By Mark S. Cassidy, MS
If you are involved for any length of time in the Health & Fitness Industry, the topic of strength training children is going to come up. What age can they start? How often can they perform a routine? What type of routine is best suited for them? How long until they start to see results? … are all part of the list of questions that will arise… But there’s nothing wrong with these questions or a youngster trying to increase their strength or improve their body style. They just need to do it properly.
Over the years there has been a misconception that kids shouldn’t lift weights until they were at least 16 or 17 years old. If they attempted to perform weight lifting exercises at an age any younger, they could seriously damage themselves and potentially could stunt their growth. However the times have changed. There are Health & Fitness Experts, Certified Athletic Coaches and Medical Doctors who can agree that children can start working with weights, as early as grade school. But there has to be specific rules and guidelines followed to not only ensure the youth’s fitness success but help minimize any chance of injury.
PHYSICAL & PSYCHOLOGICAL BENEFITS
There is both a physical and psychological component / benefit for children who strength train.
- Increase muscle strength
- Increase muscle endurance
- Increase in bone density
- Increase in joint mobility & stability
- Decrease in potential injuries
- Improved performance in youth sports activities
- Better social acceptance from piers
- Improved self-image
- More self confidence
Along with building muscle, when done correctly and using a full range of motion, it can also improve bone structure and density and help develop a youngster’s flexibility, exposing another old myth—that lifting weights makes a child stiff and ‘muscle bound’.
AGE & SKILL CONSIDERATIONS
Professionals in this field advocate a more functional approach to strength training for kids. Introduce them first to basic exercises that have little or no weight. The emphasis must be on using proper technique. As they get older, the weights can gradually get heavier and the number or variety activities can increase.
PROGRAM DESIGN SUGGESTIONS
It is recommended that kids do at most 3 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions for each exercise. They shouldn’t lift more than 3 times per week, and they should never sacrifice technique for additional reps or weight. For safety reasons, you should also discourage youngster’s from lifting any weights over their heads or faces or any other lifting that unnecessarily strains their spines (for example bench press, shoulder press, or back squats).
According to Dr. Cedric Bryant, the vice president of educational services at the American Council on Exercise, kids ages 11-13 can begin doing some of the traditional strength training exercises keeping the resistance light. However, the instruction for these kids needs to be based on proven physical, phycological and biomechanical principles. In addition to being coached by trained-certified health and fitness professionals.
And what can parents tell the skinny teenager who weight trains all summer but is disappointed in the fall when they don’t look like a “Superman”?
Just because you don’t always see results immediately, doesn’t mean the time and effort you are putting in, is not having a benefit. Hormones and metabolism may not be fully activated yet to make those muscles develop. A child’s height and limb-length may still be developing. And dietary requirements and adaptability may be coming into play. There are always mental and structural gains taking place with exercise movements – even if it’s not visually noticeable. Keep working hard and putting in the time. The Superhero will eventually arrive.