STRENGTH TRAINING AND PREPUBESCENT YOUTH
The value placed on the importance of winning in professional sports has hit an all-time high. The astronomical amount of money being spent in the entertainment field of athletics has dictated a win-at-all-costs mentality that has trickled all the way down to negatively affect our youngest athletes – the prepubescent. The athletic world has forever been exploiting our youth as a source of athletic potential, sacrificing the health, safety and welfare of these child-athletes to satiate the intense nationalistic pride of the country and more dishearteningly in the name of the Almighty Dollar. This has caused coaches and athletes to take drastic measures which are sometimes illegal and usually unethical in order to improve performance levels. One of the most controversial training practices center around the impact of strength training in prepubescent children.
There has recently been increasing scrutiny debating the merits of strength training in our youth and more importantly the unsafe and unethical training practices that tend to be utilized in implementing strength training programs in all levels of amateur athletics. These controversies have enabled many people associated in medical and exercise sciences to take a further look at the field of prepubescent athletics and their impact on the developmental patterns of the children involved. The research in the field has provided feedback regarding the physiological, mental and social effects – negative and/or positive – that strength training influences over prepubescent growth and development.
American society has entered into an era in which strength training has become the standard and most popular method of keeping the musculature of the body in aesthetic shape. Fitness centers and personal home gyms have emerged as important catalysts for people, providing everyone with equal opportunity and incentive to exercise and strength train in safe and instructional settings. This fitness boom along with the growing concerns and questions regarding the safety of prepubescent exercise has spurred several gatherings of pediatricians, fitness center owners, exercise physiologists and other related exercise scientists. Together, these groups are involved in active research studies, discussion of the methods, safety issues and effects of strength-training on prepubescent children. Subsequently there have been numerous articles documenting the effects of prepubescent strength-training many of which are incorporated into this paper.
Exercise physiology has previously proven that in order to increase muscular strength and endurance, the frequency, intensity and duration components of a workout must be gradually and independently increased. This has brought up several important questions regarding the effects of strength training in the burgeoning field of prepubescent exercise physiology. The most important and most asked question is can and/or will prepubescent strength training cause developmental-inhibiting musculoskeletal injuries such as epiphyseal plate fractures. These types of fractures can lead to the stunting of limb growth in the affected area(s) and are obviously injuries that can negatively affect the normal development of our youth (Thomas, 1995). The next obvious question was two-fold; what are the benefits, if any, of prepubescent strength-training and do the benefits warrant risking possible physical harm? The last and the least obvious question asked wanted to know what exactly was prepubescent strength-training and what were its safety guidelines?
For the purposes of these studies and this paper, strength training will be defined as the use of progressive resistance methods such as body weight (i.e. pushups), free weights, isotonic and isokinetic machines utilized in an attempt to increase ones ability to exert or resist force (Cahill, 1995). Prepubescence will be defined as a child, male or female, typically no older than 16, who has not yet developed secondary sex characteristics. More simply put, the individual has not yet hit puberty(Buturusis 1994).
Prepubescent strength training can be defined exactly by what it says it is, the practice of resistance training by an individual who has not yet reached puberty. Typically the weight lifted by prepubescents is specifically designed to be less than the weight adolescents and adults of similar weights and heights are capable of lifting. There are two reasons for using the lesser weight, prevention of growth-inhibiting injuries and from the necessity created by the physiological differences between pre and postpubescent lifters that limit overall strength gains. The reasons for the physiological differences in overall strength come from several reasons, one in particular. In both prepubescent boys and girls it is thought to occur due to the absence of testosterone in the body. This lack of testosterone prevents any significant muscle growth from occurring regardless of the amount or intensity of training. Interestingly enough, it is this same lack of testosterone in postpubescent females that puts women at a distinct disadvantage in the sport of bodybuilding. Since females never produce significant amounts of testosterone the major limiting factor in pre and postpubescent strength training gains (Conn, 1993).
The last area to be looked at is the frequency of workouts. Whereas adults involved in moderate to serious strength training are in the weight room anywhere from a minimum of three days to a maximum of five days a week, the prepubescent should be in the weight room a maximum of two sessions per week. It is also recommended that prepubescent weight lifters have a minimum of two full rest days between exercise bouts as opposed to a one rest day minimum for mature weight lifters.
REASONS TO IMPLEMENT STRENGTH TRAINING
Throughout the country and the world there are literally hundreds of sports and athletic programs, both organized and recreational, in which children can participate. It is thought that the children who are involved in these programs can benefit from strength training in many ways. Adequate strength has been proven to be an important part of health-related fitness and optimal physiological function for children (Thomas, 1993). In addition, two other national organizations, the National Strength and Conditioning Association and the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine have suggested that pre and postpubescent children and young adults can improve their strength and significantly reduce their chance of injury by the use of properly supervised strength training programs (Dunn et al, 1988).
