Strength Training for All Teenagers

By Wayne L. Wescott, Ph.D

Teenage strength trainingWe have learned that there are essentially two types of teenagers – those who enthusiastically participate in sports programs and those who have little interest in physical activities. Be assured that the vast majority of teenage boys and girls remain firmly entrenched in the latter category.

Both groups of teenagers need to do regular strength training, but for different purposes. Athletes typically use some muscle groups much more than other muscle groups, setting up muscle imbalances that frequently lead to sport-specific injuries. Generally speaking, teenage athletes benefit most from a comprehensive program of strength exercise that effectively addresses all of their major muscles, thereby eliminating weak links in their musculoskeletal system and reducing the risk of overuse/imbalance injuries. We recommend a combination of free-weight and machine exercises that include single-joint actions.

We encourage coaches to bring their teams to our exercise center during the off-seasons. We train the athletes on a Tuesday-Thursday or Monday-Wednesday-Friday schedule, between 3 to 4p.m., which is typically a low-use time (in commercial gyms).

As you might guess, teaching strength training to enthusiastic athletes is much easier than motivating sedentary secondary school students to start a strength-training program. Teenagers who are under-fit or overweight seem to be embarrassed about exercising in a fitness facility. Yet these are the youngsters who have the most to gain from strength training, so we must develop programs that encourage their participation.

We offer two such programs that have proved successful with younger teenagers. The more popular teen fitness program incorporates a full circuit of weight-stack machines (single and multiple-muscle exercises), and features both adult and older teen instructors. This 10-week class typically consists of 10 to 15 boys and girls, and meets twice a week from 3 p.m. to 4 p.m.

Although discipline is seldom a problem, we emphasize more social interaction among the teenagers in the non-athlete classes to make the program more enjoyable. Our more recent youth fitness endeavor was a carefully designed and closely supervised program for instructing young teenagers in the proper performance of free-weight exercises. This class met once a week (Saturday mornings) in the free-weight facility, and was well received by both participants and their parents.

In both programs, the instructional staff certifies teenagers who demonstrate acceptable levels of competence, confidence, manners and maturity to use the facilities and equipment on their own after completing their classes. Contrary to our cautious expectations, we have experienced essentially no problems or member complaints regarding our teen strength-training programs or the graduates who have become respectful and respected fellow exercisers in our fitness center. Keep in mind that your teenage program participants today will be your adult members tomorrow, so it makes sense to prepare them properly for a lifetime of physical activity.

Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., Director of Exercise Science at Quincy College is co-author of two books on youth strength training. He wrote this column with Cynthia Long, the wellness director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA for Club Industry magazine in October, 2001.

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