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Is Bulking Up Bad? How Young Athletes Can Safely Build Muscle Mass to Power Performance

Written by: Ashley Antle

In the world of sports, muscles matter. They are the force behind strength, power and endurance. Muscles play a role in mobility, stability, circulation, respiration, temperature regulation and even injury prevention. Healthy, well-conditioned muscles can translate to better athletic performance.

But what is the healthiest way for young competitors to muscle up? If you are raising an athlete, chances are you’ve heard a coach tell your child to do just that. Bulk up. Gain weight. Get stronger. Improve your power.

The natural inclination of any driven young athlete can be to hit the weight room and add calories to pack on the pounds. But it’s not that cut and dry.

“When we tell a 14-year-old to bulk up, they’re immediately going to think that they need to start lifting heavier and heavier weights,” said Jacky Arrow, PT, DPT, SCS, COMT, Cook Children’s clinical coordinator of sports rehab. “They may start trying things they have seen others doing and that they may not really know how to do. Weightlifting is great, but it could lead to issues and injuries if it isn’t done appropriately, and done with supervision and the right technique.”

All Things Are Not Equal

Muscles aren’t one size fits all. Every sport and what it requires of the athlete and their body size, shape and structure is different. What football demands of a future Division-1 lineman isn’t the same as what baseball demands of a pitcher, or soccer demands of a goalie, or tennis demands of a pro.

“There’s an important need in all sports for a general level of physical preparedness,” said Savana Turner, ATC, a certified athletic trainer at Cook Children’s. “We need to move well, have good mobility in our joints, have good strength and good flexibility. Then, when we’re getting into the higher levels of sports, a sprinter needs a different level of power than maybe a baseball pitcher. They need to be working on very differentiated programs that have the same base level, but can be specialized more into strength versus power versus endurance, depending on what their sport requires.”

Things like age and genetics also factor into a kid’s ability to bulk up. A child’s body can only do so much until it reaches a certain maturity. While kids and teens can improve their performance in a given sport by learning how to most effectively use the muscles they have, it isn’t until they hit puberty that they can see a change in muscular size associated with their strength programming.

“No scientific evidence indicates that participation in a supervised resistance training program will stunt the growth of children or damage developing growth plates,” said Nicole Pitts, D.O., a sports medicine physician at Cook Children’s-Prosper. “Although there is no evidence-based minimum age for participation in a youth resistance training program, all participants should be able to accept directions and follow safety rules. Generally, when youth are ready for sports participation, approximately ages 7 or 8, they are ready for some type of resistance training as part of a well-rounded fitness program. Then, I would say, they can progress to heavier weight around puberty but should wait to do powerlifting or Olympic lifting until they reach skeletal maturity.”

For some, making a big jump in size just isn’t in the cards.

“Some kids are just not going to get big,” said Carolyn Mullins, PT, rehab services manager at Cook Children’s Medical Center. “It’s not in their genetic makeup, and they need to keep those things in mind and be safe about choices that they’re making. You can push and push but if your body’s not built to be a lineman, then your body just isn’t built to be a lineman, and there is not a safe way to do it.”

Before your athlete jumps into the weight room or adopts a diet plan, the most important thing to have in place is supervision. Lean on professionals to design a program that is appropriate for your child and considers their age, progression through puberty, body type and sport.

Know the end game, too, be it increased velocity for the pitcher or girth for the lineman. Is the goal to add weight or gain muscle? What is the definition of “bulking up” for your coach, trainer and sport? Are you looking for more upper body strength or lower body strength, and why? Understanding what you are trying to accomplish and having a plan supervised by a professional will help you reach your goal while minimizing your risk.

The Building Blocks for Bulk

You need three things to build muscle.

●     Strength and resistance exercises that challenge the muscle.

●     A well-balanced diet that includes muscle-feeding protein.

●     Time for muscle recovery and rest so that muscle fibers can rebuild, making you less prone to injury.

Dr. Pitts, who knows a thing or two about the needs of elite athletes as a former professional tennis player, recommends starting your muscle-building journey by using your own body weight as resistance. Once you’ve mastered that, you can progress to very light resistance using lower weights with high repetitions before puberty. As you get older, you can increase both of these.

A good muscle-building program will include both training and nutrition. Without adequate nutrition, you don’t have the building blocks to increase muscle strength and size. But the right nutrition without the right training and practice won’t get the job done either.

Food is Fuel

All calories are not equal when it comes to a well-balanced diet that promotes muscle growth. A diet full of sugary drinks, junk foods and fast food may help you pack on the pounds, but it can lead to fatigue and poor performance, even for kids who seem to have an endless well of energy.

