Resistance Training in Children and Adolescents

Resistance training in children and adolescents has a high risk of injury. High-level competitive sport forces the young athlete to train harder and for longer periods. Resistance training is the use of a variety of methods, including free weights, weight machines, and/or one’s own body weight to increase muscular strength, endurance and/or power. Usually resistance training involves doing a series of repetitions against some resistance. The more repetitions against a lower resistance, the more likely the training effect will improve muscle endurance. When higher resistance is used, usually with fewer repetitions, muscle strength will be improved. (5)

This position statement provides recommendations for resistance training in children and adolescents.

It is generally accepted that physical fitness is important for optimal development in children and adolescents. For this reason, physical fitness programs for the youth should be recommended and encouraged. (1,2,3)

Resistance training (also known as weight training or strength training) involves using resistance to increase muscle strength, power and endurance. A well-organized, resistance training program can be beneficial to pre-adolescent athletes. Acute and overuse injuries can be prevented through proper supervision, the use of correct techniques and attention to training program variables. (4)

In 1983 the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) did not recommend resistance for prepubescent children. These 1983 recommendations were based on results of relatively few studies that stated that prepubescent children could not gain in strength with resistance training because of a lack of circulating androgens. However, recent studies have shown that strength gains can be achieved, with minimal risk of injury, in both boys and girls, with proper weight training programs.

The benefits of resistance training for children include:
– strength gains: pre-adolescent children are capable of making significant strength gains with weight training;
– injury protection: muscle strength increases joint stability;
– self-image: psychological benefits, such as improved self-esteem and body image, may occur with strength training;
– motor performance: appropriate and specific strength training programs enhance performance in most sports;
– learnt skills: supervised strength training provides exposure to appropriate and correct coaching techniques, that may be useful in adult life.(4)

Most reported injuries in children occur during unsupervised training sessions and when maximal lifts are attempted. Blackouts have also been reported in children performing maximal lifts, with incorrect breathing techniques. (4)

Guidelines for resistance training in children include:
1. Resistance training programs should be done under the supervision of a certified strength and conditioning coach. The correct techniques must be taught for each exercise performed.
2. The size of the exercise equipment used should correspond to the size of the child.
3. Routine safety inspections should be conducted on the equipment and on the usage of the equipment.
4. High training intensities should be avoided.
5. Maximal training intensities should not be attempted before the child reaches 16 years of age, or Tanner stage 5. Weights used in resistance training should not exceed 80% of the individual’s one-repetition maximum.
6. There should be a gradual progression in the training intensity.
7. Resistance training should supplement rather than replace other forms of physical activity.
8. All exercises should be performed in a controlled manner, throughout a full range of motion. Training programs should centre on the “high repetitions – low loads” principle. Each exercise should not be performed for more than eight repetitions. Fast, sudden and ballistic movements should be avoided.
9. All training sessions should be preceded by a warm-up and stretching routine, and followed by a stretching and cool-down period.
10. To introduce the athlete to specific strength training exercises, it is recommended that no load be used initially. Later, once the athlete has mastered the technique of the exercise, gradual loads can be introduced. If the athlete’s technique begins to break down, the load must be reduced to a point at which the correct technique is restored.
11. The maximum number of formal training sessions, including resistance training, per week for children up to 12 years of age should not exceed three. Each training session should last no longer than 90 minutes. For elite athletes, the total training load may vary according to the sport and the level of competition. However resistance training should never exceed three sessions per week.

1. American College of Sports Medicine Opinion Statement on Physical Fitness in Children and Youth. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise 20:422-423, 1988.
2. Mácek, M. Vávra, J. FIMS Position Statement on Training and Competition in Children. Journal of Sports Medicine and Physical Fitness 20:135-138, 1980.
3. International Sports Medicine Directory. FIMS. Excessive Physical Training in Children and Adolescents, 9:191-194.
4. Brukner, P. Khan, K. Clinical Sports Medicine. The Younger athlete 35: 651- 673.
5. Zwiren, L.D. ACSM Resource Manual for Guidelines for Exercise Testing and Prescription, 2nd edition. Exercise Prescription for Children. 33:409-417.

South African Sports Medicine Association