When the kids see you lifting weights and getting fitter and stronger, they’ll want to join in too. No doubt kids need more exercise. The Centers for Disease Control recommends that kids get 60 minutes of vigorous exercise a day. How many kids are really getting that? According to the CDC, only 39% of kids age 9 to 13 are meeting these guidelines and the numbers drop to 11% and 24% respectively for girls and boys in the ninth to twelfth grade. Kids need more exercise! Experts typically recommend aerobic forms of exercise for kids – but what about strength training? Is it safe for kids to strength train and when is it safe to start?
Kids and Weight Training
Whether it’s a good idea for kids under a certain age to train with weights has been a matter of debate for years. It’s more clear-cut once they get to high school and play sports like football where weight training may be part of their sports training. But what about pre-adolescents, kids between the ages of 9 and 14?
Most pediatricians now believe strength training is not only safe but beneficial for pre-adolescent kids. How can it help a child? Building strength may reduce their risk of injury when they play outside or play sports and give them more self-confidence. It may also improve a child’s performance in certain sports and activities although research isn’t clear on this.
How Beneficial is Strength Training for Kids?
A large study analyzed a number of studies dealing with children and weight training. These studies span over 60 years. The results showed kids and teens between the ages of 6 and 18 all seem to benefit from strength training. Kids as young as 6 were able to build strength, although strength development was greater in older adolescents and teens.
Why is strength development greater in older kids and teens? A pre-pubescent child has little or no ability to build muscle because they lack the hormonal structure. Despite the fact pre-adolescent children aren’t hormonally “primed” to gain build muscle, they can still develop greater strength. Strength development also involves neuromuscular learning, increasing the number of motor neurons that fire with muscle contractions for greater force development. Another way strength training builds strength in kids is by increasing the activation of synergistic muscles when performing an exercise. So, kids can develop greater strength despite not having adequate levels of androgens like testosterone. Once they go through puberty, they become capable of gaining lean body mass too.
How Old is Old Enough to Train with Weights?
Most kids don’t have the proprioceptive skills or the coordination and balance needed to work with weights until around age seven. Kids shouldn’t begin strength training until they’ve developed these skills. A safe time to start for most kids would be around age 8 or 9, although some pediatricians believe it’s safe to begin earlier, around age 6 or 7.
It’s safest for a pre-adolescent child to begin exercising without weights so they can learn proper form. Once they’ve mastered the moves, progress to resistance bands rather than weights to reduce the risk of injury. Of course, they should be supervised, especially if they’re working with weights.
Most pediatricians that advocate strength training in kids recommend using lighter weights and more reps rather than lifting heavy weights due to the greater risk for injury. Pre-adolescent kids can’t develop size anyway. Circuit training that emphasizes sports-specific movements and general conditioning are also safe ways for kids to work out. Just as adults should warm-up beforehand and cool-down afterward, kids should too.
Are There Risks to Kids Weight Training?
At one time, the belief was that strength training might damage the growth plates of bones in kids that are still growing and lead to short stature. Research shows this isn’t the case. One concern is kids that strength train may be more susceptible to injury due to imbalances in muscle and tendon strength. That’s why it’s important for kids to learn proper form and stick with lighter weights and more reps. Bodyweight exercises using proper form are also good ways for kids to build strength.
The best approach is for kids to devote at least half of their exercise time to aerobic exercise and sports-related activities. If they want to delve into the world of strength training and have the proprioceptive skills, help them get started right by showing them how to use proper form. It’s also a good idea to talk to your child’s pediatrician before getting kids involved in a strength training program. Chances are they’ll give the okay as long as your child is healthy.
The Bottom Line?
Strength training isn’t just for adults – kids that have good proprioceptive skills can benefit too. When they start early, they develop an appreciation for staying active. Plus, strength training builds confidence at all ages. It’s yet another way to encourage kids to get the activity many so desperately need.
Pediatrics Vol. 107 No. 6 June 1, 2001 pp. 1470 -1472 (doi: 10.1542/peds.107.6.1470)
Med. Sci in Spt & Ex, 22(5): 605-614.
The New York Times. “Phys Ed: The Benefits of Weight Training for Children” November 24, 2010.
CDC. “Youth Physical Activity: The Role of Families”
Mayo Clinic. “Strength Training: Okay for Kids?”
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