Strength Training and Children: Intensity, how heavy is too heavy?

In this section will attempt to address some of the areas of most controversy pertaining to children and weight training; how heavy is too heavy? What is an appropriate training load? What types of exercises and loadings are appropriate at various stages of childhood?

Children and Strength Training: How Heavy is too Heavy?

In this section will attempt to address some of the areas of most controversy pertaining to children and weight training; how heavy is too heavy? What is an appropriate training load? What types of exercises and loadings are appropriate at various stages of childhood?

The American Association of Pediatrics simply states that children “should avoid competitive weight lifting, power lifting, body building and maximal lifts until they reach skeletal maturity” The policy also states in relation to children and weight training that “Progressive resistance exercise requires successive completion of 8-15 repetitions in good form before increasing the weight or resistance”

The NSCA is more tolerant in regards to maximal lifts in children. They note that the forces that children are exposed to in properly supervised 1 RM tests are usually lighter and of less duration than those experienced during sports competition. They further state that children should not perform unsupervised and poorly performed 1 RM lifts and that they should not be subjected to chronic maximal loading (un-periodised) programs as there is a real risk of injury. The NSCA further recommends that children should, depending on the goal of the training perform 1-3 sets per exercise on 2-3 non-consecutive days.

The American College of Sports Medicine also cautions against the use of maximal lifts in children due to the possibility of damage to long bones, growth plates and the back.

Despite the warnings from the above associations the Australian Weightlifting and Powerlifting Federations continue to sanction maximal lifts in competition with child athletes. This includes boys under the age of 18 years squatting and deadlifting weights exceeding 250kg. In the USA children as young as 9 years are attempting maximal lifts. Byrd and colleagues reported that in 534 maximal competition lifts there were no injuries recorded and no loss of training time in this group.

In all of these cases it is crucial to point out the expert nature of the supervision and the high level of technique training that was enforced before any significant weight was attempted. Technique instruction began using wooden sticks and was not progressed until satisfactory progress had been made. The progression in weight was steady being 2-3 months of consistent training before a child was allowed to compete.

Rielly (2002) similarly reported that in slightly older children around 14 years of age in their final 8 weeks prior to the US National Weightlifting Championships that there were just 0.9 injuries per 1000 hours of training, Risser (1990) reported an injury rate of 0.8 per 1000 hours of exposure. In Powerlifting the incidence of injury is much higher at 13.8 per 1000 hours (Brown & Kimball, 1983). It is expected that the difference here is that the level of supervision is not as competent and that some athletes train with no supervision at all due to the relatively simple nature of the squat, deadlift and bench press, in comparison with the snatch and Clean and Jerk. The highly complex nature of the weightlifting lifts means that most athletes always have a competent coach assisting their training.

The overarching recommendation by all bodies and associations has been to avoid maximal lifts in children until they have been properly progressed through an expertly supervised program. In some cases there may be a desire to estimate a child’s 1 RM. Here the ASCA recommends using the “Repetitions till Fatigue” (RTF) test (Baker, 2004), which uses simple extrapolation formulas to estimate 1 RM. Gilles (2006) recommends that there is no point in assessment if the athlete’s neuromuscular control is not sufficient to properly perform an unloaded version of the exercise. As with all testing good form is paramount and the test should be terminated when the athlete can no longer maintain good form.

The RTF protocol has a number of advantages, which are:

  • Technique is developed, as repetitions are higher than 1RM testing
  • Heavy weights are discouraged (a weight should be selected which will alow at least 8 repetitions to be performed)
  • It is time efficient as the same weight can be used for the entire group

The RTF protocol can be found in the report link supplied or provided by Australian Sports Conditioning on request.

The ASCA takes the following position on training intensity for children and adolescents.

Evidence suggests that when resistance training is appropriately performed by children and properly supervised by expert strength and conditioning coaches it is a safe and effective form of exercise.

The ASCA has split resistance training into the following levels for children:

Level 1: 6-9 years - modification of body weight exercises and light resistance (brooms and bands etc) working only for relatively high repetitions eg 15+ reps;

Level 2: 9-12 years – 10-15 RM; (maximal loading approximately 60% maximum) using predominantly simple free weight exercises and machine exercises where the machine is an appropriate size for the child.

Level 3: 12-15 years - 8-15 RM; (maximal loading approximately 70% maximum) using progressively more free weight exercises but avoiding complex lifts such as cleans, snatches, deadlifts and squats etc unless competent coaching is available from a coach with at least a Level 2 ASCA strength and conditioning accreditation.

Level 4: 15-18 years - 6-15 RM; (maximal loading approximately 80% maximum) progressively moving towards an advanced adult program involving split routines where appropriate and complex multi-joint movements provided sound technique has been developed under competent coaching by a coach with at least Level 2 ASCA strength and conditioning accreditation.

The ASCA does not recommend the usage of 1 RM tests for levels 1-3 to monitor progression. Instead when the athlete can satisfactorily complete 15 repetitions then the weight may be increased on subsequent sets. If 8 repetitions can not be performed with good form then the weight should be lowered for subsequent sets

In conclusion there is little evidence to support that strength training for children is dangerous. What is imperative is that strength training in children must be supervised by a qualified strength and conditioning coach and progressed carefully and systematically.

Reference List

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