You can improve your ability to physically exert force through strength training, which involves the use of progressive resistance. Strength training delivers many benefits to otherwise physically inactive children and youth, to people who enjoy recreational sports and to competitive athletes.
Many kids are physically inactive. All youngsters feel better about themselves when they take on physical activities, which can give them confidence to try new activities. Previously sedentary children can continue their active lifestyle into adulthood.
A properly designed strength training program also helps prevent sports injuries and improve athletic performance.
Many well-known and respected organizations like the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, among others, support youth strength training programs that include certain precautions and fit the capabilities of growing youngsters.
A number of general guidelines apply in designing a strength training program for children and youth. While there is no minimum age to begin strength training, participants need the maturity to understand and follow instructions and possess good overall motor skills. And they must be motivated to take part. Generally, all of this occurs in youngsters ages 7 to 8.
Kids need close supervision to ensure proper form. Children must first be taught correct form before introducing resistance. Research shows that children achieve greater strength gains with a higher number of repetitions (10-15) and lighter resistance. Resistance should be increased in small increments of 1 to 3 pounds only. Ideally, strength training exercises should be done 2 -3 times a week for about 20 – 30 minutes per session. Consider fewer sessions if the child is already involved in a number of physical activities.
As with any exercise program there should be a warm-up that includes 5 – 10 minutes of low intensity aerobic activity such as calisthenics and light jogging followed by stretching for the legs, arms, and trunk. Strengthening exercises must include all major muscle groups in the legs, trunk, and arms. Of course, this must be fun for the children.
The potential for injury is a major parental concern. Injury to sensitive growth areas of the body commonly occur in girls ages 10 -13 and boys ages 12-14. The American Physical Therapy Association’s Sports Physical Therapy Section has reported that these injuries occur most often at home when, with supervision, kids lift too-heavy weights.
There are four traditional weight training exercises using barbells that are more apt to cause injury to youngsters. These include the squat, the stiff legged dead-lift, bench press, and the military press. Executing the squat with heavier weights requires physical demands that kids do not have. The squat, stiff legged dead-lift, and military press have the potential of injuring the lumbar spine. The bench press has the potential to injure the front of the shoulder, the acromioclavicular joint (where the clavicle meets the shoulder blade), and the growth plate in the wrist. All four exercises should be taught using wooden dowels to ensure proper technique. By providing instruction on proper technique, using light weights, and providing supervision, most, if not all, injuries can be prevented.
A variety of equipment can be used for strength training. Body weight exercises such as pushups, pull-ups, squats, and lunges require no equipment. Free weights and barbells, elastic cords/bands, weighted balls and weight machines are all possibilities. Elastic bands and cords are sold in varying resistances and are most suitable for ages 10+ years. Older children are more likely to have the ability to stabilize their trunk when using elastic resistance.
Medicine balls are weighted balls in different weights and sizes and are especially useful in adding speed training to a workout. Use of this type of equipment is fun and motivating for kids 7+ years old, helping them to develop strength and power in their trunk, legs, and upper extremities. The strength of the child should be considered before using body weight exercises because younger children are not able to lift their body weight using correct form.
The focus of a strength training program varies according to age. For 7- to 9- and 10- to 12-year-olds the focus is on activities such as skipping, relays, agility drills, stretching, use of light weight medicine balls, and light dumbbells. Ten- to 12-year-olds are usually highly motivated to learn a more structured strength training program. Body weight exercises, which may not be appropriate for younger children, may be included in the program for some 10-to 12-year-olds. Use of barbells is not recommended for either age group. Children at this age should always be supervised when using weights or weighted balls. Use of light resistance elastic bands/cords is appropriate for 10- to 12-year-olds.
Strength training with 13- to 15-year-olds adds lean muscle weight. Their program should include all the major muscle groups. Adolescents must be cautioned to keep reasonable the number of repetitions of an exercise and the amount of weight involved due to a tendency to over train with too many exercises and reps and too much weight. Barbells can be introduced at this age but taught first using wooden dowels.
In addition to using dumbbells, barbells, elastic cords/bands, medicine balls and body weight exercises, many in this age group are tall enough to start using adult weight machines. When teenagers get proper instruction and demonstrate good technique they can do their exercises independently. They do, however, need to be cautioned to avoid competing with others or using maximum weights. Specific strength exercises can be integrated into their program to meet the demands of various sports.
An excellent book for coaches and parents is Strength & Power for Young Athletes, by Avery Faigenbaum and Wayne Westcott. The book details specific exercises and programs for children in various age groups and sports at the beginner, intermediate and advanced level.
With summer approaching, parents should look for programs and camps offered by local YMCA’s and other organizations that have a sports focus. In addition, a physical therapist can help you develop an appropriate strength training program for your child.