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Strength Development for Young Adolescents

Dr Larry W. McDaniel, Allen Jackson, M.Ed., and Dr Laura Gaudet discuss critical issues related to strength development for adolescents.

The experience of providing resistance training education to groups of young adolescents has been etched in my mind. For the most part, this is and can be, a delightful experience, but it requires constant supervision and control (withitness skills). For the older participants, my philosophy is to let this group set up a personal program to fit his or her specific needs. For the younger participants, we want to develop some fundamental training principles. Along with training guidelines for the more inexperienced lifter, our primary focus should focus on the prevention of injury.

As a trainer, when we talk to this age group about growth plate injuries, they blink twice and have no earthly idea about what we are trying to describe. In their minds, they are bulletproof, and it is our responsibility to provide the mentoring required to keep them safe and healthy.

Growth plates, also known as the epiphysis, are the growing areas of the long bones of the upper and lower extremities. During human development, these areas of the body remain vulnerable to injury during adolescence with the occurrence of injury most prevalent among 14 to 16-year-old boys and 11 to 13-year-old girls. Older girls experience these fractures less frequently than their male counterparts due to earlier physical maturation. In the young athlete, a severe injury to a joint is more likely to damage a growth plate than the ligaments surrounding a joint while a sprain injury in an adult can be compared to a growth plate injury for the young athlete (Panhgis et al. 2001)[3].

Approximately one-half of all growth plate injuries occur in the lower end of the radius at the wrist. These injuries are also common to the tibia and fibula or the lower leg bones. After a growth plate injury has occurred, the injury may contribute to the premature arrest of bone growth. "The affected bone grows less than it would have without the injury, and the resulting limb could be shorter than the opposite, uninjured limb. If only part of the growth plate is injured, growth may be lopsided, and the limb may become crooked (Panhgis et al. 2001, p.2)[3].

From 1991 to 1996, the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, through its National Electronic Injury Surveillance System (NEISS), estimated the annual number of injuries associated with strength training as 20,940 to 26,120 for individuals under the age of 21 (Committee of Sports Medicine 2001)[1]. These figures are not recent, but the information highlights the risk of injury to those who are not closely supervised or do not receive proper instruction in resistance training. Research is inconclusive with growth plate injury, due to a limited number of case reports involving damage to the epiphysis.

The fact remains, these injuries are more common than we would like to acknowledge, and the sad thing is that they are entirely preventable. As professionals, we need to advise our young athletes about proper technique and limited maximum lifts. Growth plate injury is typical of improperly supervised training episodes. As coaches, instructors, and trainers, we must realize that an ounce of prevention will last an athlete a lifetime (Committee of Sports Medicine 2001)[1].

Suggested Guidelines for Youth Strength Training

The right strength training program for your students is not just a scaled-down version of what an adult would do. Many adult programs focus on fewer repetitions and heavier weights. The focus of youth strength training programs needs to focus on:

  • Correct technique
  • Smooth, controlled motions
  • Less resistance and many repetitions

Strength training programs should be designed to consider participant's age, size, skills, and sports interests. The general principles of youth strength training are:

  • Provide instruction. Show your lifters how to perform strength training exercises using controlled breathing and proper form. You might ask a trained professional to demonstrate these techniques. If you enroll your child in a class, make sure there is at least one instructor for every ten students to ensure that your child receives proper instruction.
  • Supervise. Adult supervision is vital to reinforce safety and proper technique. For instance, if students lift weights to strength train, a spotter - someone who stands ready to grab the weights - can step in if the weight becomes too heavy. Parents can get involved in strength training also. They can serve as a positive reinforcement for healthy lifestyle habits.
  • Warm-up and cool-down. Have your lifters begin each workout with 5 to 10 minutes of a warm-up activity, such as walking, jogging in place, or jumping rope. This process will warm and prepare the muscles for action while minimizing the risk of injury. End each workout with a cool-down period, and some light muscle stretching.
  • Think light weights and controlled repetitions. One set of 12 to 20 repetitions at a lighter weight is all it takes. Young adolescences do not need weights specially sized for them. They can safely lift adult-size weights as long as the weight is not too heavy. The resistance does not have to come from weights either. Resistance tubing can be just as effective, especially for younger children.
  • Rest between workouts. Establish a rest period that consists of at least one day between strength training workouts. Two or three training sessions per week are plenty.
  • Track progress. Teach your lifters how to fill out a chart showing his or her exercises, repetitions, and how much weight or resistance he or she is using during a workout. This information will help monitor progress.
  • Add weight gradually. Only when your student masters proper form should you add weight. If they cannot do ten repetitions with proper technique at a specific weight, the weight is too heavy.

