As the world of youth athletics continues to become more and more competitive, parents and young participants alike have begun to search for ways to enhance performance and physical development. Encouraging preadolescent athletes to get involved in resistance exercise programs offers them with an opportunity to develop both personal and athletic maturity.
Preadolescent Athlete and Resistance Training Defined
Preadolescence is a phase growth that follows early childhood and precedes adolescence. It usually extends to 11 years old in girls and up to 13 years old in boys (± 2 years for both genders). This period offers a chance for parents, coaches, and athletes to cultivate efficient movement mechanics for safe sport and play activities.1
What exactly does the term “resistance exercise” refer to? Resistance exercise is a blanket term that involves the use of increasing loads to create improvements in health, fitness, and sports performance.1 It involves lifting weights for muscular strength, as well as the use of plyometric exercises for speed, power, balance, and coordination development. Resistance can be applied via barbells/weight plates, dumbbells, bands/chains/tubing, and machines. Boxes or hurdles as well as bungee chords are often added to plyometric exercises to enhance difficulty; however these methods should be used with discretion for young athletes. With both strength and plyometric training, rest intervals can also be manipulated to promote cardiovascular changes for appropriate energy system development.
Risks and Benefits Associated with Resistance Exercise During Preadolescence
The American Academy of Pediatrics contends that when designed appropriately, resistance exercise programs have no adverse effects on growth, growth plates, or cardiovascular health in participating youth athletes free of preexisting medical conditions. However, parents should consult a medical professional for screening to identify any underlying risk factors before enrolling their child in resistance training activities.2
Potential benefits of resistance exercise programs for preadolescent athletes include increased muscle strength and power, local muscular endurance, bone mass, resistance to injury, sports performance, and cardiorespiratory fitness, to name a few. Additionally, athletes have the ability to see improvements in blood lipid profiles, body composition, and mental health/well-being that are all too important in fighting various childhood metabolic disorders.3 Specifically with regard to plyometrics, young athletes will see increases in balance, proprioception (body’s awareness in space), and power through utilization of the body’s stretch shortening cycle.4
Despite the gains in performance and overall health, parents of athletes who have not yet undergone puberty should not expect their children to see increases in muscle size (termed hypertrophy) comparable to adults. Neither preadolescent boys nor girls have sufficient levels of testosterone, growth hormone, or insulin-like growth factor to promote major muscle gains, so hypertrophy is limited.5 Instead strength gains can be attributed to neuromuscular adaptations. Neuromuscular adaptations include increased motor unit activation and improved coordination of motor skills.6 These adaptations serve to enhance sport performance as well as prevent injury during athletic activity.
Listed below are basic guidelines for weight-training/plyometric training programs. These guidelines are not comprehensive and should not take the place of a credentialed strength and conditioning coach with experience in training youth athletes.
Basic Resistance Exercise Guidelines7
Age: 7 Years or Younger
1. Introduce child to basic exercises with minimal to no weight
2. Teach exercise techniques with no to light resistance
3. Keep volume (number of sets x number of repetitions) low
Exercises: lunges, push ups, body weight squats, physioball leg curls, bear crawls, glute bridges, horizontal pull-ups, single leg balancing, planks, proper hip hinge patterning
Equipment: TheraBand/resistance bands, bungee chords, suspension trainers (TRX/Jungle Gym), physioballs
Volume: 1-2 sets of 12-15 repetitions
Age: 8-10 Years Old
1. Gradually increase the number of exercises emphasizing technique
2. Start gradual progressive loading of exercises
3. Increase volume with simple exercises
Exercises: Romanian deadlifts (single and double leg), assisted pull ups, slider lunges/hamstring curls, goblet squats, kettlebell/dumbbell chest presses, kettlebell waiters/farmers carries, and medicine ball rotational partner passes in conjunction with techniques listed above
Equipment: light kettlebells/dumbbells and medicine balls in conjunction with the equipment listed above
Volume: 2-3 sets of 12-15 repetitions
Age:11-13 Years Old
1. Teach all basic exercises with technique emphasis
2. Progressively load each exercise
3. Use little or no weight to introduce new, advanced exercises
Exercises: Introduction of barbell squats, deadlifts, bench press techniques in conjunction with the above techniques
Equipment: Dowel rods for technique, youth barbells/hex bars, light rubber weight plates, light weighted vests, and cable machines in conjunction with the above listed equipment
Volume: 2-3 sets of 8-12 repetitions
Age: 14-15 Years Old
1. Progress to more advanced youth programs in resistance exercise
2. Add sport-specific components
3. Increase volume with emphasis on safe exercise performance
Exercises: Introduce Olympic lifting patterns (snatch, clean, jerk), squat variations, deadlift variations, cable resisted abdominal exercises, and higher velocity medicine ball throws in conjunction with techniques listed above
Equipment: Adult bars/rubber weights and specialty bars in conjunction with equipment listed above
Volume: 2-4 sets of 6-12 repetition
General Plyometric Guidelines for Preadolescent Athletes5
Skill Level: Beginner (no experience)
Foot Contacts Per Session: 80-100
Proper jumping, bounding, hopping, landing, and change of direction mechanics
Jumps, bounds, hops onto/off of 6-9 inch box
Agility ladder for coordination development
Skill Level: Intermediate (some experience)
Foot Contacts Per Session: 100-120
Non continuous (with pause between repetitions) jumps, bounds, hops over hurdles or onto/from boxes at 9-12 inches
Skill Level: Advanced (considerable experience)
Foot Contacts Per Session: 120-140
Use of bungee chords for broad jumps, bounds, hops both non continuous and continuous (without pause between repetitions)
Rotational jumps, bounds, hops onto/off of box or over hurdles
*Foot contacts = amount of times the foot strikes the ground
Depth Jumps (i.e. jumping off one box with subsequent jump up upon landing) should be used with extreme caution in preadolescent athletes.
Rest 48-72 hours between plyometric sessions for appropriate recovery
1. Faigenbaum AD, Kraemer WJ, Blimkie CJ, et al. Youth resistance training: updated position statement paper from the national strength and conditioning association. J Strength Cond Res. 2009;23(5 Suppl):S60-79.
2. Mccambridge TM, Stricker PR. Strength training by children and adolescents. Amer Academy Pediatrics. 2008;121(4):835-40.
3. Faigenbaum AD. Resistance training for children and adolescents: are there health outcomes?. Amer J Lifestyle Medicine. 2007;(1):190-200.
4. Chaouachi A, Hammami R, Kaabi S, Chamari K, Drinkwater EJ, Behm DG. Olympic weightlifting and plyometric training with children provides similar or greater performance improvements than traditional resistance training. J Strength Cond Res. 2014;28(6):1483-96.
5. Baechle TR, Earle RW. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Human Kinetics; 2008.
6. Faigenbaum AD, Westcott WL, Loud RL, Long C. The effects of different resistance training protocols on muscular strength and endurance development in children. Amer Academy Pediatrics. 1999;(104).
7. Kraemer WJ, Fleck SJ. Strength Training for Young Athletes. Human Kinetics; 2005.
Brittani Cookinham, PT, DPT, ATC, LAT
Is the Physical Therapy Manager at EXOS, a sports training facility in Frisco, Texas, and a United States Olympic team sports medicine volunteer. She attended Sacred Heart University where she obtained her Bachelors of Science in Athletic Training and her Doctorate in Physical Therapy.