By Joanne M. Koury, M.Ed.
CLIMB, SWING, JUMP, THROW, REACH AND HANG…ever watch young children play in a playground equipped with ladders, slides, rings, bars, and chutes! All this fun is really about exploration and growing…growing in agility, coordination, endurance and STRENGTH. So why is it that there are still doubts about resistance training for children? Why do few sports programs offer young athletes a quality resistance training experience and why is childhood obesity in epidemic levels in the United States? Well, for year’s people believed that strength training would negatively impact growth.
“Two of the most common misconceptions are that strength training may stunt the growth of children and that children should not lift weights until they are 12 years old. There is simply no evidence to support either of these statements. In fact, all of the major fitness and medical organizations in the U.S. recommend strength training for youth, assuming that basic guidelines are adhered to and that appropriate leadership is present. And about the question of age, children can begin to train with weights as soon as they are able to accept and follow directions—usually around the age of seven or eight.” (Strength Training for Kids: A Guide for Parents and Teachers, American Council on Exercise Fit Facts)
Still, some coaches…and parents believe that strength training for children is unsafe. So to get them in shape for sports, they prescribe calisthenics. But most young children have difficulty performing push-ups, dips, pull-ups and even sit-ups correctly or repetitively. Actually, a well designed moderate resistance training program provides a means for building specific strength in muscle groups that can improve kids’ ability to perform calisthenics and protect the joints from injury. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine states that fifty percent of pre-adolescent sports injuries could be prevented, in large part, by enrolling kids in youth strength and conditioning programs (ACSM l993).
”Children and adolescents can participate in strength training programs provided that they have the emotional maturity to accept and follow directions…Generally speaking, if children are ready for participation in organized sports or activities — such as Little League baseball, soccer, or gymnastics — then they are ready for some type of strength training.” (American College of Sports Medicine, Avery D. Faigenbaum, Ed.D. Chair and Lyle J. Micheli, M.D. FACSM)
In contrast to the adult physiological response to resistance training, strength in children is increased more by neurological improvement than hypertrophy (growth in muscle size) and therefore the resistance training program should focus on skill development and efficiency with higher repetitions and lower resistance. This has a better correlation to performance. Kids involved in organized sports most definitely should be doing some form of structured resistance training particularly in sports that involve a great deal of repetitive motion such as swimming, track, cycling, soccer, basketball, and tennis. Resistance training for the young athlete improves overall performance, reduces risk of injury, and builds confidence that carries over into competition.
If your child is overweight, strength training can be a very positive activity because kids who are larger in size typically can handle more resistance than their lighter weight peers and it gives them a feeling of achievement they might otherwise not experience. With the growing trend in sedentary pastimes, all kids can benefit from regular resistance training as it more closely aligns with their activity preference to shorter periods of higher intensity effort. It helps reduce body fat and improves self-esteem. Plus, children can clearly measure success by their own performance-improvement and not as compared with others.
What should you look for when enrolling your child in a resistance training program? Most importantly, the program should be supervised by a competent health-fitness instructor who is credentialed and understands the unique growth and development needs of young people. Your instructor should be able to provide positive corrective feedback; appropriate exercise progressions; and create a fun and energetic atmosphere that makes each participant feel successful.
Avery D. Faigenbaum, Ed.D, Department of Health and Exercise Science, The College of New Jersey. Presentation at the ACSM Health and Fitness Summit, March 2007.
Avery D. Faigenbaum, Ed.D, FACSM, and Jill A. Bush, PhD, FACSM, Exercise Training for Overweight Youth: Why Weight? ACSM Certified News, October-December 2012, vol 22: issue4
Wayne Westcott, PhD and Avery Faigenbaum, Ed.D, Strength Training for Kids, IDEA Health Fitness Source, April 2003
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Joanne M. Koury has a Master’s degree in Health, Physical Education, and Exercise Physiology from East Stroudsburg University. She is a senior swimming and dryland coach at Lehigh Valley Aquatics in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, and is a Certified Exercise Physiologist by the American College of Sports Medicine.