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Youth Training – Resistance Training for Optimal Neuromuscular Development

By: NCSF  on:  Jul 22 2015
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Many people are surprised to hear that resistance training can be safe and effective for youth participants due to pre-dated misconceptions. Children or pre-adolescents (approximately up to age 11 among girls and 13 among boys) and adolescents (approximately ages 12-18 among girls and 14-18 among boys) can all adapt positively from strength training. The term pre-adolescent refers to boys and girls who have not yet developed secondary sex characteristics. The myth that resistance activities cause epiphyseal plate damage among any population has been long removed from modern knowledge. Research has repeatedly shown that appropriate training will not have a negative impact on bone health or growth, nor increase the risk for connective tissue injuries any more than actions of common play such as jumping, sprinting, climbing trees and throwing/kicking balls. Ironically the concerns in some regards have been shifted to the elderly; which is also off base - as both the young and old can benefit from training with resistance exercises for functional strength and power.

Early exposure to an appropriate resistance training program can greatly improve a child or adolescent’s propensity for neuromuscular efficiency and success during physical endeavors later in life. Interestingly most young people do not learn rudimentary movements (ever) as PE is reduced in school or emphasize the sport model over fitness models for whatever reason. Movements such as lunging and squatting are not innate and rarely taught properly to young people. Teaching the nervous system how to work synergistically and in a coordinated fashion early in life has a huge impact on the individual’s maximum potential for related adaptations. Children and adolescents experience greater plasticity, or chronic alterations in muscle tissue in response to resistance training which are far-reaching. This greater aptitude for adaptation is likely due to specific neural and tissue characteristics, such as muscle cell nuclei containing a much greater quantity of satellite cells when compared with adults (10% density vs. 2-3% density). This single physiological difference increases a child or adolescent’s potential for muscle regeneration, recovery and fiber type-specific adaptations. For example, if one promotes greater use of fast-twitch fibers during their developmental years through training, they are more likely to experience a greater affinity for immediate and intermediate energy system optimization as an adult. Interestingly, aerobic adaptations are much easier to develop regardless of age due to the efficiency of the system but fail to fulfill mobility, strength and power needs over a lifespan.

Clearly, the process of natural development during childhood and adolescence makes for an ideal time to educate the body for efficient motor patterning while encouraging mobility and strength balance for higher performance and musculoskeletal health during adulthood. Still, there are many misconceptions concerning the application of advanced forms of resistance training (e.g., compound strength and power-based work) during youth, and most of these exist because training across age groups is often convoluted. Many coaches attempt to apply adult training modalities to children which normally are inappropriate. While children and adolescents want to improve, and can be very competitive, they really just want to have fun. Successful programs provide an environment where the young person is motivated to work without realizing the effort of the training due to the enjoyment of the activities, at least in part. A common element is including a level of competition interspersed with foundational training. These types of programs also account for appropriate breaks and often introduce novel training modalities (e.g., obstacle course) for fun. When exercises employ resistance as a key component to the training it is recommended to keep the activities focused on movement proficiency, accuracy and detail-oriented behaviors. For these reasons it is important to employ relatively lighter and higher-volume work to facilitate mastery of movement technique.

The following basic guidelines are recognized amongst exercise professionals to be effective for meeting some of the special needs of youth during weight lifting.

General resistance training guidelines for children and adolescents:

  • Higher repetition (12-15 repetitions)schemes are more effective for pre-pubescent children
  • Place a primary focus on motor learning and detail-oriented technique
  • As little as two sets for a given exercise can be effective for improving muscular strength and neuromuscular efficiency
  • Multi-joint lifts that develop motor skills are preferred over isolated training
  • Recognize that children respond better to intermittent work bouts rather than continuous effort
  • Do not use loads greater than an 8RM among younger children
  • Progressive overload should usually emphasize increased repetitions or sets for adaptations
  • Pubescent adolescents should emphasize cross joint multi-planar movements for motor learning

Certainly prepubescent training programs should not emphasize maximal strength training or body building workouts which makes machine training a somewhat limited resource. However, before throwing out all the machines realize they too can serve as part of the educational process. Interspersed exercises using machine is fine for children assuming they are used in accordance with the aforementioned guidelines. Machine exercise can be used to expose young people to training modalities and teach novice lifters proper biomechanical patterns in safe manner.

Ideally to maximize performance capabilities in young persons, an exercise professional will want to choose activities that force various body segments to work together in a coordinated fashion. For optimal neural development during youth, exercises within the following categories should be emphasized that match the participant’s age and proficiency (age-related variations will be addressed shortly).

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