In part 1 I touched on the current physical and mental challenges our younger generation face due to lack of activity and strength training, while also dispelling the myths around strength training before skeletal maturity, so make sure you check out part 1 first to get the full background. In part, it’s time for all the good stuff, discussing the benefits and the how to on strength training for children and adolescents.
“Early life strength and fitness is predictive of adult mental health outcomes”
The solution to the mental and physical health challenges our younger generation face is complex, there are deeper socioeconomic, social, mental, societal, agricultural, and policy level challenges that all have contributed to the problem. But one impactful thing that can be controlled at an individual level for health of our children is regular, appropriately loaded and supervised strength training.
To keep this article punchy (as it’s already getting long!) I will limit it to a few key points around the benefits of strength training for children & adolescents:
- Strength training makes children better and more successful athletes whatever their main sport (21,22,23)
- Strength training reduces the injury risk for children in the other sports they play (16,24). Yep that’s right, not dangerous, but the complete opposite, protective for children who play sport!
- A 27 year follow up of 26,088 vascular disease events and 17,312 arrhythmia events were recorded, research demonstrated that muscle strength by the time you have reached 18 years old was also inversely associated with vascular disease risk. The higher muscle strength developed through childhood, the lower risk of heart failure and cardiovascular death as an adult. (25)
- A Swedish study of > 1 million males followed for up to 24 years showed stronger adolescents (18 years) were 20-30% less likely to die from suicide during adulthood and were up to 65% less likely to have a psychiatric diagnosis of any kind (26). Take home message: Early life strength and fitness is predictive of adult mental health outcomes.
- Strength training is an efficient and effective exercise modality for the prevention and treatment of childhood obesity (27,28)
- Strength training may be the most attractive option for the most at-risk youth for health measures, overweight and obese population who struggle to join in aerobic activities. This is because it may be one of the few physical activities in which overweight and obese youth can outperform their leaner peers (29)
- Muscular fitness (i.e. strength, power, muscular endurance) is related to the bone health of children (30). Stronger children, stronger bones.
- Resistance training for children and adolescents leads to positive changes in physical self-concept (31,32), improved self-efficacy (33) and self-worth (34,35)
But will it help them in school? Cardio-respiratory fitness does, and it is starting to look like strength plays a significant role in it too:
- Getting kids off the screens and into regular lifting and activity significantly reduces the risks of high adiposity, CVD risk factors, low cardiorespiratory fitness (CRF), poor self-esteem, antisocial behaviour, and poor academic performance (36)
- Weight prejudice through school may contribute to poorer educational and economic outcomes throughout adulthood (37). Strong, active, healthy weight children are seen to have better education outcomes which role into career opportunities.
- Muscular fitness specifically is favourably associated with academic performance (38, 39, 40)
Unfortunately, despite the highly researched and recognised benefits of strength training for children and adolescents, there are relatively few schools-based interventions that have incorporated this training modality into their programs (41). This is of no fault to the schools, there are so many competing demands on teachers’ times. Most schools just simply don’t have the capacity through time, staff and budget restraints to deliver the critically important strength training for children and adolescents, especially considering the coach to student ratio that is required for strength training.
Because of the challenges faced within schools, it is key that community, council and private entities provide these services through highly skilled and educated coaches, exercise scientists, exercise physiologists and allied health practitioners. The investment in strength training through the early years, really does set the tone for the rest of life.
What Does Strength Training For Children & Adolescents Look Like?
Children and adolescents are not just little adults; there are unique challenges to consider, anatomical variations, cognitive abilities, supervision requirements, and appropriate planning and dosages that need to be factored. They need qualified instruction, targeted movement practice, and a progression of strength and conditioning activities that are developmentally appropriate, and technique driven (42,43,44). Things to consider are:
- Participants should be able to follow instructions and handle the demands of a training program. Although participants as young as 5 and 6 years of age have benefitted from participation in a resistance training programs (45,46), at ages of 7–8 is when most young people are ready for some type of structured resistance training (17)
- Neuromuscular training methods such as jumping, landing, change of direction and basic plyometric, designed to improve the movement efficiency and muscular coordination of young athletes should begin early (5–9 years of age)(47)
- The focus must be on education and resistance training skill competency above all else. The load is inconsequential, and feedback must be around the quality of movement. This type of coaching and training focus can form the foundation for enduring participation in something so valuable for health across the life span (17, 48, 49)
- Must involve playfulness and imagination. It keeps children engaged and allows them to explore movement and a wide range of motor patterns. This will ultimately form the abilities for more complex and beneficial resistance training such as Olympic lifting.
- The physical demands of strength training must be balanced with effective coaching to enhance a child’s emotional, social and cognitive well-being. Children cite ‘fun’ as the number one reason for participation (50) and its absence as the number one reason for drop out of such valuable exercise
- Must be individualised. Children develop physically, mentally and emotionally at such varied rates, so a tailored approach is key
- Must be dosed correctly to maximise benefit while minimising injury risk and avoiding burnout. Frequency should range between 2-4 days per week of 30-45 minutes. The variation in range is dependent on training age, competency, sporting goals and other sporting activities putting physical demands on a child. See the below image for a simple overview (51)
Youth resistance training guidelines with progression based on each individual’s resistance training skill competency (RTSC) to perform the desired movements.
The current physical and mental health of Australian children and adolescents has it’s challenges, but engaging in regular strength training can play a critical role in improving this negative trend. It is a safe, effective mode of exercise when guided by professionals in a supervised environment, with a myriad of physical and mental health benefits in both the short term and long term. What they do now will set them up for a healthy and disability free adulthood. So, go on kid’s, get lifting!
To find out more about Absolutes Junior Program to get your child on the right path in their health, performance and injury prevention, get in touch with the expert team at Absolute HERE.
Written by Co-founder, Head Performance Coach & Exercise Scientist David Smith
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