Physical therapy & strength training for young people

Strength training for young people: too young for the gym?

There used to be concerns about the impact of strength training on children's growth plates. These concerns were often based on personal stories and incomplete research. I myself can well remember having to wait before I could join the local gym myself because I was still "too young." There were also long debates on the subject in professional circles. Many trainers and coaches long held on to these traditional views, while new research slowly but surely shed a different light on the matter. This historical caution and reticence reflect how sports science has evolved and how new insights have replaced old myths. Recent research shows that with proper guidance, instruction, use of equipment, strength training is not only safe, but has many benefits for children. 

Strength training young people

The benefits of strength training in young people

Strength training can help young people become stronger and faster in their sport. It increases muscle strength, endurance and explosiveness. This can lead to better athletic performance. 

Where I think the most profit lies, especially at this younger age, is in preventing injury and developing a healthy lifestyle. Strength training is especially useful during the growth spurt in adolescence. The muscles and bones develop rapidly in young people. Especially in boys but also in young ladies we see a natural increase in strength. At this stage we see that tendon tissue in particular is more vulnerable to injury. Because of the greater forces that act on attachments and tendons. Strength training can help build strong muscles, tendons and bones and prevent injuries.

Stronger muscles and bones remain important later in life. Our peak bone mass is reached around age 20. So at this age we have the most density of our bones. Strength training during growth can help build more bone mass. This reduces the risk of osteoporosis and fractures later in life.

We also see that training with weights is good for motor development. It helps improve coordination and body awareness. This is important for all young people, whether they want to get better at a particular sport such as soccer or not.

In short, strength training is highly recommended for all young people, if done responsibly and safely. In this article, we discuss how young people can best start strength training.

When is it wise to start strength training for young people

Strength training can be started at an early age. But in a safe and responsible way that is age-appropriate. Below I describe some guidelines for each age group:

8-12 years: in this age phase the emphasis is light on bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups, air squats, jumps. In some cases you can use some weight to teach the technique. So in fact, here it is not about the real kilos but getting used to using weights and starting position of dumbells and barbells for the future. 

13-15 years: in this age group you may start to build up in weight. The focus here is on learning big exercises such as squats and deadlifts. Maximum of 1 to 2 workouts per week. 

16+: Can follow full strength training schedule like adults. 2-4 workouts per week. Depending on other (training) load in regular sport. Weights may be built up to 70% of max, also called 1RM.

What is a 1RM?

Training at a specific percentage of your 1RM (One-Rep Max) is a commonly used term in strength training and fitness. It refers to performing exercises with a weight that is a specific percentage of the maximum weight you can lift once in a repetition (1RM).

Here is a brief explanation:

1RM is the maximum weight you can lift in one repetition of a particular exercise. It is a measure of your maximum strength for that particular exercise. Training at % of 1RM: Training at a certain percentage of your 1RM means performing your exercises at a weight that is a set percentage of your 1RM. For example, if your 1RM for the squat is 50kg and you train at 80% of your 1RM, you would perform the squat at 40kg.

It is important to focus on a very gradual build-up with low weights. Continuous overloading can still cause injuries in young people who are still growing. Strength training should always be done under the guidance of a physical therapist or coach. This way the training can best be adapted to the age and level of the young athlete. Children are not adults in small bodies; children are children. Training for these children should reflect their age, level and individual needs. And there should certainly be more than enough room for fun exercise and not too much focus on just improving performance. 

Strength training young people

Tips for building up strength training

Especially in the younger age groups, it is not about moving as much weight as possible. Here it is about learning technique and control of the body. Build up weight only when age allows it(12+ years) and technique is sufficient. By this I am not saying that and under 12 no weight should be used but the weight does not have to be built up as you would want it to at a later stage. 

There is never but never a need to train to maximum effort. Even in adults, this is not even necessary to get stronger or build muscle mass. This has many disadvantages, the biggest one being excessive fatigue. This fatigue can lead to injuries during sports. 

Rest days are very important, especially in a running season. The recovery time from a strength training session in young people is 48 to 72 hours. In ages up to 15, it is not necessary to do strength training sessions more than twice a week. The focus should be on fun and safe training, not performance.

Preventing injuries in young people through strength training

To reduce the risk of injury in youth strength training, there are a number of measures that can be taken

It is important to prepare the muscles and joints for strength training. This can be done through a 5-10 minute warm-up with exercises such as jogging, jumping rope or cycling. We call this a general warm-up, besides preparing for physical activity it is very important that the body gets used to the exercise being done. Therefore, always do 2 to 3 warm up sets as well. This means perform the exercise with no or less weight and within 2 to 3 sets work towards the chosen weight to start working out. 

Make sure the exercises are performed correctly. Learn the basic techniques and regularly check for correct execution. This will prevent overuse and improper loading that can lead to injury. 

Building up the load

Build up the intensity and load gradually. This is better for muscles, tendons and joints that are still developing. For example, increase the weight or repetitions every 2-4 weeks. Don't force rapid progression; development and strength gains often come naturally at a young age.

Recommendations

A good strength training program for youth athletes should consider several aspects for optimal development and safety. Here are some concrete recommendations:

  • Start with low intensity and build up gradually. The body needs to get used to the load. Start with 1-2 workouts per week.
  • Use mainly machines and free weights.
  • Focus on technique and proper execution. Take adequate rest between sets.
  • A warm-up certainly helps but it is especially important to get used to the movement of exercise with lower weights.
  • Vary exercises and load different muscle groups for balanced development.
  • Slowly build up to 2-3 workouts per week with 1-3 series of 6-15 reps at 60-85% of 1RM.
  • Ensure adequate recovery through proper nutrition, sleep and rest days between workouts.
  • Get guidance from an expert trainer to monitor proper technique and progression.
  • Listen to signals from your body and adjust the load if necessary. 
  • Stop immediately in case of pain

Conclusion

Strength training can be very beneficial for young people, provided it is performed in a safe and responsible manner. It is recommended to start light strength training around the age of 8-12 under the guidance of a knowledgeable trainer. Focus on technique, coordination and stability rather than heavy weights. Ensure adequate rest between workouts and gradually increase intensity. 

A well-constructed strength training program can help young people get stronger and fitter, prevent injuries and develop a healthy lifestyle. Training with your own body weight and simple exercises such as push-ups and sit-ups is already a good start. Strength training certainly does not have to become an obsession, but can be a valuable part of young people's overall development. We therefore encourage parents, schools and trainers to get young people excited about getting started with strength training in a sensible way! 

physio fitaal physiotherapy
Ruben Luijkx

Owner Physio Vital
Physical therapist, MSC. Manuel therapy

With a solid foundation in scientific knowledge, Ruben combines the latest insights with his practical experience to ensure the best results. As owner of Physio Fitaal, Ruben has created a patient-centered environment that works with innovative techniques and a data-driven approach. Whether you are an elite athlete looking to return to the field or someone recovering from knee surgery, Ruben will guide you to a full recovery, with attention to your individual needs and goals.

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