Worldwide, decreases in physical activity among youth has become a major concern due to the increase in the number of children being classified as overweight or obese. In fact, childhood obesity rates have more than doubled over the last 20 years (Coburn & Malek, 2012). This alarming trend, if ignored, may increase a child’s risk of cardiovascular disease in their adult life. Furthermore, the World Health Organization recognizes lack of physical activity as the fourth leading risk factor for global mortality for non-transmissible diseases (Lloyd et al., 2013). In an age where children are spending more time with electronic media it is important to establish early exercise habits that will carry over into adulthood. While both aerobic exercise and resistance training are essential for normal growth and development and can reduce the risk of childhood obesity and certain disease (Powers & Howley, 2015); the purpose of this paper is to discuss the recommendations, effects, and benefits of resistance training in children.
By definition a child, or preadolescent youth, is any boy between the age of six to thirteen and any girl between the age of six to eleven who has not developed any secondary sex characteristics (Faigenbaum et al., 2009). Because children are physiologically different from adults they should not be expected to exercise the same as adults. Higher breathing frequency and heart rate coupled with other physiological differences such as lower muscle mass, necessitates an exercise prescription that elicits benefits while minimizing risk (Coburn & Malek, 2012). Indeed, as more children participate in resistance training there is a need to determine what is safe, effective, developmentally appropriate, and enjoyable (Faigenbaum et al., 2009).
In regards to any restrictions or risks associated with children who resistance train; one of the most cited concerns is damage to the growth cartilage at the epiphyseal plate. However, this theory is unfounded as there are multiple studies that have concluded that supervised resistance training does not damage muscle, bone, or the epiphyseal growth plate (Powers & Howley, 2015). Furthermore; children who resistance train exhibit lower injury rates compared to more traditional sports such as football and soccer (Faigenbaum et al., 2009). According to Faigenbaum et al. (2009) any injury that does occur is most likely due to improper instruction, faulty equipment, using too much weight, and no supervision. Although there appears to be no restrictions on a child who wishes to resistance train, the individual should have the ability to accept and follow directions. Furthermore, the individual should understand the risks and benefits associated with resistance training. It is also important for the fitness professional to start at a volume and intensity that compliments the child’s physical abilities. In general, if a child is ready for sport activity they should be read for some type of resistance training (Coburn & Malek, 2012).
While risk is minimal, research shows that children who participate in a supervised and structured resistance training programs can elicit many of the same benefits as adults. According to Faigenbaum et al. (2009) resistance training can effect several physiological characteristics in children. These include increases in muscular strength and power due to neural adaptations as opposed to hypertrophy. Strength gains of up to 30% have been observed in children who follow an eight to twenty-week resistance training program. Additionally, children who resistance can improve their cardiac risk profile, feelings of well-being, bone strength, and skill and sports performance. Furthermore, resistance training in this population can assist in weight control and develop lifelong exercise habits (Faigenbaum et al., 2009). Lastly, resistance training may help decrease sports related injuries (Lloyd et al., 2013).
In obese children the effects of resistance training may be extremely beneficial. A study conducted by McGuigan, Tatasciore, Newton, and Pettigrew (2009). had forty-eight obese children participate in a three day/week total body undulating periodized resistance training program. At the end of the eight-week training period physiological measurements were compared to baseline. The investigators noted a 2.6% decrease in body fat, a 5.3% increase in lean body mass, a 74% increase in the 1RM squat, an 85% increase in the number of pushups performed, an 8% improvement in jump height, and a 16% increase in power. The authors concluded the that short-term resistance training in obese children can improve body composition, strength, and power while also being well tolerated and enjoyable.
When designing a resistance training programs for children, an updated 2009 position stand by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (Faigenbaum et al., 2009) recommends the following. Paramount is that the program is conducted by a qualified professional who can provide adequate supervision while also making sure the exercise environment is safe. The instructor should be able to clearly communicate and correct issues in regards to form, technique, and proper weight loads to minimize risk. Each session should begin with a five to ten-minute dynamic warm-up period followed by weighted exercises that begin at a relatively light load. Depending on training age and experience, one to three sets of 6 to 15 repetitions at 50-85% of 1RM should be performed on a variety of upper and lower body exercises which emphasize muscular balance and symmetry while also including exercises that strengthen the core. In the beginning the individual should train two to three times/week on nonconsecutive days and gradually increase the resistance of weighted exercises (5-10%) as strength improves. Each session should be followed by a cooldown and light static stretching. Finally, the fitness professional should utilize workout logs to monitor progress and make periodic changes to the program to keep it fresh, challenging, and enjoyable.
In conclusion, it appears that children who participate in a supervised resistance training program can improve many aspects of health and fitness while experiencing little to no risk. Positive changes in strength, power, body composition, and feelings of well-being may empower and encourage a child to establish healthy exercise habits that carry over in to adulthood. As obesity trends continue to rise and more parents seek help in regards to their child’s health and well-being, it is imperative that the fitness professional educate themselves on the unique needs of a child when designing a safe and effective resistance training program.
Faigenbaum, A. D., Kraemer, W. J., Blimkie, C. J., Jeffreys, I., Micheli, L. J., Nitka, M., & Rowland, T. W. (2009). Youth resistance training: updated position statement paper from the national strength and conditioning association. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23, S60-S79.
Powers, S. K., & Howley, E. T. (2004). Exercise physiology: Theory and application to fitness and performance. McGraw-Hill. Include chapter and page numbers (ch. 22 pp.505-507
Coburn, J. W., & Malek, M. H. (2012). NSCA's essentials of personal training. Human Kinetics. Chapter 18 pp 465-470.
Lloyd, R. S., Faigenbaum, A. D., Stone, M. H., Oliver, J. L., Jeffreys, I., Moody, J. A., ... & Herrington, L. (2013). Position statement on youth resistance training: the 2014 International Consensus. British journal of sports medicine, bjsports-2013.
McGuigan, M. R., Tatasciore, M., Newton, R. U., & Pettigrew, S. (2009). Eight weeks of resistance training can significantly alter body composition in children who are overweight or obese. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 23(1), 80-85.