Growth Plates and Safe, Effective Resistance Training for Youth
As bones grow and develop throughout childhood, a common concern involving resistance training has been the growth plate injury. A critical part of maturation, growth plates are areas of cartilage at the ends of long bones where the body lays down new tissue.
Under a response to growth hormone, cells at one end of the growth plate are constantly dividing, gathering nutrients and being shuttled to ends of long bones. There, they eventually degenerate and form more bony tissue.
But during growth, the hyaline cartilage of growth plates leaves a softer, more malleable bit along the bone itself. This helps as we have room to get bigger, taller and stronger, but this does leave vulnerability as they’re the last places to ossify, or turn into actual bone.
Is Resistance Training Harmful to Growth Plates?
Does that mean youth resistance training is dangerous? No. In fact, it can be quite beneficial.
Various health organizations, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, American College of Sports Medicine, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association, maintain that a well-structured resistance training program supervised by a trained adult is safe and effective for kids (Dahab, McCambridge).
In fact, resistance training, learning proper movement mechanics and progressive loading might be critical to injury prevention. In just 8-12 weeks, children can improve strength by 50% and maintain that adaptation with training twice per week (Dahab, Cambridge).
According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s official position statement, most of the injuries to growth plates or otherwise in youth “were due to improper lifting techniques, maximal lifts, or lack of qualified adult supervision. Furthermore, there is no evidence to suggest that resistance training will negatively impact growth and maturation during childhood and adolescence.”
When done properly, however, developing muscle strength and neuromuscular coordination can help prevent injury in sport as well as teach good habits for later in life.
Added Benefits to Resistance Training For Youth
Additionally, resistance training can stimulate growth hormone and testosterone – two hormones that are critical in development. The stress generated by resisted compound movements has been shown to increase serum testosterone levels in boys, free flowing testosterone in girls and HGH in both sexes (Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning).
Loaded training also aids in increasing bone density, which produces a stronger, more durable bone structure. Given that the technique stays true, shearing forces are minimized, growth plates stay safe and bone composition improves. When coupled with proper rest and range of motion, these adaptations can contribute to a healthy level of growth.
How Youth Should Be Using Resistance Training
Start with one set of multi-joint, upper and lower bodyweight exercises such as push ups, bodyweight squats, hip bridges and pull ups. Six to fifteen repetitions of each a few times per week will build strength, and then gradually add in a few more sets and increase to externally loaded exercises. Technique can be enhanced with dowels, medicine balls and resistance bands before moving on to a traditional gym setting.
For a balanced program, add in accessory core work, single arm/leg and multi-planar movements (planks, dead bugs, crawling, multi-directional lunges, etc.). Emphasis should always be on proper technique and execution before increasing difficulty or adding in too many new movements.
Not only is it safe, it’s important that youth participate in strength training.
Youth Should Be Training For Strength
In the era where kids are glued to an iPad while others are thrown into specialized “elite” sport by the age of 8, both overtraining and lack of exercise present an increasing risk. Specialized athletes perform repeated high-intensity movements through short ranges of motion, resulting in muscular imbalances that cause a strain on bone, connective tissue and muscle alike.
That’s a recipe for disaster with just one wrong step. In contrast, underuse allows tissue to tighten, prevents necessary strength development as they age, and results in chronic injury into adulthood. Rather than fearing injury, let’s encourage our children to build themselves safely through proper resistance training.