FOR YEARS NOW, ADULTS have been told by medical and fitness experts that strength training is a crucial part of a stable exercise regimen for overall health. We know that cardiovascular fitness is fantastic, but alone, it isn’t enough to keep our bones healthy and our muscles from degenerating as we age. But when it comes to kids’ fitness, historically the exercise focus has been cardiovascular in nature. Yet research has revealed that even children 12 and under can reap the health and physical fitness rewards of strength training. To be most effective, it must be done properly and safely
First, it’s important to note that strength training isn’t the same thing as weightlifting. While weightlifting can be a feature of a strength-training workout, it isn’t the only way to strength train, nor is it appropriate in every form for children and adolescents.
Heavy weightlifting, often called “powerlifting” or “bodybuilding,” aren’t what we’re going for here. These activities aren’t harmful on the surface; they merely increase injury risk – especially for children. You see, depending on a child’s age, not all of their cartilage has yet turned to the bone – especially in the areas of the body where growth plates are located. So placing too large an emphasis on heavy weightlifting can overly tax young muscles, bones, and cartilage. That risk isn’t what we orthopedic specialists would consider being worth the potential reward. But don’t worry, there’s plenty else that is.
Wondering whether you should even bother trying out strength-training exercises on a kid who isn’t particularly “athletic?” The most straightforward answer is yes. Strength training isn’t just for athletes. After all, we humans are all made of the same material. The benefits of this type of exercise are for everybody. From increasing muscle and bone strength, agility and endurance to helping to protect your kiddo’s joints into adulthood, there are plenty of excellent benefits that go beyond a sports field. Physiological benefits aside, the boost in self-confidence and self-esteem that have been demonstrated to accompany this type of consistent exercise are also worthy of consideration.
In children, strength training is best accomplished and less risky when the resistance is light and the movements are incredibly controlled and have been demonstrated by an adult for proper technique and safety. As an added precaution, it’s best for children to be instructed in strength-training methods by an adult who is trained and experienced in the instruction of such techniques for children. Your favorite personal trainer may provide you with a stellar workout, but he or she may not be the most qualified to instruct and supervise your child.
Before beginning any strength-training activity, a proper warm-up of 5 to 10 minutes of easy aerobic exercise is crucial to prepare the muscles. Once the warm-up is complete, one of the best and safest ways to start out with a kid-focused strength-training regimen (this goes for adults, too) is to focus on simple exercises that utilize the child’s own body weight as the “resistance.” A 10- to 15-repetition circuit of exercises like pushups, sit-ups and squats won’t be too complicated for most children, but they must remember the proper technique in performing each activity. If the adult instructor begins to notice form being sacrificed, he or she will likely adjust the number of reps for the child, which is essential to help avoid injury.
Of course, if you have any concerns, it’s always best to clear a strength-training program with your child’s pediatrician before getting started. Other than that, and like anything else with kids, the key to making strength-training stick is consistency and fun. Getting them involved in planning the workout circuit, or better yet, jumping in and doing it with them can be great ways to show your children that you too place a high value on health, fitness and overall wellness – whether you’re 9, 19 or 49.
by Bert Mandelbaum, M.D.