Tonight at the gym, I was approached by a member while I was performing a series of mobility exercises. He asked me if his nine-year old daughter, who plays basketball and soccer, "should be doing things like that."
After asking a few questions about his daughter, I concluded that, yes, female athletes at that age could benefit from training. He was happy to hear that. He said that he had her doing push-ups, sit-ups, and lunges. I agreed and said that developing a good 'base of general fitness' is valuable for young athletes. I briefly mentioned that it would help her get stronger, decrease her risk of injury, and help her establish a good foundation on to which she could add more advanced strength training.
After reflecting upon what I said to him during the remainder of my workout, I realized that I just reaffirmed what he was doing- good or bad. I had no real idea how he was training her. For all I know, he could he hurting her more than helping her. Luckily, I have this blog to talk about this topic a little more.
First Things First- An effective training program starts with an assessment of the trainee, even kids. A personal program should be developed with the kids age, sports, position, injuries (if they have had any), experience, and needs in mind. No two athletes are exactly the same.
Establish the General Movement Base- Many kids these days are seriously involved in a single sport, which they play year round. This is helpful to develop skills and game knowledge, but often it can impart serious repetitive stresses on the body. The body, at these young ages, needs to develop a general fitness base with a variety of movements. This helps prevent repetitive stresses and allows the kid to develop a large variety of movements during an important window of motor development.
Take Time To Learn Good Technique- When athletes make it to the high school level (or even middle school for some kids) strength training, power, speed, and agility are often added to enhance performance. Often, the kids have not been taught proper techniques. It is assumed that kids are getting good instruction, however, often there isn't time to learn good technique at this point. Kids, at age nine, should be taught how to squat, lunge, pull, push, and throw correctly. I have personally seen some really athletic kids who couldn't do a decent push-up or body weight squat.
Strength Training is Safe and Effective- At this age, kids can start strength training safely. However, just like a 45-year old newbie, you have to train them based on their 'training age.' If they have never trained before, then they need to be taught good technique, and progressed appropriately. They probably don't need more than one set of basic exercises to get a training effect.
Handle the Cumulative Training Stress- An extremely active young athlete may be negatively affected by extra exercise if her body can't handle all of the stress. I have had athletes come to me with signs of overtraining (muscular-skeletal pain) wanting to start strength training. Strength and performance training has to fit into the overall training plan to be safe and effective. If not, you can actually hurt their performance.