Getting down to it
There are several myths and misconceptions in the world about this exact question. It is an important question, and we felt our first blog needed to cover this topic. Parents should consider this question and make sure they are introducing their kids to working out in a sound and efficient training regimen.
I am personally excited to be writing about this topic, as I now have a 1-year-old son. We have answered this question several times with parents, but I wanted to dig even deeper into the topic to understand better myself. I would like to share my thoughts and research with you all as well.
First off, why is this an important topic? We all want what is best for our kids and we want to make sure we do it safely. That is the easy answer. Digging deeper into the question, we find that many children today have less active lifestyles. Research has shown that children between the ages of 6-19 years old have seen declines in aerobic endurance as well as muscular strength and power (Tomkinson et al.,2003). This study was done from 1981 to 2000.
Has the trend continued? As reported from the State of Childhood Obesity, obesity rates for children aged 2-19 have increased from 5.2% in 1971-1974 to 19.3% in 2017-2018 in the U.S. This disconcerting trend has steadily continued to increase over time. Based on that, we can certainly conclude that muscular fitness (strength, power, endurance) has also declined for youth over the same timeframe.
These declines are startling to think about from an athletic perspective, but they are even more troubling for long-term health effects on our children. Studies also show that as muscular fitness declines children are more at risk for higher body fat percentages, cardiovascular diseases, and other metabolic issues in their adult lives (Smith et al., 2014).
With all that in mind, we as parents and coaches do need to seriously think about how to keep our children and athletes active. How do we go about that safely? When should athletes start training more intensely? When should they start lifting weights? These are all very real and legitimate questions that we will consider.
A look at the facts
Unfortunately, many myths are still out there about training for youth athletes. I am sure you have heard many of them before. Most of these myths have been proven wrong and it is time to put them to rest! National associations agree that resistance training and other methods of athletic performance training are not only safe but are effective for aiding athletes in muscular strength, power, endurance, and overall athleticism (agility, speed, etc.). Not only that but it reduces the risks and severity of sport related injuries (Behm et al., 2008; Lloyd et al., 2014). Training middle school athletes, myself, we have certainly seen the benefits gained by these younger athletes.
It takes proper coaching/training and a progressive exercise regimen to be effective for younger athletes. We have decided to not take in athletes younger than 6th grade due to a maturity level mentally and, sometimes, physically. We believe athletes younger than that can benefit mostly from playing sports and being active as kids. As athletes start reaching puberty, many of them become less coordinated and develop muscle imbalances (muscles too tight or not strong enough). Muscle imbalances can lead to injuries and improper form for these athletes. If these younger athletes develop bad habits from these imbalances and do not work on their coordination, these habits will become increasingly harder to break as they get older.
Does that mean athletes should be in 6th grade before they can start working out?
Not necessarily. We have worked with some athletes younger than 6th grade before. Some athletes can start working out at an earlier age and we have seen them benefit from it. We always do a pre-screening to understand where the athletes at physically and how we can most effectively work with the young athlete. One of the main goals for younger athletes is to help them develop fundamental motor skills. These are skills any athlete needs such as balance, running, jumping, etc. Determining when athletes can begin participating in fitness programs is difficult because of how differently athletes develop and mature. At around age 6-7, youth begin to mature in various ways physically which can lead to differences in ability levels (Myer et al., 2014). This is mainly why it is extremely important for youth to begin working with a fitness professional who understands how to efficiently and effectively train and progress youth athletes.
Here are my top six suggestions and tips for when and how young athletes should start training.
- Athletes in 5th grade or younger should focus on being active and trying out multiple sports, rather than focusing on just one sport or activity. Gaining skills in multiple sports and activities is great for young athletes and will help them to be well-rounded in the future and develop fundamental movement skills. Many of these types of athletes end up being more coordinated in middle and high school. There is no need to specialize in any sport at this age! Early specialization can lead to overuse injuries for young athletes down the road.
- Make sure that younger athletes can follow a proper exercise regimen. We highly suggest that parents and coaches allow fitness professionals to step in and train these athletes. Make sure that trainers are nationally certified by recognizable fitness organizations and are college-educated in some sort of exercise science degree.
