England head coach Eddie Jones has been a welcome addition to the Six Nations mix especially as far as the media are concerned with his penchant for producing headline that write themsevles.
His comments almost always generate a reaction and take the focus off his players and so was the case with his recent claim that he had conjured a ‘30%’ increase in the fitness of his squad in the short time he had been in charge.
While it is hard to believe that he could inspire such an improvement with limited access to his players, especially when those players are full-time professionals dedicated to that same task on a daily basis, it did spark a fresh debate about the balance between the gym and the training field.
Is the modern game too preoccupied with power? Are young players putting themselves at risk?
It is a hot topic not only at the elite end of the game but every level with former England international and now respected TV analyst Austin Healey urging young players to forgo weight training insisting that it was, “a waste of time and you are only going to hurt yourself and not develop”.
Healey went on to underline his belief that doing weights before your body had developed properly could have a detrimental impact on young players who he insisted were better using exercises like yoga to improve strength.
His comments, not for the first time, sparked an intense debate on social media where his critics slammed his ‘ridiculous’ views and ‘opinionated rubbish’ that they claimed had no basis in fact.
So what is the truth? I do not claim to be an expert on the subject – just a concerned parent – and the wealth of information out there is certainly confusing for anyone not skilled in the area of sports science.
Firstly, it is important not to confuse strength training with bodybuilding, where the focus is on defined musculature, or power lifting, competitive weight lifting.
The concern of many stems from the thought of young players being encouraged to bulk up to the point where they appear to struggle to move but this is of course an extreme example of the potential results of an intense weight training programme.
Free weights are a long-used and valuable strength training tool but research also illustrates that there are also benefits to be had by lifting relatively small weights or even just your own body weight.
The UKSCA, the professional body for strength and conditioning in the UK, that is supported by UK Sport, the government organisation focused on the development of sport, published their ‘Position Statement: Youth Resistance Training’ in 2012.
That document drew on existing research and the knowledge of experts in paediatric exercise science, physical education, elite sport, and sports medicine.
The statement makes fascinating reading for those interested in the subject and specifically the development of young athletes be they coaches, parents or the players themselves.
It addresses a widely-held belief that the adoption of a weight lifting programme in formative years can stunt growth and explains that, in their opinion, the opposite is true.
According to the UKSCA, scientific research indicates that, ‘the mechanical stress placed on the developing growth plates from resistance exercise, or high strain eliciting sports such as weightlifting, are actually beneficial for bone formation and growth’.
In summary, the UKSCA states that ‘a compelling body of scientific evidence supports participation in well-designed youth resistance training programmes that are supervised and instructed by qualified professionals.’
It goes on to state that ‘an appropriately designed resistance training programme can elicit noticeable improvements in motor skills, and consequently may positively enhance sports performance’.
The UKSCA also highlights that such training can have wider health benefits and that ‘well designed resistance training programmes are not only safe for young athletes but may also reduce sports-related injuries’.
It is certainly worth emphasising the need for expert guidance and supervision and what the UKSCA label ‘logical progressions’ and their insistence that ‘training volume and intensity should never be increased at the expense of technical competency’.
The UKSCA is not the only organisation that advocates strength training with the National Health Service (NHS) recommending not only aerobic exercise but ‘exercises to strengthen bones and muscles’.
Within the ‘Physical activity guidelines for children and young people’ they detail how muscle strength is necessary for daily activities, and ‘to build and maintain strong bones, regulate blood sugar and blood pressure, and help maintain a healthy weight’.
It goes on to explain that muscle-strengthening activities are those that ‘require them to lift their own body weight or work against a resistance, such as lifting a weight’.
Among the examples of muscle-strengthening activities for young people listed are ‘resistance exercises with exercise bands, weight machines or hand-held weights.’
The advice offered also includes bone-strengthening activities that ‘promote bone growth and strength’ and again these include ‘work against a resistance’ and ‘weight training’.
It is also worth noting that while pre-teens and teenagers may be inspired by the possibility of transforming their physical appearance through weight training, adolescents’ bodies are not able to build significant muscle mass before puberty.
But that is not to say they cannot benefit from resistance training. It is clear that play and exercise will still work the muscles harder than when at rest and experts tell us that this in turn will make muscles both stronger and more efficient.
Research also indicates that resistance training can also improve a child’s own awareness of their body and improve balance and control which should also result in increased performance.
The vast amount of research on the subject is as daunting as the prospect of England’s Manu Tuilagi on the charge towards you and maybe just as difficult to tackle – unless you have a specialism in sports science.
If you are convinced that a strength training programme is the key to the development of your child be they pre-teen or teen, the best advice is to seek specialist advice.
UKSCA Position Statement: Youth Resistance Training
Physical activity guidelines for children and young people