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From Athletic Trainer Doug Wolf

Well-Designed Resistance Training Program Can Help Youth Athletes Avoid Injuries, Obesity and Diabetes


The changing weight room

The demographics of the weight room have certainly changed over the years. The days of the oversized male slamming around weights in a dark dirty room are a thing of the past. With the ongoing trend toward health and fitness and the ever increasing availability of gyms and home exercise equipment, more and more people - from young children to senior citizens to those with disabilities - are taking advantage of the benefits of resistance training.

Young developing athletes can certainly take advantage of these benefits. When part of an appropriately designed exercise and nutrition program, resistance training can help battle two of the growing youth health epidemics, obesity and type 2 diabetes. In addition, a well designed resistance training program may help in preventing sport and recreation related injuries.

Benefits of youth resistance training

The National Strength and Conditioning Association recognizes that youth resistance training has the following benefits:

  • Increased strength
  • Enhanced motor skills
  • Enhanced sport performance
  • Improved psychosocial well-being
  • Improved overall health

However, when a coach decides to take his team into the weight room health-related benefits are likely the furthest thing from his mind. The popular "bigger, faster, stronger" mentality can lead to misconceptions about the purpose of sports resistance training, which is to prevent injuries. Identifying and correcting neuromuscular weakness and imbalance as well as preparing the body for the increased demands of sport are the principal concerns. Enhanced performance is simply a by-product of a well designed resistance training program. 

Age is a factor 

Another important consideration that is often forgotten when designing resistance training programs for youth athletes is their age. Youth athletes are exactly that, youths, and cannot be treated the same as adults in the weight room. When programming resistance training for youth athletes exercise technique and appropriate supervision are of the utmost importance. In fact, using improper exercise technique and horseplay are the cause of the majority of weight room injuries. Both can be eliminated with proper supervision and program design.

Training guidelines 

There are multiple variables than can be modified to achieve the desired results when designing a resistance training program for young athletes.

However, the basic guidelines to be followed include:

  • Exercises that use large muscle groups (i.e. lunges) are preferred to those that use isolated muscle groups (i.e. leg extensions).
  • Exercises should be performed for 1-5 sets of 6-20 repetitions. Any load greater than what the child can lift 6 times may lead to a loss of proper technique and injury. Body weight exercises are excellent for introducing resistance training. For exercises that require bars, a broomstick may be substituted to ensure proper technique before resistance is added.
  • The resistance training program should only be performed 2 to 3 days per week allowing for one day of rest between sessions.
  • Progression should be based on technique, then resistance. The primary concern is that the child learns proper technique first. When the exercise can be performed with excellent technique for 2 repetitions beyond the prescribed repetitions the amount of resistance can then be safely increased.
  • In general, a 5% increase in resistance for upper body exercise and a 10% increase in resistance for lower body exercise is a good guideline.

Final important note

When designing a resistance program for youth athletes, remember to make it fun and enjoyable. If the athlete sees it as challenging and fun he is more likely to adopt resistance training as a means of exercise for the rest of his life. If made a chore the child may withdraw and never enjoy the health-related benefits of ongoing resistance training.

Doug Wolf is a member of the National Athletic Trainers' Association and National Strength and Conditioning Association and currently serves as an athletic trainer in the Children's Sports Medicine Department of Columbus (Ohio) Children's Hospital where he provides outreach athletic training services and is responsible for the development and implementation of personalized injury prevention programs for youth and adolescent athletes.