- Athletes that first begin training with us begin by going through sport-specific testing to look at how the athlete moves and their current ability level. Each athlete will be different, and it is important for us to understand how they move, what they need to work on, and help them set goals to improve their ability levels. A pre-assessment is vital for a successful sports performance program. This helps fitness professionals understand where athletes are at physically and how to prescribe a progressive exercise regimen that best fits each athlete.
- Our goal with younger and/or beginner athletes is to build a solid foundation. This means focusing on proper mechanics, form, and fundamental movement skills. It is not advisable to have athletes just start lifting a bunch of weight early on. This is a recipe for disaster and could lead to injuries. We find it to be fair more effective to focus on bodyweight or low resistance exercises with higher repetitions to begin a program. We also focus more on isometric (e.g., wall sit is a good example of an isometric exercise) and eccentric (e.g., working the muscle as it lengthens) movement patterns. This forces athletes to focus on proper form and to begin understanding how to train and move properly.
- As athletes improve and develop, we begin adding more resistance little by little and focus less on volume and more on the intensity of exercises. We only add more resistance if an athlete can perform exercises with proper form. Many athletes make the mistake of adding too much weight too early and they have terrible form. This can lead to injuries and improper movement patterns resulting in muscle imbalances.
- As athletes continue to mature physically and in workouts, we begin focusing on more sport-specific or advanced movements based off their goals and sports played. This is where athletes can “fine-tune” movements and exercises to help them gain a competitive edge. This could include more Olympic style lifting such as power cleans, depth jumping sequences to help athletes with reaction time and jumping ability, and/or acceleration and top speed training.
Is there a magical age for athletes to start working out?
The answer is no. We believe athletes that are elementary school age or younger should focus more on just being active and trying multiple activities they enjoy participating in. This helps in developing coordination and results in a more well-rounded athlete. As athletes begin to grow and mature, it is highly important to begin focusing more attention on form, mechanics, and building a solid foundation of muscular fitness (strength, power, endurance). Once athletes develop a solid foundation, the next step is to specialize workouts based on individual needs and goals of sports they are involved in. Football training is going to be different than track training. It takes a qualified fitness professional and program to correctly assess and train athletes. Improper training can lead to injuries that could adversely affect athletes over the long-term. On the flip side, proper training can prevent sports-related injuries and has been proven to aid young athletes in developing strength, power, quickness, and speed.
1. Behm D. G., Faigenbaum A. D., Falk B., Klentrou P. (2008). Canadian society for exercise physiology position paper: resistance training in children and adolescents. Appl. Physiol. Nutr. Metab. 33, 547–561. 10.1139/H08-020
2. Granacher U., Lesinski, M., Büsch, D., Muehlbauer, T., Prieske, O., Puta, C., . . . Behm, D. G. (2016). Effects of Resistance Training in Youth Athletes on Muscular Fitness and Athletic Performance: A Conceptual Model for Long-Term Athlete Development. Frontiers in Physiology, 7. doi:10.3389/fphys.2016.00164
3. Lloyd R. S., Faigenbaum A. D., Stone M. H., Oliver J. L., Jeffreys I., Moody J. A.,et al. (2014). Position statement on youth resistance training: the 2014 International Consensus. Br. J. Sports Med. 48, 498–505.10.1136/bjsports-2013-092952
4. Myer,G. D., Lloyd, R. S., Brent, J. L., & Faigenbaum, A. D. (2013). How Young Is Too Young to Start Training? ACSMS Health & Fitness Journal, 17(5), 14-23.doi:10.1249/fit.0b013e3182a06c59
5. National Obesity Monitor. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://stateofchildhoodobesity.org/monitor/
6. Smith J. J., Eather N., Morgan P. J., Plotnikoff R. C., Faigenbaum A. D., Lubans D.R. (2014). The health benefits of muscular fitness for children and adolescents: a systematic review and meta-analysis. Sports Med. 44, 1209–1223.10.1007/s40279-014-0196-4
7. Tomkinson G. R., Léger L. A., Olds T. S., Cazorla G. (2003). Secular trends in the performance of children and adolescents (1980-2000): an analysis of 55 studies of the 20m shuttle run test in 11 countries. Sports Med. 33, 285–300.10.2165/00007256-200333040-00003