Family Strength Training Starts Young

What Are You “Weighting” For?

“Look at my muscles, Mommy!” Kalli was only 2 the first time she uttered those words. My husband, an avid bodybuilder for years, taught me to value the feeling of power that comes with strength training and to appreciate my muscular legs rather than wish I could trade them in for stick skinny ones.

I realized the first time I heard my young daughter describe a runway model as “too thin” that we had unintentionally instilled in her, too, a preference for a strong, healthy body – and how to achieve it. Along the way, while watching us work out and occasionally mimicking my squats or my husband’s lifts with her miniature wooden barbell set, she and her little sister are learning some other valuable lessons as well.

The Verdict

Strength training for kids used to be frowned upon because experts believed it placed too much stress on growing bones and muscles. Now, the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the President’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports – just to name a few – have released official statements on the sport for youths. Across the board, experts are touting the benefits of carefully planned and supervised strength training programs for children as young as 7 to 8 years of age.

“When they have the maturity to accept and follow directions they can start strength training,” says Avery Faigenbaum, Ed.D., author of Strength & Power for Young Athletes: Exercises and Programs for Ages 7-15 (Human Kinetics Publishers, 2000) and ‘Medicine Ball for All’ Training Handbook (Coaches Choice Books, 2004). “It wasn’t a fair blanket statement to say that strength training was dangerous. There is risk associated with any kind of exercise, but I use the analogy of a child learning how to swim. A parent isn’t going to throw a child in the water.” The key is an appropriately prescribed and supervised training program.

What strength training can do for your child goes far beyond the benefits of increased strength, power, coordination, and endurance. In addition, it offers better cardiovascular health and increased bone density. Strength training can also enhance a kid’s self-esteem, improve his body image and provide discipline and self-confidence. Faigenbaum believes that strength training is ideal for overweight children. “The traditional approach is aerobic exercise, but [for overweight kids] it’s too taxing, and most importantly, it’s not fun,” he says. “What we need to do is get them excited about physical activity.” Often the overweight child is the strongest in class. “They actually enjoy weight training. We need to change behavior first. Then we can worry about the weight loss.”

A Family Affair

When strength training is taken up as part of a family endeavor, the benefits are twofold: Children learn proper technique and healthful behaviors from their primary role models – parents – and they automatically get the supervision they need. You can start even when children are very young, allowing them to observe with their crayons and coloring book from a safe corner while you train. Later, they will simply be going through the motions, imitating you while learning the basics. The first thing for parents to remember is that “the focus should be on proper form and technique, not weight,” says Faigenbaum. “The second role parents can play is to downplay how much weight can be lifted.”

Until kids hit their teens, the focus is really on gaining strength, not size, and instilling good exercise habits. Working out with weights and machines isn’t even necessary in the beginning. For average-sized children, the first and best workout may just be a simple calisthenics program. The weight of the body itself can provide enough resistance to work the muscles and increase strength (squats, pull-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, leg raises, etc.), though these may be too difficult for an overweight child.

The family can also do partner exercises and use resistance bands, ankle and wrist weights, or machines designed especially for young people. “I don’t recommend barbells at home,” says Faigenbaum. “I recommend dumbbells and medicine balls because the risk [of injury] is reduced. Medicine balls were popular in the ’20s and ’30s. Now they are making a comeback. They are weighted balls the size of a volleyball. You can do unlimited numbers of exercises with children.” Choose 2- to 4-pound balls for children under 12 and 4- to 8-pound balls for teens.

Ouch! That Hurts!

Prepubescent boys and girls show no major differences in their ability to get stronger. Both groups can increase strength considerably in a period of only a few months. Not until they hit puberty will boys start to make significant gains in muscle size. Young boys, in an effort to bulk up and experience the gains they see in 16- and 17-year-olds, will often lift too much too soon and risk serious injury or disappointment. “Muscle strains and tendonitis are the most common injuries,” says Steve Farrell, Ph.D., of the Cooper Institute. “These can be avoided by including a proper warm-up, using an appropriate amount of weight, and using proper technique. I cannot emphasize enough how important it is for kids to be closely supervised during strength training. Horseplay and trying to outdo each other are common reasons for injury.”

In fact, strengthening the body before taking part in any sport can actually prevent injuries. Several books provide weight and strength training programs for kids of all ages designed specifically for various sports, from baseball and football to golf, skiing, swimming, and track. In today’s world, where obesity and diabetes are epidemics, where physical education programs are being cut from school curriculums and children’s lives are filled with sedentary activities, it’s vital that we get up out of our collective rut and show them where the power to succeed in sports lies. Strength training is available to anyone of any fitness level, and a strong body makes life more enjoyable no matter whether your child is playing on the field or in the backyard.

Weight Training Tips

  • Keep it fun. Working out shouldn’t be a chore or a punishment. Provide variety, music and fun equipment to make it enjoyable. Avoid competition.
  • More is NOT better. The body needs a recovery period between workouts, done two to three days per week on non-consecutive days. Pain, nausea or extreme discomfort during a training session is a sign to stop and rest.
  • Eat to win. Choose nourishing foods and always drink plenty of water before, during and after a workout.
  • Focus on the long term. Council your child not to expect changes overnight. Keep a log to chart her progress and show her how far she’s come.
  • Never leave a child unattended in the weight room. Even the most responsible child may succumb to the temptation to do too much and risk injury.
  • Educate yourself and your child. Choose one of the resources mentioned in this article and make sure you know the difference between strength training for adults and children.
  • Dress properly. Wear comfortable clothing, but avoid baggy shirts or shorts that could get caught in the weights or machinery. Always wear shoes to protect your feet from dropped equipment and to provide balance.

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