By: Terry G. Butchen
Study after study has spotlighted the ever-growing trend of physical inactivity among today’s youth. The Surgeon General’s Report (1996) identified that nearly 50 percent of youths, aged 12 to 21, are not active on a regular basis. Physical education programs are fading from school curricula and parents are scrambling to find time and energy to be physically active with their children.
Keep in mind that many youths lack the internal motivation to adopt an exercise program based on health concerns (diabetes, high blood pressure, etc.).We have to make it fun.
Should Kids Lift Weights?
Parents often come to my fitness studio looking for a youth weight training program.Their motives vary: they want their children to gain weight, lose weight, have better posture, get stronger, gain self-esteem or be able to defend themselves.
At this time, I point out two major requirements:
- Children should be mentally mature enough to know why they are training. Concentration is important, as is the reason for training. It has to be more than the parent’s desire.
- Children should be physically mature, beyond puberty.
Recent Findings on Children’s Weight Training
My attitudes toward prepubescent weight training are that children cannot make strength gains because they lack adequate levels of circulating testosterone. Weight training was once considered dangerous for them.
Recent findings suggest this is not entirely true. One study reported in The Physician and Sports Medicine magazine and the other by the National Strength Coaches Association conclude the benefits of weight training outweigh the risks.
For children of all ages, the following guidelines should apply:
- Strength training equipment should be of appropriate design to accommodate the size and degree of maturity.
- It should be cost effective.
- It should be safe, free of defects and inspected frequently.
- A physical exam is mandatory before participation.
- The child must have the emotional maturity to accept coaching and instruction.
- There must be adequate supervision by coaches who are knowledgeable about strength training and the special needs of children.
- Strength training should be one part of an overall comprehensive program designed to increase motor skills and fitness.
- Strength training should be preceded by a warm-up period and followed by a cool-down.
- All exercises should be carried through a full range of motion.
- No strength competition is allowed.
- No maximum lift should ever be attempted.
- Training is recommended two or three times per week for 20- to 30-minute periods.
- Proper form must be demonstrated at all times. Six to fifteen repetitions equal one set; one to three sets per exercise should be done.
- Weight or resistance is increased inthree- to five-pound increments after the child does 15 repetitions in good form.
KidsAre Not Small Adults
Children cannot take the same kind of stress as adults.Their bones are still growing and a bone fracture can slow down or halt the growth of that bone or cause one limb to grow shorter than another.
In the past, children participated in many sports.These days, there is much more specialization and a child will only train for a single sport such as swimming, gymnastics, basketball, etc. Therefore,by concentrating on just one activity, the stresses fall repeatedly on the same body parts.Stress fractures-small cracks in the bones that occur over a period of time-appear all too frequently among young athletes specializing in one sport.Little League pitchers may develop elbow problems, gymnasts may have lower back problems, runners may have knee problems, etc.
Children should be encouraged to participate in as many sports as possible.Specialized training, especially whenbacked up by weight training, is powerful stuff.
Unless the child is self-motivated (as opposed to parent-motivated) and relatively mature, early specialization can lead to physical injuries, mental “burn-out” and less enjoyment and fun than is possible with a more well-rounded approach to sports.