Training Children

by Mary Jo Campbell Cambridge on February 15th, 2016

The key to your child's physical health is striking a balance between participation and prevention.  Many children participate in sports and are not equipped physically for the rigors of daily participation. Some of these situations are made more difficult by pairing athletes based on their chronological age (in years) rather than their biological age,(actual size and stage of development.)   In middle school, it is not uncommon to see two athletes on the same team who are vastly different in their biological make-up.  Yet, due to age group pairings, they find themselves on the same team and at times competing against each other.  Obviously, this is a recipe for disaster.  

Puberty is the great equalizer when the late bloomer catches up to his precocious teammates and opponents.  However, prior to puberty and the onset of hormones like testosterone and estrogen, strength gains are mainly due to neurological adaptations. Simply put, before puberty, the central nervous system is the engine that controls strength and movement patterns.  With the proper frequency and quality of movement, those patterns are improved. The CNS becomes very efficient and performance improves. It does not cause an increase in actual muscle size, that does not happen without testosterone, so in the absence of hormones, these changes are very hard to maintain. "If you don't use it, you lose it." Prevention is a difficult task for children who practice daily and must balance the rigors of school and sport at a young age.  Frequency is a vital part of the equation. For children, it is recommended that they participate in strength & conditioning at least 2 times a week to prevent injury.

Do we train children like we train adults? The simple answer is NO! They certainly can perform many of the same multi-joint movements that incorporate balance, stabilization, and core strength, however, all should be done with body weight, dowels or very light dumbbells. Although they are young, there is a vital window of opportunity to learn power and speed movements. It is much easier to teach and learn coordination of movement prior to puberty than after, but again, all must be taught with little or no resistance.

Another factor to consider when discussing the load and intensity of workouts for children is their stage in development. Prior to puberty, the ends of their long bones (growth plates) remain ‘open’, allowing for further growth, making them vulnerable to injury. These plates ‘close’ soon after puberty and become stronger with time.  It is at these sites on the long bones that the very strong muscle and tendon units attach. During growth spurts, the muscle-tendon unit becomes taut and inflexible.  With the right mechanism, it can be pulled from the much weaker bone, causing an avulsion or even a fracture to the growth plate itself.

The best way for children to develop properly is to play, to participate in multiple sports that offer a variety of movements and skills. I will discuss further, in a later post, the value of multi-sport participation.   As with adults, sedentary behavior and ‘screen time’ have led to muscle imbalances and under-developed posterior muscles of the body. If your child displays any characteristics that would lead to injuries, such as a ‘winging scapula’ (weak muscles in the upper back causing the scapula to stand up rather than lie flat to the body)or a ‘wide Q-angle’, (the angle from the hip to the outside of their knee- more common in girls due to larger hip circumferences) you should consult with a Certified Strength and Conditioning Coach who has experience working with children. Not all ‘personal trainers’ have the knowledge, skill and experience necessary for the job and can actually cause more harm than good. Don’t be afraid to ask the question and advocate for your child. As always, feel free to send questions to Finish Strong!

Posted in Growth and Development, Kids and Fitness    Tagged with fitness for kids, puberty, growth and fitness, strength training, fitness, injury prevention


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