For many years it was thought that pre-adolescent children were incapable of improving strength through resistance training. Over the last 25 years, several studies have shown that pre-adolescent children are capable of safely improving muscle strength with appropriate training regimes.
A review of strength training improvements in children found that the majority of studies demonstrated strength gains between 13-30% as a result of resistance training over an 8-12 week period. Gains from strength training for pre-adolescents are generally attributed to the nervous system and motor learning, rather than hormones. Strength training for pre-adolescent athletes should focus on skills and technique. Since improvements from strength training come from neuromuscular development in this age group, this is the ideal time to teach co-ordination and stability. Children should work at strengthening all the big muscle groups, using free weight and body weight movements with relatively light loads. When prescribing load for young athletes, it is always better to underestimate their physical abilities and gradually increase training load, than to overshoot their abilities and potentially injure them. Adolescents should initially perform one to three sets of 6-15 repetitions of a variety of exercises, beginning with a frequency of 2-3 days per week on non consecutive days.
The ASCA recommends 4 levels of training and has devised a series of simple tests to ensure that the appropriate level of motor control has been developed to progress from one level to the next. The ASCA makes the point that while there are many reasons for strength training the primary goal in stages 1-3 should be on limb control and stability. With increases in strength and size being a bi-product of the movement control programs. By ensuring the initial three stages are properly completed the child can go onto level 4 with more advanced training goals such as improved maximal strength, power, hypertrophy (size) and so on.
In a growing number of cases it would appear that the musculoskeletal systems of many young athletes are ill prepared to handle the demands of practice, games and tournament schedules. If we are to keep getting great results at major sporting events, we need to invest the time and money into the long-term development of our young athletes.