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  • Writer's pictureMatchfit Football

What Age Is It Safe For Youth Footballers To Start S&C Training?

Updated: 3 days ago


Especially amongst football parents, this is a really common question and concern.


As you might be aware, there’s a fair few myths swirling around on this topic.


And in my experience, they’re often reinforced with anecdotes from people who aren't qualified to be giving others their 2 cents.


So, I thought a good place to start with this one would be to debunk some of these myths and misconceptions.


However, this is going to be fairly long…


So I’m going to summarise the key takeaways now, and if you want to keep on reading to get more details, you have the option.


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To summarise:


  • There’s no universal age at which youth athletes are allowed to start strength training.


  • The concerns around strength training in youth players all evolve around: safe training technique, appropriate load/volume/exercise selection (the same as with adults, it’s just that an unsupervised child who is a beginner and struggles to follow instructions is more likely to injure themselves.)


  • Many studies have been done which reflect that, as long as these criteria are met, strength training is perfectly safe and beneficial for youth footballers. 


  • It doesn’t stunt growth.


  • It won’t make you slow.


  • Growth plate damage is only a risk if the same criteria above are not met, and this risk is not unique to strength training. You could equally suffer growth plate damage from playing football or any other sport.


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Want to dig deeper?


Let’s go!


(For simplicity I’ve added all relevant references to research to the bottom of the article.)


Research suggests that children as young as 7 or 8 can safely engage in resistance training as long as exercises are performed with proper technique, match the athletes capability and are performed with appropriate loads, volumes and adequate rest.


The NSCA's (National Strength & Conditioning Association) position statement on youth resistance training also emphasises the importance of focusing on bodyweight exercises, coordination, balance and flexibility in younger athletes, again with an emphasis on proper technique.


Numerous studies have investigated the effects of resistance training on children and adolescents. 


For instance, a systematic review and meta-analysis published in the British Journal of Sports Medicine analysed 60 studies involving over 4,000 participants and concluded that resistance training is safe and effective for youth athletes when the criteria I mentioned previously are met.



Now, onto debunking the myths…


(#5 is a big one)


Myth #1: Strength training stunts growth


Research has consistently shown that properly supervised strength training does not negatively affect growth and maturation in children and adolescents. 


So, where could this myth have come from?


Most likely the lack of research into this topic until the 1980’s/90’s.


The lack of empirical evidence available before then may have contributed to uncertainty and speculation about the potential risks of strength training on growth in youth athletes amongst parents and coaches, which has simply continued to be passed down without awareness of the new research.


What may also have contributed to this belief over the years is the fact that Olympic weightlifters often appear to be of shorter stature, triggering the belief that strength training from a young age must have stunted the growth of these athletes…


In reality, the reason for the prevelance of shorter lifters over taller lifters is that they have less distance to cover when moving a heavy weight from the floor to an overhead position. 


Weight lifting doesn’t lead to being short, being short is an advantage for weightlifters. 


On a fundamental level, this makes sense. 


Lifting is moving weight up and down, so the more distance involved, the harder that is, giving shorter lifters a natural advantage over taller lifters when competing to reach the highest level.


Myth #2: Resistance training can increase injuries


Numerous studies have demonstrated the safety and efficacy of resistance training for youth athletes (again when the criteria I covered at the start are met).


In fact, when performed with proper technique, resistance training will enhance the resilience of muscles, tendons, ligaments and bones, thereby decreasing the likelihood of sports-related injuries in a youth footballer.


The key here is when performed with proper technique and load, so I strongly advise that every parent of a young player supervises them when they are following any strength-based programme.


If you leave them to it and they struggle to follow instructions and have little experience, inherently the risk of injury is going to be increased. 


Myth #3: Youth footballers should just play football


The youth physical development model (shown below), as discussed by Lloyd and Oliver (2012) in the Strength and Conditioning Journal, emphasises the importance of incorporating resistance training into comprehensive training programmes for both male and female young athletes who have the ambition of reaching an elite level.


It also outlines the types of training that can be implemented and in what amount in related to age.



Research also suggests that exercise variation and the inclusion of S&C training, may even be the key to optimising athletic development and performance of youth athletes in their chosen sport. 


We can see in the graphic below how athletes who incorporated strength and conditioning activities alongside alongside playing their sport reached a higher level of athleticism by adulthood, compared to those who played sport alone.


It also highlights how the earlier the age that S&C activities are introduced, the higher the peak level of athleticism reached by adulthood can be.


Myth #4: Strength training makes players bulky and slow


Resistance training programmes for youth athletes typically involve low to moderate loads and higher repetitions, which are unlikely to result in significant muscle hypertrophy or bulkiness.