“Our society has been greatly impacted by childhood and adult obesity, so general advice to ‘gain weight and bulk up’ can be very challenging to navigate,” said Rachel Hill, RD, CSO, LD, CNSC, a registered dietitian at Cook Children’s Medical Center. “Being an active teen does not eliminate the risk that comes with a weight that is too heavy for the child’s frame or eating a diet that far exceeds the body’s needs or is laden with junk foods. While the risks of eating a junk food diet may not be obvious to a teen at first glance, they are robbing their body of essential nutrients for optimal growth, development, function and performance.”

As a general rule, kids should eat a diet rich in whole foods that includes a mix of carbohydrates, protein and fat. Doing so will not only fuel your body with healthy, energizing calories but also give you the vitamins, minerals, fiber and other nutrients you need for peak performance. Once puberty hits, males often require more protein and females more iron.

“Athletes need about 1 to 1.4 grams of protein a day per kilogram of body weight to help with muscle building and repair,” Dr. Pitts said. “It’s a little bit more than their non-athletic peers. So for a 150-pound athlete, having about 80 grams of protein, or 20 extra grams of protein compared to someone else a day, is ideal. If you end up going beyond that, the body doesn't always utilize it. A lot of times athletes will take three times the amount of protein that they need a day.”

Beware of using supplements to add protein. This can actually add more protein than the teen body needs. Supplements also may contain substances like creatinine, which can cause renal failure if used improperly and is not recommended for teens, according to Dr. Pitts.

When it comes to powering the athlete, timing is key. What you eat before, during, and after activity helps fuel your performance and recovery.

“The foods we eat provide fuel for our bodies in the form of calories,” Hill said. “Calories come from three sources: carbohydrates, protein, and fat. While all three are important for a well-balanced diet, carbohydrates are most important prior to a workout to provide enough fuel for the workout. Without enough carbohydrates, the body defaults to breaking down muscle to fuel the workout. Incorporating a little bit of protein into the pre- and post-event snacks can also help protect muscle mass.”

Teen athletes should eat a meal or snack at least 30 minutes before and after exercise to fuel their performance and protect the hard-earned muscle mass they’ve built.

Take A Break

Allowing time for your muscles to rest and recover isn’t slacking, it’s actually muscle-building. If the muscle fibers broken down during activity aren’t given the chance to rebuild, you’ll actually interrupt the muscle-building process, end up losing mass and make yourself prone to fatigue-induced injury. If you are strength training, don’t work the same muscle group two days in a row. Put one to two days of rest in between. The American College of Sports Medicine recommends two to three non-consecutive days of strength training per week for teens.

Dr. Pitts also warns about specializing in a single sport too early. Branching out into other sports creates a well-rounded athlete with cross-trained muscles and skills. It also protects the athlete’s mind and body from burnout.

“Taking care of your body as a whole is really important and is a really difficult thing for a child or a teenage athlete to keep in mind,” Arrow said. “It’s that end-game mindset. Sleep. Drink water. Eat a well-balanced diet. Participate in a broad variety of activities. Taking time off from your sport and focusing on moving well over putting more weight on the bar is the key.”

The bottom line if your teen wants to be an athlete to be reckoned with? Train well. Eat healthy. Play hard. Rest. And, above all, enjoy the game!

A well-balanced, whole-foods-based diet provides the appropriate mix of carbohydrates, proteins, and fats while also giving the right balance of vitamins, minerals, fiber, and other nutrients that keep your body performing at its highest potential. Cook Children’s dietitian Rachel Hill recommends that teens aim for the following number of servings from each food group every day:

Dairy: 3-4 cups per day (1 cup = 1 cup of milk or yogurt, 1 slice or stick of cheese)

Protein: 5-6 ounces of protein foods per day (1 ounce = 1 egg, 1 ounce of meat/chicken/turkey/fish, ¼ cup of beans, 1 Tbsp of nut butter, nuts or seeds)

Fruits: 1 ½ - 2 cups per day (1 cup = 1 small fruit, ½ of a large fruit, ½ cup of dried fruit)

Vegetables: 2 ½ - 3 cups per day (1 cup = 1 cup of raw or cooked vegetables, 2 cups of raw leafy green vegetables)

Grains: 6-7 ounces daily (1 ounce = 1 slice of bread, 1 6” tortilla, ½ cup of cooked cereal, rice, or pasta, 1 cup of dry cereal) Half of the starchy foods consumed should be whole grains, like whole grain bread, popcorn and brown rice.

Oils: 5-6 teaspoons daily (1 tsp = 1 tsp oil, mayo, nut butter, or 1 Tbsp dressing) These foods are often incorporated into other foods during cooking and don’t always need to be added intentionally.

Juices should be limited to no more than 8 ounces daily.

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