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Feature Articles: Food, Fitness and Children
 

Weight Lifting and Kids

Stephen D. Ball, Ph.D., Nutritional Sciences, College of Human Environmental Sciences, University of Missouri-Columbia

 

Kids lifting weights? I know what you are thinking - strength training is dangerous for children. Many coaches, parents, and exercise professionals believe lifting weights is unsafe and not beneficial for children, despite the overwhelming research to the contrary. According to Dr. Avery Faigenbaum, a scientist who has studied strength training and children, under proper supervision there has not been a single case of a serious strength training injury involving children. Faigenbaum reminds us that there are risks associated with all types of physical activities but weight lifting injuries are less common than many other types of accidents. A properly designed strength training program can improve the strength of children, increase cardiorespiratory fitness, increase flexibility, improve motor fitness performance, improve body composition, increase resistance to injury, decrease the time for rehabilitation, enhance mental health and well being, increase sports performance, increase adherence to physical activity, and stimulate a more positive attitude toward fitness conditioning.
 

Strength training programs for children are safe and offer many benefits as long as they are specifically designed. Obviously, children should not be participating in a workout designed for the St. Louis Rams. The problem is that often college coaches obtain workouts from professional teams and high school coaches get their programs from the college coaches. Junior high coaches use the high school programs as so on. Before we know it, we might have young children performing an elite athlete's workout without any adaptation. We must be careful to properly adapt programs specifically with children in mind.
 

Exercise professionals, coaches, trainers, teachers, and parents should familiarize themselves with the following important guidelines to ensure the safety of children involved in strength training. The American College of Sports Medicine suggests:
 

  1. All strength-training activities should be supervised and monitored closely.
  2. Remember that children are physiologically immature.
  3. The primary focus, at least initially, should be directed at learning proper techniques for all exercise movements and developing an interest in resistance training.
  4. Proper techniques should be demonstrated first, followed by gradual application of resistance or weight.
  5. Proper breathing techniques (i.e., no breath holding) should be taught.
  6. Exercises should be performed in a manner in which the speed is controlled, avoiding ballistic (fast and jerky) movements.
  7. Power lifting and body building should be avoided.
  8. Full-range, multi-joint exercises (as opposed to single-joint exercises) should be emphasized.
  9. Children need to be able to understand and follow directions. There is no recommended minimum age for children to be introduced to strength training. Children as young as 5-6 years old have participated in Dr. Faigenbaum's programs.

 

In addition to following the American College of Sports Medicine's Guidelines, several other things should be noted. It is important that strength training be part of a total conditioning program that also includes cardiorespiratory fitness, flexibility, and agility exercises. Although there is no minimum age required to begin a strength training program, it is important that children have the emotional maturity to follow directions and appreciate the benefits and risks associated with exercise before they are ready to begin. The first few training sessions should focus on technique, safety issues, and correct lifting form without inducing undue fatigue. Close supervision cannot be stressed enough. There should be at least one instructor for every ten students. Individuals administering the programs must also have a thorough understanding of strength training principles and they must be able to communicate to children in a way that they can understand. It is wise to slowly progress when increasing the intensity and duration of program variables. Start with one light set of 12-15 repetitions on about 6 exercises performed 2 times a week. It is always best to underestimate when it comes to strength training and start out slow with little or no weight at all. For example, when teaching the bench press, start out with a broomstick instead of using the normal bar. When increasing the intensity use very small increments of about 1-2 lbs. Remember a 10 lb. increase for a child is the equivalent to a 50-100 lb. increase for an adult on many exercises. Obviously, this is a huge jump in intensity. A typical program might consist of 6-15 repetitions on 6 to 8 exercises performed 2-3 times a week.
 

Remember that with any type of physical activity there are risks. However, the benefits of being active and fit greatly outweigh these risks. Weight training offers no greater risk than other forms of physical activity, as long as children are properly supervised and the aforementioned guidelines suggested by the American College of Sports Medicine are adhered to. Teaching children to be active at an early age is crucial if they are to continue living an active lifestyle in adulthood. Weight training is another option that parents, teachers, and professionals should consider when promoting physical activity for youth.
 

 

References:
ACSM's Guidelins for Exercise Testing and Prescription. (6 ed.)(2000). Baltimore, Maryland: Lippincott Williams & Wilkins.
Faigenbaum, A.D. (2000). Strength Training for Children and Adolescents. Clinics in Sports Medicine, 19:4, 593-615.
Faigenbaum, A.D. and Bradley, D.B. (1998). Strength Training for the Young Athlete. Orthopaedic Physical Therapy Clinics of North America: 7:1, 66-88.

 

 

 

 

 

Last update: Tuesday, May 05, 2009

 

 

 

 

 


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