Strength Training and Children

As our society becomes more sedentary and young people spend more of their time in non-physical pursuits, we see progressively lower levels of physical fitness in increasingly larger numbers of boys and girls. Over a 15-year period, childhood obesity has increased more than 50 percent and super obesity has more than doubled. As a result, Type II diabetes, formerly called adult onset diabetes, has become prevalent in teenagers and even preadolescents.

One way to keep the obesity rate down is to get children involved with strength training. Research has shown that strength training is the best means for improving body composition in youth, as it addresses two major problems in many preadolescents-namely, too little muscle and too much fat.

The most critical time for developing strong bones is during the childhood years. Recent research indicates that strength training is about six times more effective for building bone in preadolescent girls than it is in young, middle-aged or older women. Contrary to the myth that strength training is detrimental to young bones, it is actually the best way to develop a strong musculoskeletal system.

But not all equipment is appropriate for kids to be using for strength training. In our experience, boys and girls under 12 years of age appear to do better training on youth-sized resistance machines. However, children 12 years and older can train effectively on standard selectorized machines, especially when using pressing movements (leg press, chest press, incline press, shoulder press, triceps press, assisted bar-dip, etc.) and pulling movements (seated row, pull-down, assisted chin-up, etc). Youth under 5 feet tall have difficulty aligning their joint axes of rotation with machine axes of rotation, so rotary exercises (leg extension, leg curl, triceps extension, biceps curl, etc.) are not recommended.

Selectorized machines are also good for kids because they give realistic, concrete results, which they like. For instance, they can see that this month they lifted one plate and the next month they lifted two. This is great for keeping their motivation level high.

In addition to selectorized equipment, young people also do well on youth-sized hydraulic equipment. Hydraulic equipment reduces the risk of injury because there are no weight stacks involved. With hydraulic equipment, however, the feedback isn't as evident, because kids can't see what they are lifting. Also, hydraulic equipment only provides concentric muscle action and not eccentric.

If a club isn't able to purchase a separate line of equipment for children, it has two choices: It can use regular machines and try to pad the kids into them, or it can use dumbbells, elastic bands and medicine balls. The only concern with dumbbells is that the kids have to have close supervision because there is a lot of freedom of movement, and they can hurt themselves if they are performing the exercises incorrectly.

While dumbbells are OK for kids to use, I'm not a proponent of barbell exercises for children because there is a greater risk of injury. They could get caught under the bar because of lack of skill and strength. With safer options available, kids should avoid using barbells.

For the most part, any exercise you can do with equipment you can also do with elastic bands. The only thing to consider is that there is less motivation because the kids can't see their progress as well.

I have also had a lot of success training kids using graduated medicine balls. The results I have gotten in terms of muscle gain and power have been excellent, and the children love it because it is a realistic and active form of exercise. You will see a lot more information on this in the future.

After 15 years of youth strength-training programs with no injuries, I am confident that this activity is safe and beneficial for children. A sensible strength-training program enhances musculoskeletal development, encourages self-confidence and elicits a physically active lifestyle.

--Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is co-author with Dr. Avery Faigenbaum of the new youth strength-training book, Strength and Power for Young Athletes, by Human Kinetics Publishers.


Youth Strength-Training Guidelines

1. Select basic exercises for major muscles.

a. Four exercises, three sets each

b. Six exercises, two sets each

c. Twelve exercises, one set each

2. Perform 10 to 15 repetitions per exercise.

3. Increase resistance by 1 to 3 pounds upon completing 15 repetitions.

4. Use slow movement speed (four to six seconds per repetition).

5. Use full movement range.

6. Train two or three nonconsecutive days per week.

7. Train under adult supervision.

8. Train safely.

9. Train progressively.

10. Train consistently.


Bodyweight Machines Vs. Weight Machines

For most boys and girls, bodyweight exercises are not appropriate because their muscles are unable to lift their body weight. For example, fewer than 50 percent of all children can do a single pull-up and not many more can complete a properly performed bar-dip, push-up or sit-up. With weight machines, however, every child can use a resistance that permits 10 to 15 perfect repetitions. Most weight machines allow 1- to 3-pound increases that facilitate safe, systematic and successful programs of progressive resistance exercise.