Too young for resistance training?

Check out this article from MH about weight lifting in your teens, some thoughtful and necessary reading for any budding young individuals looking to improve their fitness.

The Problem

You‘re a teenager and you want to start weights training, but your local gym won't allow you to join up. Sound familiar? Then read on for the facts about safe resistance training among young men – and don't be afraid of free-weights training.

What's the big deal?

There probably hasn't been a topic of conversation that has stimulated as much debate and controversy as the field of youth resistance training. If you saw the article, "The growing pains of the world's strongest boy" in September 2007's Observer Sports Monthly – about the mini-Schwarzenegger who at the age of eight had muscles big enough to knock out the entire playground – then your concerns might be forgiven. But the truth is much of the debate about teenage weights training has been grounded within poorly interpreted science. So what are the facts? Are they any benefits to free-weights training or should you just continue playing footie with your mates and postpone the gym sweat until you're in your twenties?

Boosts growth

One of the great myths is that weights training will stunt your growth and increase the potential for injury, especially at the epiphyseal (growth) plates. Of course, the volume of weights loaded needs to be adapted to the individual, but contemporary research by D Bailey and A Martin suggests resistance training has a positive effect on growth. And the "potential for growth plate injury may actually be less in the prepubescent than in the pubescent, because the growth plate is actually much stronger and more resistant to sheer stress in younger children than in adolescents".

Safer than other sports

The truth is free-weights training can actually be safer (in terms of injuries per hour participated) than sports such as cycling, horseriding, basketball, gymnastics, football or rugby. Research published in Sports Biomech showed that over a period of a year's weightlifting competition and training by 70 female and male children aged between seven and 16 years, no training days were lost to injury and large increases in strength were recorded.

Improves sports performance

Strength gains are the obvious benefit of free-weights training but there's another, potentially more useful (at this age) outcome – improved motor fitness skills (strength, speed, power, balance, co-ordination, stability, agility, etc). These skills enhance your general sports performance, so you'll be better equipped to perform in the sporting arena.

All around health

Research in the Strength and Conditioning Journal has also shown that free-weights training will bolster a young athlete's bone strength and muscle function, as well as get his or her brain working more quickly (your coordination and reflexes are enhanced). And it makes you feel good, too, which affects your performance and your desire to get involved in team sports.

Why free weights not machines?

You'll notice we've been talking about free-weights not machine-led training. There's a very good reason for this: free weights require the body to control the path of the bar (and of the body segments) in three planes (dimensions) of movement. This is better for stimulating your synergistic and stabilising muscles involved in movement – the ones that will improve your sports performance. Machines control movement in a single dimension (possibly detraining the co-ordination and stabilisation functions of your muscles). Plus, most machines are designed for adults so their motion patterns are often unsuitable for young athletes.

Get an accredited youth coach

It goes without saying, but it's absolutely essential to seek out a highly knowledgeable and accredited coach. In the UK, the United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Association's (UKSCA) Accredited Strength and Conditioning Coach (ASCC) is the benchmark of quality in the strength and conditioning profession. Be sure to always ask a coach about their qualifications in advance of your training session so you have plenty of time to check their experience is sufficient for your needs.

Words by Clive Brewer and Ian Jeffreys
UK Strength and Conditioning Association

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