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Strength Training and the Young Athlete

Brian J Grasso provides some final thoughts on the debate on strength training for young athletes.

Should pre-adolescent kids lift weights or should they not? Will it stunt their growth or increase their likelihood of future sporting success? Is growth plate damage a real concern or merely an exaggerated issue? This debate has raged on for years. Hopefully, this article will help clear up some of the concerns.

Where do we start?

There are definitive differences between adolescent boys and adolescent girls concerning strength and strength production. In boys, absolute muscular strength (the greatest amount of force an individual can produce) grows consistently between the ages of 7 to 19. In girls, strength gains are incurred on a consistent level until about the age of 15, when a period of stagnation occurs and a strength gain plateau. By the end of the pubescent ages, boys are roughly 50% stronger than girls.

Factors to consider

There are several factors to consider when programming strength training for young athletes:

  • Central Nervous System Maturity - The true argument concerning children and weight lifting should not be based on the maturity (or in this case immaturity) of the child's muscular system, but rather the advancement of the child's central nervous system (CNS). Within the proper application of load, volume and intensity, a child's muscular system will not be compromised by weight training activities. However, a lack of motor control (a function of the CNS) will affect the child's ability to perform weight-training exercises safely. It is, therefore, the maturity of the CNS that is the ultimate determining factor.
  • Cross Section of Muscle - A larger muscle infers a greater strength potential. While hypertrophy of this sort is not hormonally possible with pre-adolescent athletes, this fact is why I advocate that early adolescent athletes train with hypertrophy-based responses in mind.
  • Biological Maturity - Biological age, unlike a child's chronological age, is not visible. Biological age is based in large part on the physiological development of the various organs and systems in the body. The adequate development of bone and the efficiency of the heart and lungs to transport oxygen are examples of items that comprise biological age. These become important when determining the volume or intensity of the training program for the young athlete.
  • Hormonal Issues - Androgenic (muscle building) hormones are low in pre-adolescent athletes. This means that hypertrophy-based responses are all, but impossible but strength gains are, however, very possible.
  • Technical Issues - Providing a proper foundation for the technical merits of strength training is paramount when working with youngsters.

The arguments for and against

On the argument of effectiveness, adequately programmed strength training has shown considerable positive effects for pre-adolescents. A study quoted by Dr Drabik in his book, "Children & Sports Training"[1], showed a 40% increase in strength for boys and girls (aged 10 to 11) following a nine-week strength-training program. In terms of danger or contraindication, the greatest concern lies in ligament or bone damage. Elastic, young skeletons and connective tissue can be injured if loads are excessive. This is why loads must be kept low and proper form strictly followed. Of interesting note is the argument regarding strength training and stunted growth. In the event of bone or growth plate damage, change can be stunted. But, if proper strength training parameters are prescribed, then the opposite is true. Muscle pull (which refers to the tension or 'tugging' where the muscle attaches to the bone during muscle contraction), is a significant factor that stimulates bone thickness. Moreover, 'intermittent use of submaximal resistance stimulates height growth'[1].

Assessment is essential

One keynote point that I have preached endlessly is the fact that an orthopaedic assessment MUST precede any strength training prescription. Postural defects can be made worse by incorrect application of strength training, and conversely improved by a correct application. An assessment is a mandatory precursor to any child-based strength-training program.

Exercises for young athletes

Here is a list of exercises, adopted from Darbik (1996)[1], to use with young athletes. The exercises in this list get progressively more difficult. Start younger athletes on the earlier exercises and progress them systematically over the years.

  • Obstacle courses, rope pulling, climbing
  • Vertical strength (standing push-ups), hanging exercises
  • Bodyweight exercises and medicine-ball based activities/throws
  • Horizontal strength (push-ups, pull-ups)
  • Dumbbell & barbell exercises
  • Single leg squats, deadlifts, step-ups, good mornings

Article Reference

This article first appeared in:

  • GRASSO, B. (2004) Strength Training and the Young Athlete. Brian Mackenzie's Successful Coaching, (ISSN 1745-7513/ 15 / September), p. 10-11


  1. DARBIK, J. (1996) Children & Sports Training. Island Pond, Vt: Stadion Publishing Company

Page Reference

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

  • GRASSO, B. (2004) Strength Training and the Young Athlete [WWW] Available from: [Accessed

About the Author

Brian Grasso is the President of Developing Athletics, which is a company dedicated to educating coaches, parents and youth sporting officials throughout the world on the concepts of athletic development. Brian can be contacted through his website at