A similar report written by the American Physical Therapy Association concluded that the poor physical conditioning of young athletes is most likely the leading cause of injury in youth sports. They concluded their study by emphasizing the fact that a properly designed resistance training program will develop and prepare the muscles for not only sports competition but for the daily stresses placed upon the body. (Micheli, 1988) Since all sports place abnormal demands on the muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones of the body, there is a growing consensus among physicians and exercise scientists that increasing an athletes strength will simultaneously enhance the level of performance and significantly reduce the likelihood of injury. In fact, a recent study reveals that middle school boys and girls who participated in a year-round strength training program only incurred one half the injuries and needed only one half the preparation time of athletes who did not participate in a strength training program (Cahill, 1995).
BENEFITS OF PREPUBESCENT STRENGTH TRAINING
There are many other positive and consequential health benefits gained by prepubescent who participate in a safe, youth-oriented strength training program. The most important benefit for people to look at in regards to prepubescent athletics is the decrease in injury associated with increased flexibility and joint stability. It has been well documented that the appropriate strengthening of muscles and other connective and supportive tissues and structures can notably decrease the rate and severity of certain sports injuries common to the prepubescent athletic population (Buturusis, 1994). It has also been shown that strength and flexibility are directly related, and by properly increasing them they will markedly reduce the risk of injury in sport.
Another benefit of understated importance stems from the immeasurable potential psychological boost that can gained through the improvement of a childs physical and self-image. Strength training serves as a means for sculpting ones own body to an image more compatible with their wants and dreams. Children who have participated in strength training programs and have achieved an increase in their overall muscular strength and their general muscle tone seem to improve their self-esteem and self-image. (Cahill, 1994) Concurrently, the children show gains in the psychosocial realm. Socialization skills, mental discipline, and self-conception may increase following a strength training program. (Faigenbaum, 1995)
Unlike some other sports and activities, strength training provides an opportunity for virtually all participants to be continually challenged and to feel good about their successes.(Faighenbaum, 1995) With proper guidance, children will perceive themselves as having increased their overall strength; they may actually see themselves lifting more weight and be able to document these strength gains in their workout logs. Thus the psychosocial benefits of prepubescent strength training will not likely be related to muscle hypertrophy (increase in muscle size) but rather to an increase in self-efficacy and self-concept (Feigenbaum, 1995).
The last studied area that prepubescents are able to benefit from strength training is in improvement of their motor performances. One study stated that the criterion for improved strength acquisition is the concurrent improvement of motor performance – in particular the ability to jump. (Cahill, 1994) Strength training helps to prepare the child mentally and physically in the performance of motor skills. It improves muscular coordination and physical endurance – important factors needed to be successful in athletic competition. (Metcalf, 1993) Similarly, various components of motor skills can be enhanced and perfected through a strength training program including power, coordination, flexibility, speed, reaction time, muscular strength muscular endurance and cardiovascular endurance. (Cahill, 1994)
The controversy still exists as to whether or not the risks of prepubescent strength training outweigh the benefits. Overall, strength training programs seem to provide children with opportunities to challenge themselves and others and feel good about themselves. But as with many other things in our society, we tend to prematurely condemn anything product or scientific breakthrough that has shown the slightest chance of causing injury. Frequently this prevents us from discovering and reaping the possible positive effects the same invention or breakthrough might have to offer. The area of prepubescent strength training is a relatively up and coming field in its infancy. However it is becoming a critical field in order to study the effects of exercise in the development of prepubescent children. From continued research scientists will be able to determine the numerous physical, mental and social benefits that can be gained from strength training IF it is done under close and knowledgeable supervision.
RISKS OF PREPUBESCENT STRENGTH TRAINING
With any type of strength training for any age group, there are always going to be associated physical risks. Fortunately most of the risks are caused by improper instruction, improper implementation of programs and the lack of knowledgeable supervision, all of which are preventable factors. These factors are especially critical when the lifters are prepubescent kids whose judgment can be affected by impatience, ignorance or peer-pressure (Cahill, 1994). Some of the potential risks that may occur from improper, insufficient or nonexistent supervision are acute or chronic musculoskeletal injuries, acute or sustained hypertension and weight-lifters blackout.
