Many parents and physical education teachers have traditionally shied away from strength training with their children or students, and for good reason. Until recently, the research just hadn’t been done to support the effectiveness and, more importantly, the safety of children training with weights. But now there is sufficient research to suggest that strength training is a suitable — and safe — option for most youths.
Correcting the misconceptions
There are a number of common myths about youth strength training that continue to cause concern among parents and educators. Two of the most common misconceptions are that strength training may stunt 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 youths, assuming that basic guidelines are adhered to and that appropriate leadership is present. And about the question of age, children can begin to train weights as soon as they are able to accept and follow directions — usually around the age of 7 or 8.
The benefits of youth strength training are similar to those for adults, though the importance of getting an early start cannot be overemphasized — the most important benefit of any youth fitness program is an improved attitude toward lifelong activity. Improvements in muscular fitness, bone mineral density, body composition, motor fitness performance and injury resistance should be compelling evidence for all parents, though children will likely focus on things like enhanced sports performance and the social aspects of exercise.
In fact, children don’t usually have the ability to comprehend long-term concepts until the ages of 11 to 14, so abstract ideas like healthy bones and disease prevention will do little to motivate success. Fun is the No. 1 motivator in almost every aspect of a child’s life, so always make sure everyone is having fun.
Another compelling argument for youth strength-training programs is that significant improvements have been seen in the self-esteem, mental discipline and socialization of children who participate. Think back to your days in PE. What games did you play? What types of physical attributes and skills were most often rewarded with success?
Most likely, you are thinking of team games that featured speed, agility, jumping ability and overall athleticism. And all those things should be rewarded! But a glaring omission in that list is muscular strength, and it is often overweight and obese children who will excel in that area. Weight training provides an opportunity to let children who typically struggle with group activities stand out from their classmates and perform well on an individual basis. What a tremendous way to boost self-esteem in the children who need it most.
How to get your kids started
It is important that parents and teacher do not impose training techniques and philosophies on children just because they may have worked their own routines. Listen very closely to kids’ concerns and address them with care. Instructors’ attitudes are of the utmost importance when working with kids. Start slowly and lean toward underestimating rather than overestimating the strength of young exercisers.
Not only is it safer to do so, but it also leaves plenty of room for progress, and tangible progress is essential in the early stages of a youth strength-training program. The initial focus should be on developing good form and learning the basics.
Introduce children to a variety of exercises and types of resistance. Kids love to learn new things, so working with medicine balls and resistance tubing in addition to the more traditional free weights and machines is a great idea — and a much more affordable one. Just be sure that all major muscle groups are addressed in a balanced, full-body workout.
And most important, when it comes to exercise, children do as we do, as much as what we say! If they see you enjoying exercise, they will more likely have the same enjoyment. This is the No. 1 reason that I always encouraged my clients to bring their kids to the gym during our training session no matter what their ages.
Remember: We have our kids on loan. Encouraging them to value a healthy lifestyle is a major gift you give them and yourself.
Make it a great day!
Kate McKay, an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer and business consultant, resides in Newburyport. For more fitness tips, visit her website at www.kate-mckay.com. Please feel free to submit any fitness and health questions to Kate at firstname.lastname@example.org.