Contraindicated Activities

  • The catch phase of the power clean. The catch phase of the power clean may damage the bones, tendons, and ligaments that produce flexion, extension, ulnar flexion, and radial flexion of the wrist. Replace the finish of the power clean with a high pull; do not use the catch phase. (The catch phase can be described as the upward movement of the bar from a resting position on the floor to chest height or the highest point in the movement of the bar. This movement then involves a braking action to stop the momentum of the bar. This movement evolves as the elbows drop under the bar and the wrists move from flexion to hyperextension to absorb the force of the weight and prevent the downward movement of the bar. This process places a great deal of stress on the bony and ligamentous structures of the wrist.)
  • An additional contraindicated power movement is the full squat. The lower phase of the full squat may damage ligaments, tendons, cartilage, and some muscle tissue that produce flexion and extension of the knee. Replace the full squat with a quarter or half squats.
  • The lowest part of the downward movement of the barbell when performing the bench press may be a contraindicated activity. Place a folded towel approximately 2-3 inches in height across the sternum. Then, complete the bench press by lowering the bar until it contacts the towel. Next, stop the movement and begin executing the upward ascent of the barbell. Use this technique when performing the bench press. This movement reduces stress on not only the sternum and ribs, but also the muscles, ligaments, and tendons of the shoulder joint.
  • Keep it fun. Vary the routine often. Weightlifters are more likely to stick with strength training if they do not get bored by it.

Results will not come overnight. Over time, you and your trainees will notice a difference in muscle strength and endurance.

Strength Training A Healthy Habit for a Lifetime

If your young adolescences show an interest in strength training, know that it can be a safe and productive activity. Along with aerobic exercise, stretching, and balance, and stability, strength training is one part of a well-rounded fitness program.

Encourage physical activity in your child. It is a crucial step to becoming a healthy adult. (Mayo Clinic Staff, 2006)[2]


  1. Committee of Sports Medicine (2001) Strength training by children and adolescents.
    [WWW] Available from:;107/6/1470.pdf [Accessed August 27, 2008]
  2. Mayo Clinic Staff (2006) Strength training: OK for kids when done correctly. [WWW] Available from: [Accessed August 30, 2008]
  3. PANHGIS, J. et al. (2001) Growth plate injuries. [WWW] Available from: from [Accessed August 28, 2008]

Page Reference

If you quote information from this page in your work, then the reference for this page is:

  • McDANIEL, L. et al. (2009) Strength Development for Young Adolescents [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Authors

Larry W. McDaniel Ed.D. is an Associate Professor of Exercise Science at Dakota State University Madison, SD. USA. Dr McDaniel was a First Team All-American football player (USA Football), a Hall of Fame Athlete, and Hall of Fame Wrestling Coach.

Allen Jackson, M. Ed. is an Assistant Professor of Physical Education and Health at Chadron State College in Chadron, Nebraska (USA) who is well known for his presentations and publications at international conferences focusing on Leadership, Curriculum, and Health.

Laura Gaudet, Ph.D. is a Professor and Chair of the Department of Counselling, Psychology and Social Work at Chadron State College, Chadron NE. Dr Gaudet is well known for her publications and presentations at international conferences focusing on various topics in the field of psychology.