Surprisingly enough, there has been a alarmingly large number of documented injuries that have occurred in young boys participating in strength training programs. All of the injuries documented in the studies were musculoskeletal in nature and the vast majority happened during the use of heavy loads , usually in competitive lifting. (Sale, 1989)
Acute musculoskeletal injuries refer to an injury or injuries that occur during a single episode-related injury. A type of this injury usually affects the epiphyseal plate – the area in the bone responsible for bone growth. Damage to this area results in possible stunting of growth in the affected area. Epiphyseal fractures are the most commonly reported injuries in young weight lifters. (Buturusis, 1994). This occurs because the area around the growth plate has not achieved mature strength and is consequently in a weakened state, prone to injury from lifting too much weight, too soon. All of the identified epiphyseal plate fractures in the study were reported to have been to the radial and ulna bones of the wrist. These injuries were most likely incurred as a result of improperly performed clean and jerk or overhead lifts with too heavy a load. Often these improper methods were practiced unsupervised and without proper recuperative downtime. Together they serve to complicate the injury (Buturusis, 1994). However there is no substantial data documenting the claim that properly executed weight training using submaximal weight in prepubescents will cause epiphyseal plate injuries. The fractures reported in this paper most likely occurred due to preventable mistakes. Conversely in another similar study, it was suggested that strength training might even possibly accelerate the rate of bone growth over time (Conn, 1993).
Chronic musculoskeletal injuries on the other hand are much more common and are the result of repeated stress and overuse of the area(s). It has been documented that there several pathomechanics including severe joint inflexibility or the extreme opposite – extreme laxity, or weakness, of a particular body part or more commonly of the musculotendinous joints. These pathomechanics leave certain children with a marked predisposition to injury from strength training. These type of children should probably only lift weights under close supervision or not at all (Conroy et al, 1993). Most chronic injuries are the result of the continual stress applied across the joint when the load is too heavy or improperly lifted. This can be prevented simply by pre-determining the proper starting weight for each individual lifter and closely monitoring their gradual load increase as they progress through their workout program (Doyne, 1993). Having a proper flexibility component incorporated into the program also further helps to decrease the chance chronic injury from joint inflexibility.
Another risk in prepubescent strength training is a risk also common to inexperienced adult lifters, the problem of weight lifters blackout and hypertension. Inexperienced lifters have a tendency to subconsciously hold their breath when exerting a maximal force against an object. As lifters continue to hold their breathe and strain forcefully it is possible for the lack of oxygen coupled with an increased carbon dioxide level to force the body to knock itself unconscious to prevent further damage. Obviously if a person is lifting a weight and they pass out the resulting consequences of falling unconscious while holding weight above your head can be quite dangerous. There was no evidence of this occurring in any of the prepubescent subjects during bouts of weight lifting in any of the studies. (Sale, 1989)
The final risk looked at in regards to prepubescent strength training are the effects strength training has on individuals who have been diagnosed with either normal hypertension or sustained hypertension. Hypertension is blood pressure in excess of the normal range for a persons age and sex. It can be the dangerous result of an acute exercise bout in an unhealthy or untrained individual but usually returns to a normal level post exercise. Sustained hypertension on the other hand refers to a state of permanently elevated (and usually unsafe) blood pressure suffered by many individuals, even at rest. People who suffer from sustained hypertension must be medically supervised and dont really warrant attention for the purposes of this paper.
There is evidence that strength training, particularly strength training involving maximal weight, can directly contribute to increasing adult subjects normal blood pressure levels. (Ramsay et al, 1990) Studies have shown no correlation between prepubescent strength training and an increase in blood pressure. This is thought to be explained by the fact that prepubescent children have relatively clear and clean veins and arteries due to their limited (in terms of longevity) exposure to high fatty foods that clog the arteries and increase blood pressure. (Sale, 1989) However this is not to say that there is no chance of this occurring, prepubescent children need to be imparted with the proper knowledge of the fundamentals and safety aspects involved in strength training in order to prevent them from lifting too much weight and from holding their breath when lifting. It is also critical that each prepubescent child have a thorough physical performed by a doctor to ensure their health before they begin to lift.
RESULTS OF PREPUBESCENT STRENGTH TRAINING STUDIES
Six research studies involving prepubescent strength training were analyzed. Three out of the six studies included both females and males. All of the studies lasted a minimum of two months – ample time to develop a noticeable increase in overall strength. From these six studies, six different categories were compared with the emphasis obviously placed on whether or not there strength increases in the participating individuals. All six studies were able to statistically demonstrate noticeable strength increases. This evidence supports the underlying hypothesis of prepubescent strength training advocates that strength increases are and can be possible in a safe and knowledgeable environment.
CONCLUSIONS REGARDING PREPUBESCENT STRENGTH TRAINING
A review of the present scientific literature does indeed substantiate the risks of injury to the prepubescent athlete involved in strength training. However, the evidence shows that most of these injuries are not inherent to the actual strengthening process, and may be minimized by proper techniques and practices. In addition, data generated to date substantiates and infers significant that significant benefits may be obtained with strength training for the prepubescent athlete. My analysis of the strength training literature, both pro and con, has established the clear need for ongoing research into the effects that strength training has on the prepubescent athlete and the need for enhanced safety precautions necessary for improving the overall quality of current prepubescent strength training procedures.
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