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Building young muscles without ‘the juice’

Good training programs and diets can help kids bulk up naturally, sports experts say.
Image: Teen boy lifting weights.
Strength-training regimens for young athletes should be tailored to the kid's age, abilities and sport, experts say.Getty Images stock

In response to a recent column about kids on steroids who are willing to risk it all, several readers wrote in asking how young athletes can best build muscle through training and nutrition, and whether any dietary supplements can help. We took those questions to the experts and here's what they said:

Q: My husband and I have purchased protein powder at the health food store for our 15-year-old son. Is this bad for him? He eats a good diet and works out and my husband plans to start a new workout program with him. What's recommended?

A: If your son is eating a balanced diet that includes enough protein from sources such as lean chicken and meat, fish and legumes, he shouldn't need the protein powder or any other supplements, for that matter, says Avery Faigenbaum, a professor of health and exercise science at the College of New Jersey in Ewing who also serves as a strength and conditioning consultant for high school sports teams.

"We need to get back to the basics with our young athletes," says Faigenbaum, who was a co-author of a recent study showing that almost one in five teens reported using a dietary supplement such as protein powders, creatine and amino acids to gain body mass.

The study of more than 3,200 students in grades 8 through 12 also found that the more supplements kids took, the more likely they were to use steroids. And of those who used steroids, most said they would be be willing to sacrifice their health and even shorten their lives if a pill or powder could help them achieve their athletic goals.

So once a kid starts on supplements, even seemingly harmless ones such as protein powder, it can be a slippery slope that leads to using steroids or other performance-enhancing substances later, Faigenbaum and other experts say.

Supplemental protein in the form of an occasional sports bar should be fine, but experts caution against dietary supplements in general because they have not been rigorously tested for safety and effectiveness. So there is no guarantee that the protein powder you're buying isn't contaminated with lead or other potentially dangerous substances. Some dietary supplements have even been found to contain steroids. Another concern with protein powder is that a person may get way too much, which could cause kidney problems.  

And bear in mind that more protein doesn't necessarily translate into more muscle, according to Faigenbaum. "It doesn't work like that," he says. "There's a limit on protein synthesis that can occur."

So how much protein is best? Teen male athletes hoping to build muscle are generally advised to get 1 gram of protein per kilogram of body weight a day, while female athletes are advised to get .8 grams of protein per kilogram of body weight.

Beyond protein consumption, athletes and exercisers of any age who are hoping to build muscle need to be sure they are consuming enough calories and fluids, not skipping meals or snacks, and getting enough sleep, says Faigenbaum. All of those can affect athletic performance but too often kids are falling short in these basic health needs, he says.

As for the workout program that your husband is planning for your son, make sure it's appropriate for your child's age, abilities and sport, says Faigenbaum. Many young athletes and their coaches make the mistake of thinking that growing bodies can train as hard as college or pro athletes.

"Young athletes are still growing and developing and maturing," he says, and they need more rest breaks for recovery than adults.

Basic training programs for beginners of all ages generally call for doing one to two sets of strengthening exercises (free weights or machines) that target all major muscle groups about three times a week. Beyond that, training programs vary greatly based on one's goals and sport. So a football player may focus more on heavy weights and short sets, for instance, whereas a sprinter may use more lighter weights and higher repetitions. There's not a one-size-fits-all training program, and in fact, it's recommended to periodically mix up the routine for best results.

That's where good coaches and trainers come in. Faigenbaum and others recommend that young athletes work with a qualified professional who has experience with youth sports. Top trainer credentials to look for: certification from the American College of Sports Medicine or the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Q: I took creatine while I was playing football in high school. Was that safe? Are there any long-term effects associated with creatine?

A: Some studies have shown that creatine is one supplement that can help build muscle in adults and seems to be safe. But it's not clear what affect creatine has on kids who are still developing, says youth sports specialist Dr. Linn Goldberg, who is head of the division of health promotion and sports medicine at the Oregon Health and Science University in Portland. Goldberg is involved with that are aimed at educating young athletes on safe ways to train.

"None of these supplements has been tested in kids," he says. "It's buyer beware."

Besides any possible risks from creatine itself, there is always the contamination concern with supplements. "They may include lots of ingredients that aren't on the label and many impurities," Goldberg says.