There has been a lot of discussion recently about whether it’s safe and advisable for adolescents to perform structured exercise within a gym-based environment. If a personal trainer is working with a client between the age of 11 and 21, they will need to consider a variety of issues that might not be applicable to adult clients.
The concerns include:
The adolescent may start to put an excessive amount of force through their bones and muscles, which their bodies aren’t ready for.
This could potentially damage:
their growth plates, which at this stage of their development are still quite soft and underdeveloped;
- their muscles, which could rapidly increase in size and strength without being ready to transmit that force;
- their ligaments and tendons, which are often a few months behind the muscles in terms of growth and development.
Resistance training or other structured gym-based exercise could also affect the adolescent’s nutritional balance. This is because these exercises can increase the demand for muscles to absorb protein, which is needed to help repair the muscles, fibres and bones subjected to the stimulus of exercise.
If the muscles are utilising the protein more than the bones are, this could potentially lead to low-density bone mass, which could in turn increase the likelihood of osteoporosis in later life, or cause its early onset.
Some adolescents are already quite active at school and in out-of-school sports clubs, or simply through everyday activities such as running, cycling and playing sports in the park. A personal trainer should consider whether further gym-based activities will compliment their growth or adversely affect it.
Potential for injury
With the various types of weights and machinery available in a gym environment, there is always a risk of accident or injury, and this can be compounded by the fact that a younger person is still developing in maturity.
I a majority of cases the above issues can be avoided and positive gains can be found when training adolescents as long as the personal trainer monitors the adolescent’s rate of growth and prescribes exercise according to their ability/progression.
Monitoring the client and the environment
A gym can be made into a low-risk environment for adolescents, who want to train, by good instruction from a personal trainer, who can assess the stage of physical development and maturity the adolescent has reached and monitor the exercises that they are carrying out.
The three stages of adolescence
The three distinct stages of adolescence can be defined as:
Early adolescence 11-14
Mid adolescence 15-17
Late adolescence 18-21
With 11-14 year olds, who are going through puberty, there are cognitive changes and a quick increase in intelligence; 15-17 is a time of increased independence and experimentation; and 18-21 is when adolescents become more mature and start to make more personal and vocational decisions.
It’s important that a gym instructor understands not only the chronological age of an adolescent but also their biological age, in other words, how well developed they are physically for their age. In addition, adolescents will also have varying experience of exercise and the gym environment.
The benefits of exercise for adolescents
There is currently a growing rate of childhood and adolescent obesity in the UK. According to the World Health Organisation, there are approximately one million obese children under the age of 16 in the UK and it’s estimated that the prevalence of obesity in the under-16s will double by 2025.
If adolescents are not exercising in their own time, they could benefit from structured exercise supervised by a fitness instructor in a gym environment.
Additionally, adolescents will profit from the same positive benefits that adults get from exercise. These include:
- an increase in bone mineral density
- the increased ability of a muscle to contract and co-ordinate with other muscles in the group, as well as muscular endurance
- reduction in body fat
- improved body awareness and proprioception so they are less likely to injure themselves
Additionally, regular structured exercise can help with
- improved self esteem
- promotion of other healthy lifestyle choices, ie more likely to eat healthily, to drink less and to avoid smoking
- setting behavioural patterns that will take them into adulthood
Suitable training programmes for adolescents
When a fitness instructor is designing a training programme, it’s important that they engage with the adolescent by making the exercise fun. This may include devising game-orientated programmes that are more focused towards fun than competition.
The exercises should also be centered on using body weight exercises and movements that mirror every day activities, with the emphasis placed on using the correct technique. These might include:
- step ups
- press ups
- pull ups
Guidelines for training adolescents
Guidelines are three to five times a week, 20-30 minutes of continuous exercise, working at 55-90% of the individual’s maximum heart rate.
As an adolescent will have a less well-developed cardio-vascular system than an adult, they may not be able to train at a high intensity for the same length of time. They also have a reduced capacity to lose body heat and may not drink enough water, so to avoid overheating and dehydration, it’s important for a personal trainer to tailor the exercise accordingly. One option is to use an interval-based training method to give them time to recover and drink water in-between sessions, although they should not recruit the anaerobic system as it isn’t fully established until late adolescence.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, the guidelines for resistance training are one to three sets, with compound exercises followed by isolation exercises. The individual should only lift weights with which they can carry out at least 10 reps and they should rest for around one to two minutes between each set.
Guidelines from the British Association of Sport Exercise Science are that an adolescent should master a weight at 15 to 20 reps before progressing to 10 to 15 reps and finally six to 10. They should begin with single sets before progressing to two, three or four sets. Circuit training is a good option as it allows the adolescent to train to music and for rest periods to be naturally built into the exercise.
Flexibility training can be useful for the same reasons it is beneficial for adults, which is that it can:
- improve range of motion
- prevent injury
- improve performance
However, with the epiphyseal growth plates still developing and with ligaments and tendons not being as strong as they should be, a personal trainer should only promote static stretches of eight to 10 seconds for warm up and cool down, rather than developmental stretches.
Finally, it’s important for a personal trainer to appreciate that no matter how big or strong or mature an adolescent may appear, physiologically they are still developing and should not be trained like an adult. It’s always better to undershoot their ability than over shoot it.