For Fitness Friday this week, I was asked to look into strength training with kids.
Strength training for kids? You bet! Done properly, strength training offers many bonuses to young athletes. Strength training is even a good idea for kids who simply want to look and feel better. In fact, strength training can put your child on a lifetime path to better health and fitness.
For years, many said “no”, believing that it could damage a child’s growth plates, thereby stunting their growth. The risks of injury seemed to outweigh any benefit that strength training could provide. But there is growing evidence that strength training is very beneficial for children and could be an important part of their exercise routine.
More and more kids are gravitating toward weight training. In most cases, strength training is safe and encouraged for kids. However, when done incorrectly, whether too intensely or too early in life, it can lead to permanent damage.
Ages 6-10, kids should participate in low-intensity programs, mainly having fun and trying to improve their motor skills. At this age, children’s body tissues are susceptible to injury because they have a low tolerance to lactic acid accumulation (the burn you feel in your legs when you run an all out sprint). Emphasize multilateral development, maximizing the range of motion in multiple parts of the body.
Ages 11-14, it’s important to develop the core muscles (lower back, hips, and abdominals). Once children have this core strength, they can begin training the extremities with body weight or light weights (medicine balls or dumbbells) only. Balance and flexibility exercises are also important. Young adolescents can participate in moderate anaerobic training in the latter stage of this phase, but it should be limited to 80 meters when sprinting.
Ages 15-18, teens can start training for high performance development. Watch for progressive improvements and be careful of overtraining. Avoid maximum strength training (one-rep max lifts) to reduce the risk of injury.
Strength training for children shouldn’t involve hours in the gym lifting weights. In fact, it doesn’t have to involve weights at all. Body-weight exercises like pushups, one-leg exercises and lunges can all provide the same benefits as a traditional strength training program. Children should always be supervised to make sure they are using proper form, but can perform these exercises without as much of a safety concern as traditional weight training workouts.
Muscle strains are the most common form of injury, and the lower back is the most commonly injured area. But these injuries usually happen because the child has not used the proper lifting technique or is trying to lift too much
One concept that kids and teens have trouble understanding is that muscles aren’t built up while they’re working out, but while they’re resting! So make sure to set up generous sleep and nutrition goals to help your child make the most of his or her weight training.
Don’t confuse strength training with weightlifting, bodybuilding or powerlifting. These activities are largely driven by competition, with participants vying to lift heavier weights or build bigger muscles than those of other athletes. This can put too much strain on young muscles, tendons and areas of cartilage that haven’t yet turned to bone (growth plates) — especially when proper technique is sacrificed in favor of lifting larger amounts of weight.
For kids, what are the benefits of strength training?
Done properly, strength training can:
- Increase your child’s muscle strength and endurance
- Help protect your child’s muscles and joints from sports-related injuries
- Improve your child’s performance in nearly any sport, from dancing and figure skating to football and soccer
Keep in mind that strength training isn’t only for athletes. Even if your child isn’t interested in sports, strength training can:
- Strengthen your child’s bones
- Help promote healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels
- Help your child maintain a healthy weight
- Improve your child’s confidence and self-esteem
Generally, if your child is ready to participate in organized sports or activities such as baseball, soccer, or gymnastics, it is usually safe to start strength training.