Children aged three to five years should be active throughout the day. Six years onwards, it is advised to have a minimum of 60 minutes of moderate-to-vigorous intensity physical activity, including a balanced mix of aerobics, bone-strengthening, and muscle-strengthening activities (1).
Strength training (also known as resistance training) uses resistance to build muscular strength. This method of physical conditioning is usually followed to improve athletic performance, but parents are often doubtful about its safety for children.
This post gives you the benefits, recommendations, and myths related to strength training for kids and adolescents.
When Can A Child Begin Strength Training?
Children need to be seven to eight years of age to attain maturity in balance and postural control skills. Strength training may be started around this age. However, social, cognitive, and physical maturity may vary from one child to another. Therefore, the decision to start resistance training should not depend only on the chronological age.
Any specialized physical conditioning/exercise program requires a child to follow and execute instructions correctly (2). According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), resistance training may be inappropriate for some children with the following health conditions (3) (4).
- Preexisting hypertension (medical clearance is required to rule out any possibility of further rise in blood pressure due to the training)
- Pulmonary hypertension due to risk of worsening of the condition
- Those who have received chemotherapy with cardiotoxic anthracyclines (doxorubicin, daunorubicin, and idarubicin) due to increased risk of cardiac problems
- Cardiomyopathy, particularly hypertrophic cardiomyopathy (heart muscles become abnormally thick)
- Marfan syndrome with aortic root dilation (inherited disorder affecting connective tissues that provide strength and flexibility to bones, muscles, ligaments, blood vessels, heart valves, and other body tissues)
- Seizure disorders (medical clearance required)
- Overweight children require strict supervision and guidance while performing any resistance training activity
Is Strength Training Safe For Children?
Contrary to popular belief, strength training has no negative impact on the child’s height, epiphyseal plates (growth plates at ends of long bones), or cardiovascular health if performed under strict supervision and with proper techniques (5). It is a safe way for a child to build strength and overall physical agility.
Strength training programs usually include the usage of free weights (barbells and dumbbells). Medicine balls, weight machines, elastic tubing, or the child’s own body weight are other ways to improve strength. It is essential the child is guided to the right use of equipment and the correct exercise techniques to prevent injuries or accidents.
What Are The Benefits Of Strength Training For Children?
Strength training improves muscle fitness and resistance to sports-related injuries, improving performance in any sports activity or general overall growth of children. In adults, a strength training or weight training program causes muscle gain and helps them bulk up. However, in growing children, the effect is different.
Children could mostly experience improved muscle strength instead of bulking. The gain in muscle strength is due to improved functioning of the motor neurons, occurring due to an increased number of motor neurons firing during each contraction. It improves muscle coordination and strength without adding bulk.
Some of the other benefits of strength training in children include the following (6).
- Performance benefits such as improved motor skills, speed, and power
- Faster recovery from any injuries
- Better joint function and resistance to injury
- Improved bone mineral density
- Better heart functions and lipid profile (cholesterol levels)
- Improved insulin sensitivity
What Are The Risks Of Strength Training For Children?
Most of the risks associated with strength training for children are due to the lack of qualified supervision and proper technique. These risks may include the following (7).
- Epiphyseal plate or growth plate injury: This is unique to children as adults do not have open growth plates. Injury to this part of the bone may cause disorders in limb growth. It may result from lifting weights heavier than what is appropriate for the child.
- Soft tissue injury: Trunk injuries may happen if core training and strengthening of the trunk are neglected before lifting weights. Shoulder pain and lumbar spine pain may also occur.
- Muscle injury: Prolonged training periods with excess weights and without adequate recovery time may cause muscle injury.
What Is An Effective Strength Training Program For Children?
A meticulously designed age-appropriate program for strength training, when designed by a qualified professional, assures proper technique, minimum risks, and higher benefits for children. An effective program should have the following attributes (6).
- Instructors with proper certification and experience for training children and adolescents. They should be aware of the physical and psychosocial requirements of children.
- The program should begin with low resistance exercises until the proper form and technique are attained. Increasing repetitions may be performed to improve muscle endurance. One to two sets of eight to 12 repetitions are good to begin. You know your child is not overstressed if he/she can complete the repetitions without getting exhausted.
- Weights may be gradually added in increments of five to ten percent, and repetitions are decreased as the performance of the child improves. Besides weights, resistance tubing and bodyweight training, such as pushups, could also be considered.
- The training in children should include all muscle groups, specifically the core muscles, which are those of the lower back, pelvis, hips, and abdomen.
- Exercises should be performed through the full range of joint motion for the proper development of muscular strength and flexibility.
- Training sessions of 20 to 30 minutes, two to three times per week on non-consecutive days, is considered ideal. A combination with aerobics yields long-term benefits for children.
- Training sessions should start with five to ten minutes of dynamic warm-up exercises and end with low-intensity cool-down stretching activities.
- It is best to keep the activities enjoyable for the child by altering exercises, sets, and repetitions as children tend to lose interest in repetitive acts.
- Competitive weightlifting, commonly known as Olympic lifting, comprises rapid and explosive movements such as “snatch” and the “clean” and “jerk.” These may harm tissues and are not recommended for children.
- The AAP advises against the use of any performance-enhancing substances and anabolic steroids in children or adolescents participating in strength training. In fact, children should be educated about the harmful effects of these agents.
- Children undergoing strength training should have proper nutrition and adequate hydration and should perform exercises under adult supervision.
Strength training for children should be practiced along with aerobics and plyometric activities (uses speed and force of movements such as running, jumping, throwing, and kicking) for healthy physical and mental development. If performed under qualified supervision, strength training could provide several benefits to aspiring athletes from a young age and non-athletes for improving general health and self-confidence.
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