on training for Motocross.

That's it for now, until next time, good luck with your training and remember, if you have a question, log on to the Virtual Trainer Expert Forum and have your question answered by a panel of experts. In addition, be sure and check out the Racer X Virtual Trainer archive section. Your complete one-stop information zone for motocross fitness. VT Signature

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