I am often asked the question, “how young is too young to start off -ice training?” This is, without a doubt, one of the most debated topics among Ontario minor hockey parents, coaches and trainers and there are many different opinions on the subject. Some people believe that children have no business following strength and conditioning programs until they are at least in high school, while others feel that children should start training as young as possible to get ahead of their peers. There are also those individuals who hold the opinion that, although children should begin training at a young age, they should avoid weights so as not to stunt their growth. I am writing this blog/article to provide an answer that includes the beliefs of Canada’s top organizations in exercise science and sport: CSEP (Canadian Society of Exercise Physiology), NCCP (National Coaching Certification Program) and the CS4L LTADP (Canadian Sport for Life Long Term Athlete Development Plan).
I will begin with a comment about weights and children: resistance training is safe and effective in developing strong, healthy, active children from a young age.
The danger associated with growth plate damage is dependent on exercise technique and intensity. Poor technique puts anyone at an increased risk of injury, irrespective of age. Furthermore, some children lack the maturity and focus to ensure they are always maintaining proper technique, thus, they should not undergo resistance training programs without direction and supervision from qualified health care professional. I believe that many people are misinformed about the issue of intensity. It is wrong to label “weights” as the culprit when many weight exercises are less intense than their body weight equivalents. For example, a bench press with very light dumbbells is far less intense than a proper push-up. Weight training is safe as long as technique is correct and the intensity is appropriate, such that the athlete can perform the specified number of sets and reps without sacrificing technique.
So how young is too young? CSEP’s positioning stand states that there is “no minimum age for resistance training for children.” The NCCP has a chart that outlines what areas should be emphasized and avoided at different ages. The chart begins at age 6, at which age there are certain attributes that are more receptive than others. In addition, the CS4L LTADP has a category from 6-9 years, known as the “FUNdamentals stage” This is the stage in which children are recommended to start training, making sure to focus on certain areas that are the most trainable for that stage of development.
As you can see, the research suggests that 6 years of age is appropriate to begin training. However, I do not completely agree. To me, it depends on a number of important factors. I believe that it is appropriate to begin training 6 year olds if they are motivated and want to train. If we train young athletes who do not really want to train, then I believe that we might be doing more long-term damage than good. Also, keep in mind that certain athletic and fitness characteristics are more trainable at certain ages of physiological development, which means that a child can start training very young, but it is important to train the right characteristics for their developmental age. This will ensure safety and that the athlete is getting the most benefit out of his/her training program.
Finally, it is very important to obtain quality instruction from a Professional who has knowledge and experience working with children. Children are not simply small versions of adults and should not be trained in the same way. Thus, I only recommend beginning training at 6 years of age if the child WANTS to train, ENJOYS training and if the program is being carried out by a knowledgeable professional.