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Resistance Training for Young Tennis Players

June 7, 2004 10:11 AM

By Jim Brown, Ph.D., Executive Editor, Sports Performance Journal (athletesperformance.com)

One of the most frequent questions parents of tennis players ask is, “When should my child start lifting weights?” There might be some confusion regarding the concepts of weight lifting, strength training, and resistance training, but their basic concerns are understandable — when should kids begin a program and what kinds of exercises should they do.

External Loading vs. Body Weight Exercises
“You first have to distinguish between external loading (lifting weights, for example) and body weight exercises,” says Joshua Aycock, a performance specialist at Athletes’ Performance in Phoenix.“It is best to hold off on true external loading using dumbbells, barbells, and resistance training equipment until the child is at least ten or twelve years old. Before that, successful programs should be designed around a few basic exercises, such as push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, and lunges. Playground or gymnastics apparatus provide the type of equipment they can climb on, jump over, or hang from. Those types of activities should be the primary focus of a strength training program for young athletes. Even adolescents or adults should begin with body weight exercises prior to lifting weights.”

Common Mistakes
The most common mistake seen in resistance training programs for young athletes is not giving them an opportunity to do quality work and, at the same time, to be successful. It doesn’t do any good for a child to do 30 pushups if the quality (technique) is not there.

“One of the things we do at Athletes’ Performance to ensure quality and success,” says Aycock, “is to stack telephone books under the a player’s chest and to have him or her do push-ups. They might start with three sets of five or three sets of ten. When they can complete the sets, I take one phone book away, which requires a lower push-up and places a greater load on the muscles being exercised. This gives the person a chance to be successful and to do the push-up using the correct technique. If you allow poor quality early on, it will be hard to change the pattern later.”

Resistance programs for children should not just be adult programs that have been scaled down. The objectives, physical capacities, and emotional characteristics of children are different, and the methods of training should be different. There has to be a progressive approach that changes as a person gets older. Aycock says that even though he might introduce them to some degree of external resistance (a bench press using a bar or dumbbells, for example), the focus will still be on body weight. The goal is not to load the muscles so much as it is to get them comfortable with the idea and to use the right technique. Aycock uses medicine balls as a method of external resistance because they offer a variety of movement options.

Whatever the activities in a resistance program for children, two or three times a week is enough. An organized strength training session shouldn’t last more than 30 minutes. Again, focus on fun and quality. Keep a chart to monitor progress and keep the kids interested. If they have a good chance of attaining their goals, they are more likely to come back and do it again.

Finally, before allowing a child to enroll in a resistance training program, make sure that he or she is mature enough to follow directions, use the correct technique, and demonstrate the ability to stick with the program long enough to make a difference. Some children may be physically ready, but not have the emotional maturity to participate in a meaningful way.

ACSM Guidelines
The American College of Sports Medicine has made some recommendations regarding children and resistance/strength training. Following are the highlights of those recommendations.

  • Children who are old enough to participate in organized sports are ready for some type of resistance training program.
  • The goal of youth resistance training is to improve muscular and skeletal strength through a variety of safe, effective, and fun methods.
  • Strength training should be one part of a well-rounded fitness program that also includes endurance, flexibility, and agility exercises.
  • Youth strength training programs should be closely supervised by knowledgeable instructors who understand the uniqueness of children.
  • The exercise environment should be safe and free of hazards.
  • Children should receive instruction regarding proper exercise technique.
  • Strength training with maximal weights is not recommended because of the potential for injuries.
  • The overriding emphasis should be on proper technique and safety — not on how much weight can be lifted.

© 2004 HMS Publishing, Inc.
Jim Brown will be contributing new content to this site on a monthly basis. If you have a question for Dr. Brown please feel free to email him at




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