Research has also shown that (when programmed properly) resistance training can improve speed, agility and power in youth athletes.  


…On a side note, playing football is also a naturally slimming activity, and a common issue amongst youth footballers is not consuming enough calories.


All of these factors make it both difficult and unlikely that a youth player following a properly structured S&C training plan is going to become bulky or slow.


...Plus if they did, there’s certainly a number of ways in which it could be easily and quickly addressed by an S&C coach.


Myth #5: Strength training damages the growth plate


The growth plate is a region of cartilage near the ends of long bones where growth occurs. 


While strength training itself doesn't directly target the growth plate, there are several potential mechanisms through which it could be damaged if not performed properly.


However, like I said before, you could equally cause growth plate damage through participating in any other physical activity or sport…


…so it’s not a risk which is unique and only going to be caused by strength training.


What are some potential causes of growth plate damage?


Excessive Loading: 


Repeatedly applying excessive weight or resistance during strength training exercises which the body is not prepared for can subject the bones, joints and growth plates to high levels of stress. 


This can potentially exceed the tolerance of the growth plate and lead to damage.


Improper Technique: 


Performing strength training exercises with poor form or technique can place uneven or abnormal stress on bones and joints, also increasing the risk of injury to surrounding structures such as the growth plate. 


But again, it’s highly unlikely that a youth athlete is going to be lifting heavy weights which are way beyond their capabilities when following a well structured programme. 


They’ll also already be absorbing force many times their own bodyweight in awkward positions out on the pitch, which arguably poses an equal or even greater ongoing risk every time they play. 


Overuse: 


Repeated and excessive stress on the same bones and joints without adequate rest and recovery can contribute to overuse injuries, including those involving the growth plate where it could be subject to cumulative microtraumas.


Rapid Progression: 


Progressing too quickly or aggressively in strength training programmes without allowing sufficient adaptation and recovery time can increase the risk of injury, again including growth plate injuries. 


Gradual progression and periodisation is the key to safe and effective training whether you're a youth or senior player.


Pre-existing Conditions: 


Finally, certain factors, such as skeletal immaturity, underlying musculoskeletal disorders, or hormonal imbalances, may predispose individuals to growth plate injuries, so parents of these players should exercise extra caution and seek the advice of their local GP before starting a new strength-based plan.


So again to summarise, the key takeaways and concerns around strength training in youth players all evolve around:


  • Safe training technique

  • Appropriate load/volume/exercise selection

  • Supervision


I hope my breakdown was easy to follow and that you found it helpful.


Click the image below if you'd like a football-specific S&C programme that your son or daughter can follow from home.



As ever, pass it on to someone who you feel may benefit so that they don’t get sucked into the myths and know what to look out for!


If you have any questions post them below.


Your coach,


James


P.S As promised, here are the references you might want to check out:  


Behringer, M., Vom Heede, A., Matthews, M., & Mester, J. (2010). Effects of strength training on motor performance skills in children and adolescents: a meta-analysis. Pediatric Exercise Science, 22(3), 467-490.


Faigenbaum, A. D., & Myer, G. D. (2010). Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44(1), 56-63.


Faigenbaum, A. D., Lloyd, R. S., MacDonald, J., & Myer, G. D. (2016). Citius, Altius, Fortius: beneficial effects of resistance training for young athletes: narrative review. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 50(1), 3-7.


Granacher, U., Lesinski, M., Büsch, D., Muehlbauer, T., Prieske, O., Puta, C., ... & Behm, D. G. (2016). Effects of resistance training in youth athletes on muscular fitness and athletic performance: a conceptual model for long-term athlete development. Frontiers in Physiology, 7, 164.


Keiner, M., Sander, A., Wirth, K., Schmidtbleicher, D., & Hartmann, H. (2013). Strength performance in youth: Trainability of adolescents and children in the back and front squats. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27(2), 357-362.


Lloyd, R. S., & Oliver, J. L. (2012). The youth physical development model: A new approach to long-term athletic development. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 34(3), 61-72.


Malina, R. M. (2006). Weight training in youth-growth, maturation, and safety: an evidence-based review. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 16(6), 478-487.


Micheli, L. J., & Klein, J. D. (1992). The effects of strength training and detraining on children. Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine, 2(2), 99-104.


Myer, G. D., Faigenbaum, A. D., Chu, D. A., Falkel, J., Ford, K. R., Best, T. M., & Hewett, T. E. (2011). Integrative training for children and adolescents: techniques and practices for reducing sports-related injuries and enhancing athletic performance. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 33(3), 56-67.

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