Most doctors generally agree that heavy-weight strength training and power lifting are not safe activities until after puberty, as they can damage growth plates in young bones, as well as harming joints and tendons.
But lifting light free weights, using resistance bands, and other forms of strength training have been shown to be highly beneficial for kids when properly performed. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has deemed strength training for children to be safe after age 7 as long as children use light weights and get medical clearance from a doctor first. (Source: WebMD.)
In addition to helping kids maintain a healthy weight to avoid issues like type 2 diabetes and high blood pressure, carefully guided light resistance exercises can increase muscle strength, protect kids from sports injuries, improve balance, athletic performance and coordination. Many parents also notice a boost in self-esteem and increase in positive body image as kids begin to feel stronger and fitter.
If you’re considering strength training as a form of healthy exercise for your child, there are specific guidelines and rules to follow to ensure their well-being. Below are 5 tips from pediatricians and child fitness experts to help anyone develop a safe and effective strength training routine for kids.
1. Warm Up and Stretch—
It’s as important for kids to warm up before pushing muscles as it is for adults, so be sure children get aerobic exercise such as walking, jogging, biking, jumping rope or doing jumping jacks before lifting weights.
Stretching the muscles before strength training can prevent injury, and yoga poses or floor extensions can also be great for limbering up muscles and tendons.
2. Keep the Weights Light—
Until kids have gone through puberty, they are physically unable to pack on muscle like grown-ups, so don’t push them to lift overly heavy weights.
If the child can’t perform at least 12-15 repetitions of a weight-bearing exercise, it’s too heavy and can damage growth plates in the bones, making it crucial to keep weights light and repetitions high.
Sit-ups, push-ups and resistance tubing/elastic bands are all safe after age 7, so don’t forget that there are other strength-building options besides free weights.
3. Set Realistic Expectations—
Children are especially known for seeking instant gratification, so in order to avoid disappointment later, be careful not to give your child unrealistic expectations about what strength training can do for them.
Make it clear that they will not be able to achieve the muscles they see on movie superheroes, but they will be able to become stronger and more powerful.
Letting kids know that strength training may enable them to perform better in athletic activities such as sports is a reasonable potential outcome to give as well.
4. Proper Form is King—
As with adult weightlifting, it’s better to do 5 reps of an exercise with correct form than 15 reps the wrong way. Weight and resistance create potential for injury when strength training is done incorrectly, making it especially important to work out the right way when a child is involved.
If you are not already trained to do all exercises properly, research your regimen or consider hiring a personal trainer to guide you and your child until you both learn how to safely and effectively perform every movement.
Once you’ve achieved proper form in all exercises, it’s still important to supervise your child’s weightlifting activities to prevent “overconfidence injuries” caused by kids pushing themselves to lift too much.
5. Rest for Growing Bones—
Adult bones need frequent strength training and weight resistance to increase bone mineral density, but kids don’t require this, nor is it good for them.
Because the bones, joints and tendons used in strength training are still growing, it’s generally recommended that children participate in weight-bearing and resistance exercises no more than 3 times a week, with a day off between each session to heal.
It’s also important to have a cooling down session, light aerobic exercise, or stretching post-workout. This can prevent the muscles from tightening up or cramping, and help work lactic acid out of them for a pain-free next day.
Starting a child on the path to fitness early with an exercise program can instill healthy habits that will last a lifetime, and working out along with them sets a good example while providing excellent parent/child bonding time. If you’d like to include your child in your current workout, or start an exercise plan together, get the go-ahead from your child’s pediatrician, use the tips above, and get started today.