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What can a child safely do in terms of physical training?
This article has the objective of busting some myths about what can a pre-adolescent safely do in terms of training. The scientific consensus is that a child can now take part in a variety of intensive training methods with little risk of affecting their physical development.
First, we can simply state that biological age is more important in determining physical development than chronological age. Each child is different and can be either an early-maturer or a late-maturer which means that some children will go through puberty earlier and/or quicker than others but on average they will all level out in the end. Early-maturers will have higher testosterone levels earlier than their late-maturer counterparts (Peper at al. 2010) – how coaches should interpret this information is essential to effective practice, starting with giving opportunities to late-maturers and not just coaching the early-maturers, a practice common in sports where physical attributes are strongly linked to successful performance.
Secondly, is there any point to training a child to be stronger, quicker or more powerful? Will it have an effect on their sport? If their sport contains any elements involving speed, strength and power then the answer is categorically yes. Mirkov (2010) found that body size and composition between 11-14 years did NOT predict future success (becoming elite) in football but agility and co-ordination did thus training all pre-adolescents regardless of their size is essential for allowing children to reach their sporting potential.
Michaleff and Kamper (2011) looked at the results of 42 studies, covering 1728 participants with an average age of 11.5 years. They found that strength gains occurred at every age when resistance training was undertaken. They found the biggest gains were dependent on increasing maturity i.e. the closer to adolescence the child was, the number of sessions per week and the length of programme. Interestingly, they found that chronological age, gender or the number of sets completed did NOT affect the size of the gains. So in short, as long as a child is undergoing resistance training twice a week, they will see strength gains, which will increase in size, the closer to puberty they get. The strength gains are mostly a result of neurological adaptation i.e. they are able to recruit more muscle fibres to complete actions and not a result of increases in muscle size as they lack the testosterone levels to build serious muscle.
Negra et al. (2016) took groups of prepubescent soccer players through 12 weeks of either resistance training (half squats, abdominal curls and back extensions) or plyometric training (vertical-horizontal leaping and lateral jumping) and found that they both improved speed, power and agility. They also commented that it was safe to combine it with regular soccer training.
Things to remember are that children should not be unsupervised with resistance training or allowed to use bad techniques to achieve a given outcome e.g. pressing a given weight above their head or pulling a sled using any method possible as bad technique can lead to serious injury. The training age (how much experience an individual has of a certain training method) of all participants should be taken into account before prescribing any physical training for any athletes i.e. a 12 year old with a training age of two years that has mastered body squats and press-ups could probably have a more advanced resistance programme than a 14 year old with a training age of zero years.
Conversely, Welsman et al. (1997) and George (2005) found that aerobic training for 20 minutes or more had NO significant impact on the aerobic fitness (VO2 peak, blood profile, heart size) of children between the ages of 9 and 10 therefore long aerobic training would not have a positive effect on the aerobic fitness of pre-adolescents. Having said this, it can still contribute to a calorie deficit and may have some benefit for children that are trying to reduce bodyfat. Thus we should let children play sports that they love as aerobic training won’t provide them with any significant physical benefit but it does not mean children should be sedentary and aerobic exercise is better than no exercise!
George, K. (2005) The impact of aerobic training upon left ventricular morphology and function in pre-pubescent children. Ergonomics. Volume 48, 2005 - Issue 11-14: Sports, Leisure and Ergonomics (SLE) Conference, 19-21 November 2003
Michaleff, Z, and Kamper, S. (2011) Effects of resistance training in children and adolescents: a meta-analysis. Br J Sports Med 2011;45:755
Mirkov, D., Kukolj, M., Ugarkovic, D., Koprivica, V., and S. Jaric, S. (2010) Development of anthropometric and physical performance profiles of young elite male soccer players: a longitudinal study. J Strength Cond Res, 24 (2010), pp. 2677–2682
Peper, J., Brouwer, R., van Leeuwen, M., Schnack, H., Boomsmac D., Kahn, R., Hilleke, R., and Polb, H. (2010) HPG-axis hormones during puberty: A study on the association with hypothalamic and pituitary volumes. Psychoneuroendocrinology. Volume 35, Issue 1, January 2010, Pages 133–140
Welsman, J., Armstrong, N. and Withers, S. (1997) Responses of young girls to two modes of aerobic training. Br J Sports Med 1997;31:139-142
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