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Resistance training for young athletes: possible benefits and risks

What resistance training is, what it's not, and why it's important

Resistance training can be defined as a specialized form of physical conditioning that involves the use of resistive loads combined with a number of different types of movement, usually accomplished by use of training tools like weight machines, free weights, elastic bands and medicine balls to improve strength and ultimately overall health. It differs from weightlifting and powerlifting, in which maximal weight loads are lifted for the sake of competition, and bodybuilding, where the goal is muscle size, symmetry and definition. Resistance training has seen a notable increase in popularity in the recent past, with a growing number of young athletes in a variety of sports using it to enhance athletic performance and reduce injury risk. Due to its rise in popularity, resistance training has experienced intensified scrutiny, with some questioning its impact on developing bodies, and others its fundamental need in the first place. Contrary to these doubts, however, research proving its safety and efficacy for children and adolescents has also increased over the past decade. To highlight the benefits of properly administered resistance training and to design age-appropriate recommendations for its usage, a review of current literature was created.

Low injury risk in young athletes

Overall, of all the studies reviewed, injury occurrence for young athletes due to resistance training was either extremely low or nonexistent. Significant gains in strength without any report of injury were also noted in cases where weightlifting was incorporated into a training program.

While most worry was centered around injuries sustained in the act of lifting (such as strains), concern also existed for the potential of injuries to growth plates, which can be 3-5 times weaker than surrounding connective tissue and therefore less resistant to exterior forces. On the whole, only a few isolated cases showed evidence of these types of injuries, and most were caused by improper lifting techniques, poorly chosen training loads or lack of qualified adult supervision. This also applied for other types of injuries, with most occurring due to lack of general education and discretion. This is not to say the risk of injury does not exist, and the study goes on to specifically point out the following factors increase injury risk for young athletes: the adolescent growth spurt, age, biological maturity, body size, poor coaching, fitness level and previous injury. When compared to other sports, though, resistance training has a relatively low injury rate, with one study reporting it accounts for only 0.7% of all injuries compared to football's 19 percent.

Guidelines for avoiding injury

Despite the evidence shown here of resistance training's generally safe nature, coaches and other adults responsible for monitoring training must be aware of proper lifting procedures and condition requirements to minimize injury risk. Following is a set of guidelines meant for youths participating in resistance training and for those supervising the training:

  • Young athletes should wear comfortable attire that doesn't restrict motion and athletic footwear with good traction and support
  • All resistance training sessions should begin with warm-up activities
  • Training sessions should include exercises for all the major muscle groups, including hip, abdomen and lower back
  • Youth resistance training programs should focus on learning proper exercise technique rather than the amount of weight lifted

As is usually the case, additional research is needed to explore the long-term effects of resistance training and the effectiveness of prevention strategies, since literature there is lacking. Further investigation can also help determine the specific locations and types of most injuries, which can lead to a more definitive evidence-based training program with a focus on injury prevention for young athletes.

-As reported in the Nov. '09 edition of the British Journal of Sports Medicine

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