For those wanting to pursue a profession as an elite athlete, it is common knowledge that you should start training at an early age, but how early is too early? Should a child focus on one sporting activity? Is it safe for children to train with weights? What is the best age to start regular participation in conditioning activities?
Should a child focus on only one sport?
There is a critical importance of exposing children to a variety of sports at levels consistent with their abilities and interests.1
“Children who specialise early (eg, prior to maturation) in a single sport may execute less age-appropriate sports skills, especially when they do not participate in as much unstructured free play as their peers.”2
A diversity of sports in childhood optimises the opportunities in a range of year-round sports seasons, thus maximise their health, fitness, and sports performance.
Integrative Neuromuscular Training
Programming of physical conditioning involves an Integrative Neuromuscular Training (INT) that integrates fundamental movements and specific exercises. It is a specialised physical training with a combination of strength and conditioning, performance enhancement and injury prevention. INT is a conceptual training program designed to enhance health and skill of physical fitness.2 A figure below describes the types of physical training and how the INT is involved.
An individual should have both health-related physical fitness and skill-related physical fitness, not one or the other if they are wanting to progress as an elite athlete. In INT children and adolescents learn to master the basic motor skills, improves movement mechanics, and progress with proper recovery intervals.
What is training age?
“Training age relates to the length of time from initiation of regular fitness training or INT until the present time. For example, youth who begin INT at an earlier age will have a greater training age relative to their chronological age when compared to their peers who start training later.”2
“It should also be noted that youth who initiate improper or inconsistent training may not progress in training age or reap the desired benefits.” 2
Factors that may contribute to sport-related injuries in the youth: 2
- Previous injury (especially if you do not follow-up on rehabilitation)
- Muscular imbalance (e.g. rotation in your pelvis, causing one leg to appear shorter)
- Nutritional deficiencies (e.g. missing meals)
- Improper equipment (e.g. worn-out footwear)
- Poor physical fitness (e.g. decreased muscular strength and altered fundamental movement skills)
Strength & power training
Safe and effective training methods for post-puberty in order to develop muscular strength and power include2:
- Resistance training exercises (e.g. squatting, deadlifting, pressing and pulling)
- Weightlifting movements (e.g. clean and jerk, and snatch)
- Advanced Plyometrics (also known as “jump training” in which muscles exert maximum force in short intervals of time)
The optimal time to start and progress programming of physical conditioning is at pre-adolescence, which refers to children who have not yet developed secondary sex characteristics.
“It is suggested that integrative neuromuscular training initiated in pre-adolescence and maintained into adolescence will maximise training age and the potential to achieve optimal adulthood motor capacity.” 2
Children are defined as the age up to approximately 11 years in females or 13 years in males; adolescents refer to the approximate ages of 12 to 18 years in females and 14 to 18 years in males.
“Youth who are not exposed to environments that enhance motor skill development are susceptible to a regression of their training age” 3 This regression can be observed in extended breaks in training due to periods of injury, school holidays, or even an inactive lifestyle may either set the young athlete back in training age or in extreme cases back to near zero.
The initiation of INT early in youth can help increase training age that is vital for children and adolescents whose motor capabilities are highly capable of being moulded and very responsive to training.2 INT provides the post-pubertal phase an opportunity to build on existing levels of health- and skill-related fitness, and mitigate sport-related injury.
1.Valovich McLeod TC, Decoster LC, Loud KJ, Micheli LJ, Parker JT, Sandrey MA, White C (2011). National Athletic Trainers’ Association position statement: prevention of pediatric overuse injuries. J Athl Train, 46(2):206-20.
2.Myer, G. D., Lloyd, R. S., Brent, J. L., & Faigenbaum, A. D. (2013). How Young is “Too Young” to Start Training? ACSM’s Health & Fitness Journal, 17(5), 14–23. http://doi.org/10.1249/FIT.0b013e3182a06c59
3.Faigenbaum AD, Farrel A, Fabiano M, Radler T, Naclerio F, Ratamess NA, Kang J, Myer GD (2013). Effects of Detraining following Integrative Neuromuscular Training on Fitness Performance in Children. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. In Press.