Strength training for kids? You bet! Done properly, it offers many benefits to young athletes. Strength training is even a good idea for kids who simply want to look and feel better. In fact, this form of exercise might put your child on a lifetime path to better health and fitness.
Strength training, not weightlifting
Don't confuse strength training with weightlifting, bodybuilding or powerlifting. Trying to build big muscles 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, light resistance and controlled movements are best — with a special emphasis on proper technique and safety. Your child can do many strength training exercises with his or her own body weight or inexpensive resistance tubing. Free weights and machine weights are other options.
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
- Help improve your child's performance in nearly any sport, from dancing and figure skating to football and soccer
- Develop proper techniques that your child can continue to use as he or she grows older
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
When can a child begin strength training?
During childhood, kids improve their body awareness, control and balance through active play. As early as age 7 or 8, however, strength training can become a valuable part of an overall fitness plan — as long as the child is mature enough to follow directions and able to practice proper technique and form.
The Department of Health and Human Services recommends that school-age children get 60 minutes or more of daily activity. As part of this activity, muscle- and bone-strengthening exercises are recommended at least three days a week.
If your child expresses an interest in strength training, remind him or her that strength training is meant to increase muscle strength and endurance. Bulking up is something else entirely — and most safely done after adolescence, when your child's bones have finished growing.
You might also check with your child's doctor for the OK to begin a strength training program, especially if your child has a known or suspected health problem — such as a heart condition, high blood pressure or a seizure disorder.
What's the best way to start a strength training program for kids?
A child's strength training program isn't necessarily a scaled-down version of what an adult would do. Keep these general principles in mind:
- Consult a professional. Start with a coach or personal trainer who has experience with youth strength training. The coach or trainer can create a safe, effective strength training program based on your child's age, size, skills and sports interests. Or enroll your child in a strength training class designed for kids.
- Warm up and cool down. Encourage your child to begin each strength training session with five to 10 minutes of light aerobic activity, such as walking, jogging in place or jumping rope. This warms the muscles and prepares them for more-vigorous activity. Gentle stretching after each session is a good idea, too.
- Keep it light. Kids can safely lift adult-size weights, as long as the weight is light enough. In most cases, one or two sets of 12 to 15 repetitions are enough. Resistance doesn't have to come from weights. Resistance tubing and body-weight exercises, such as pushups, are other effective options.
- Emphasize proper technique. Form and technique are more important than the amount of weight your child lifts. Your child can gradually increase the resistance or number of repetitions as he or she gets older.
- Supervise. Don't let your child go it alone. Adult supervision by someone who knows proper strength training technique is important.
- Rest between workouts. Make sure your child rests at least one full day between exercising each specific muscle group.
- Keep it fun. Help your child vary the routine to prevent boredom.
Results won't come overnight. Eventually, however, your child will notice a difference in muscle strength and endurance.