Should kids strength train and are there benefits to doing so? According to an article published in Pediatric News, kids who strength train have certain advantages over their peers who don’t. In fact, some of the health and fitness benefits are similar to what adults enjoy. Like adults, kids who strength train can reduce body fat while increasing lean body mass and bone density. That’s important since kids have a window period for maximizing bone mass that they need to take advantage of as it’s difficult to build further bone mass after early adulthood.
Dr. Benjamin from the University of Chicago points out that kids who strength train enjoy better cardiovascular fitness, and more favorable lipid profiles. In addition, it helps develop more efficient coordination between the brain and muscles. Kids who play sports can improve their sports skill by training their muscles against resistance as well.
Still, a variety of myths exist about kids strength training. Let’s dispel a few of those and see what science says about kids and strength training.
Kids Strength Training Myth #1: Kids Who Strength Train Can Develop Too Much Muscle
Not likely. It’s difficult to build muscle before puberty. That’s because muscles grow in size in response to anabolic hormones, like testosterone. Before puberty, kids don’t have enough testosterone to stimulate significant muscle hypertrophy. Instead, a child who strength trains becomes stronger partially due to the neurological aspects of strength training – greater muscle fiber recruitment by the central nervous system. In addition, strength training enhances bone mass, lowers the risk of obesity, improves lipids, and develops confidence in kids. Bulking up isn’t an issue for kids before puberty. In fact, they often get stronger without developing significant muscle mass.
Kids Strength Training Myth #2: Strength Training Can Stunt a Child’s Growth
Fear of stunting growth is one of the biggest concerns parents have about children and strength training – the idea that kids who strength train may not reach their full height. Yet, there’s no evidence that this is the case. Bones have a growth plate, or epiphyseal plate, from which new bone forms. First, the growth plate lays down cartilage and the cartilage is solidified into bone. After puberty, the growth plate becomes inactive so that no further growth occurs. At that point, the bones are fixed in length.
The evidence that strength training interferes with the growth plate and stunts growth isn’t there. One reason concerns arose is that children in some countries where they’re forced to do heavy work at an early age are shorter. But, the problem seems to be that these kids don’t get proper nutrition rather than the heavy lifting itself.
An exception would be if a child sustains an injury to a bone while lifting a heavy weight. Certain types of injury can damage the growth plate and limit further growth of that bone. That’s why it’s important for kids to lift under supervision and get proper training beforehand.
Kids Strength Training Myth #3: The Risk of Injury is Too High
Is strength training a high-risk activity? Not necessarily. The risk of injury when a child is supervised is lower than if he or she plays on the monkey bars on the playground, although this too is a way for a child to develop strength and better coordination. Here’s another surprising finding. A study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that adults are more likely to sustain injuries from weight training than kids. But younger kids are at higher risk than those who are older. Regardless of age, supervision and even some coaching are important for injury prevention, especially in younger kids.
Kids Strength Training Myth #4: Kids Should Wait Until They Enter Puberty to Strength Train
Should kids wait until they’re in middle school or high school to work their muscles against resistance? McCambridge and colleagues designed a policy that covers strength training in younger people. According to McCambridge and his staff, kids can start strength training as early as age eight, if they’ve developed sufficient balance skills. However, younger kids need supervision during training and can benefit from coaching in how to use proper form to avoid injury. It’s safest to start with bodyweight exercises or resistance bands until a child develops a certain level of strength. Once a child advances to weights, it’s best to use lighter resistance and higher reps, especially in the beginning. Technique and form are more important than the amount of resistance. Plus, the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn’t advocate kids “maxing out” with heavy weights. It’s safer to use sub-maximal loads and higher reps until a child’s skeleton is completely mature.
Kids Strength Training Myth #5: Strength Training is Appropriate for ALL Kids
All children should have a physical exam prior to starting a strength training routine. It’s important to rule out underlying cardiac issues and orthopedic problems that could impact a child’s ability to safely strength train. Plus, kids develop at varying rates. Some kids will have the balance skills necessary to safely train with weights earlier than others. So, the optimal age for a child to start may vary. So, it’s a good idea to let a professional assess a child before he or she begins training with weights. That’s true before a child does any type of strenuous exercise.
The Bottom Line
Strength training has health and fitness benefits for adults AND children. As long as a child has developed solid balance skills and is healthy from a cardiovascular and orthopedic standpoint, he or she is capable of safely working with weights, assuming they’re at least eight years of age. The same guidelines for adults apply to children. Always start with a warm-up to elevate the body temperature and get the muscles warm and start with no weights and then very light weights as your child becomes comfortable doing the exercises. Supervision and close monitoring are important. Pat your yourself on the back for helping your kids form good health and fitness habits early in life! It’ll pay off now and in the future as well.
Pediatric News. “Strength Training Helps Fitness, Coordination.(Clinical Rounds)” February 1, 2005.
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