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Fitness and Exercise in Youth

by Craig Coghlin, B.A., CPT, CSCS, ART® Provider, D.C. (cand.)
Empowerment Personal Training Services

Every young / teen person should be encouraged to participate in organized sports or in regular physical activities. The benefits of taking part in exercise have been well documented and include advantages in psychosocial functioning, physical improvements, and health-related gains. This article was written to address the importance of exercise, how to begin an exercise program, and what risks may be involved.

Am I at Risk for Injury?

Injuries are definitely a risk of participating in sport and exercise. This risk obviously changes depending on the activity you choose. For example, someone who participates in contact sports such as hockey or football has a greater chance of being injured than someone who plays tennis. Likewise, participating in an exercise program that may include anything from weight training to running to vigorous plyometrics or even simply walking could carry with it some inherent risk of injury.

One of the main risks you may hear about in taking part in a weight-training program in youth is the susceptibility of your bones to injury. While you grow there are areas on your bone called ‘growth plates’ which are basically spots where cartilage is located, which allows the bone to become bigger and stronger before it completely ossifies and stops growing. Repetitive overstressing (key here is OVER stressing) may injure this area of the bone and have painful consequences, which is why I will stress that if you experience ANY abnormal pains while participating in sports or exercise please consult a qualified health professional. But this was not meant to scare anyone away from resistance training! Benefits have been noted in children as young as SIX years old who have participated in a supervised resistance training program!

What Should I Remember Before Getting Started?

In order to enter into a program of physical exercise, one must first determine if they have the motor skills to do the exercises. They must have the cognitive capacity to understand the exercise and how to safely perform it, and they must be able to quickly develop proper motor patterns. Some young children cannot focus on highly structured programs, thus a more dynamically changing program with more aspects of ‘play’ must be used.

Before anyone engages in a program of physical fitness, certain things should be screened by a health professional including: family history of cardiac abnormalities, any congenital or developmental disorders, a survey of nutritional habits, any past injuries, flexibility, strength, speed, agility, balance and proprioceptive abilities. By ensuring there are no inherent health issues, a professional can confidently help in prescribing a program of fitness for any beginner.

What Are Some Good Things That Could Occur?

It is important to remember the natural physiological responses that occur during puberty including changes in body composition, height, balance, speed, power, and strength. These will all affect a young person’s response to an exercise program.

Strength training in youth was once thought to be a waste of time due to the lower amount of circulating testosterone levels. This myth has been dispelled through many studies that have found children participating in structured resistance training programs have made gains in terms of muscular strength. Interestingly enough this increase in strength was not accompanied by an increase in muscle size. They propose therefore that the increase in strength has a lot to do with improved neural adaptation to the motor patterns.

It was also once thought that participating in sport and exercise beginning at a young age would stunt growth and alter normal development. This has also been pushed aside as it has been found that young athletes have similar growth and development as their less active counterparts. Any size difference that may be noted might just be a reflection of different height requirements for a certain sport. Weight though can be altered through participation in sport. Continuously strenuous activities can have an affect on the body fat of the participant.

Another benefit that has been well established is the effect of exercise on bone density. Especially in weight bearing activities, bone mineral content has been shown to increase through the stresses that are put through the body during exercise. This level of bone mineral content has also been shown to be an important predictor of bone strength into adulthood. Yet there is a down side associated here, and that is with the female athlete. With excessive training at a young age, females can either delay or become irregular in their menstrual cycle, attain disordered eating habits, and subsequently their bone density becomes decreased; this is a disorder known as the “female triad” and must be brought to the attention of the family physician. On the topic of puberty, it must also be noted that many changes will occur during this transitional period (much too lengthy to discuss here), so if any abnormalities are noted, whether in males or females, you should consult a health professional as soon as possible

But What if I Want to Get HUGE? Can I Start Bodybuilding?

Muscle mass is a big topic when it comes to young people wanting to get started in an exercise program. Usually muscle growth is associated with heavy resistance training exercises, but in prepubescent boys this does not occur, or at least, occurs to a much lesser extent because they have much lower circulating levels of testosterone.

Also, the type of muscle fibres cannot be altered through certain types of training. The physiological system dominant in certain types of exercise can become more efficient, but you cannot turn a slow twitch muscle fibre (good for long periods of time at a low load) into a fast twitch muscle fibre (good for a short burst of power). There may be instances noted in the literature of a modest change in fibre type, but for the intents of this article, it is best to assume that you will not be able to change your fibre type! It’s also important to remember that as you grow, there will be natural increases in your muscle mass. For example, when you are born you are approximately 25% muscle but by the time you reach adulthood, you will be about 40% muscle. This will obviously be affected by genetics, hormones, and exercise habits.

What are Some Guidelines for Age Groups?

If you are looking to begin a program of exercise or starting sport for the first time, it’s always a good idea to consult with a health professional first so he/she can perform tests similar to those mentioned earlier. Depending on your age, there are different things you could focus on to properly and safely progress through a program:

Less than 7 years
? Use basic exercises with little or no weight
? Have a professional teach the basics of a program session
? Focus on using perfect technique
? Use body weight exercises, partner drills, or low resistance

8-10 years old
? Gradually progress the difficulty of the exercises
? Maintain perfect technique always
? Keep the exercises simple
? Slowly add resistance to exercises

11-13 years old
? Teach all the basic exercise techniques
? Continue progressing the load
? Begin adding more complex exercises with little or no load

14-15 years old
? Begin more advanced training exercises
? Focus on sport specific components
? Continue perfect technique
? Increase load in exercises

16 years or older
? Enter into low level adult programs
? Continue emphasis on perfect technique
? Teach proper self progression

It is very important to urge our children to increase their activity levels. As we are all becoming more aware of the importance of exercise in older age, it is important to realize that this begins with habits we learn as children. Today’s youth spend far too much time in front of the computer or television and playing video games. Couple this with poor eating habits and it becomes a recipe for poor health later in life. Exercise and sport is supposed to be a fun and safe activity. If the above recommendations are followed, a child will be able to increase his/her health greatly.

About the Author: Craig Coghlin, B.A., CPT, CSCS, ART® Provider, D.C. (candidate) is currently the owner of Empowerment Personal Training Services based out of Toronto. He is a Clinical Intern at the Canadian Memorial Chiropractic College in Toronto, Ontario and will complete his doctorate of chiropractic in June 2007. Craig has been a personal trainer for over five years and a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist for three years. In this time he has worked with all types of clients from beginners to professional athletes. If you have any questions or comments, please email him at


Baechle, T.; Earle, R., Eds. Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Second Edition. Human Kinetics. Champaign, IL. 2000.

Birrer, R.; Griesemer, B.; Cataletto, M. Pediatric Sports Medicine for Primary Care. Lippincott Williams & Wilkins. Philadelphia, PA. 2002.

Christensen, K. The American Chiropractor. Children and rehabilitation. Volume 24, Issue 6, 2002.

Sullivan, J.; Anderson, S., Eds. Care of the Young Athlete. American Academy of Orthopaedic Sugeons. American Academy of Pediatrics. 2000.

Wilmore, J.; Costill, D. Physiology of Sport and Exercise. Second Edition. Human Kinetics. Champaign, IL. 1999.

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