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Choosing a Strength Training Program for Kids

Holly J. Benjamin, MD
Kimberly M. Glow, MD, MPH
with Patricia D. Mees

THE PHYSICIAN AND SPORTSMEDICINE - VOL 31 - NO. 9 - SEPTEMBER 2003


Whether your child is involved in sports, does recreational activities, or just needs to be more active, a strength training program can be one part of a well-balanced youth fitness program. Improved muscle coordination gained from strength training can increase athletic performance and help prevent some on-field injuries in sports. You may notice your child gaining more self confidence and better social skills along with muscle strength. Good strength training can improve bone health and also help overweight kids lose unwanted pounds. You want your child's exercise to be safe, but what should you look for before your child begins strength training?

Q. How good is the supervision?

A. The most important safety factor is proper adult supervision. Supervisors should have experience working with children and be trained in youth strength training and safety procedures. Each adult supervisor should be responsible for no more than 10 kids. Look for adults who encourage success by choosing the appropriate exercises and workload for each child. When necessary, adult spotters should help each child to prevent injury if a lift fails. Unsupervised training will always be prohibited.

Q. What should I look for in a gym or weight room?

A. The training room should be clean and free of hazards. The equipment should be designed and sized for children, with weight stacks available in 1- to 5-pound increments. Participants are required to wear appropriate clothing and footwear.

Q. How do I know if it's a good program?

A. In a well-run program, exercises begin with simple movements, such as leg extensions, that work one joint at a time. More complex movements that require muscle coordination, such as squats, are learned before speed and power movements like jumping and throwing. Usually, a variety of single- and multiple-joint exercises are done at each session.

Exercises to strengthen the shoulders, abdominals (stomach), upper back, and lower back are learned to prepare for work with free weights or weight machines. Students are taught to use body weight, elastic tubing, or medicine balls to prepare for using weights. Preparation and adequate warm-ups before each session are designed to prevent injuries.

Weight resistance exercises start with a bar that has no added weights. Proper form and technique must be mastered before weights can be added. The amount of weight, number of repetitions per set, and the number of sets performed are gradually increased over time to maintain training intensity. Kids can easily become bored doing the same exercises day after day, so workout routines should vary enough to remain interesting. Using different exercises will also strengthen various muscle groups to improve balance and coordination.

Students begin with one set of 10 to 15 repetitions with light weights and do six to eight different exercises per session, then cool down. If a child can't do at least 10 repetitions per set with a given weight, the weight is too heavy and should be reduced.

When three sets of 15 repetitions become easy and can be performed at three consecutive sessions, more weight can be attempted. Students learn how to use workout cards to record the number of sets they did at each weight and how to monitor their progress. Instructors are trained in safe ways to evaluate strength gains.

Q. Will my child develop big muscles?

A. You may may see gains in strength and coordination, but it is unlikely you will see any increase in the size of your children's muscles until they go through puberty. Realistic goals are established based on each child's abilities, needs, and expectations. In a well-run program, the focus is on mastering proper form and technique rather than competing to see who can lift the most weight.

Q. How can I help my child enjoy this experience?

A. Children must be old enough to understand and follow instructions and able to attend three training sessions per week for at least 8 weeks. At least 1 day of rest is recommended between sessions. You can help your children reach their full potential by encouraging good eating habits and adequate sleep. Celebrating the small accomplishments and giving loving support for small disappointments will encourage your child to meet new challenges.

FAST FACTS

  1. Adult supervision is the most important safety factor in strength training.
  2. Children will gain strength, but muscle size will not increase until after puberty.
  3. A good program emphasizes proper form and technique rather than competition.

Remember: This information is not intended as a substitute for medical treatment. Before starting an exercise program, consult a physician.

Dr Benjamin is a sports medicine physician in the departments of pediatrics and orthopedic surgery and rehabilitation medicine at the University of Chicago. Dr Glow is a fellow in adolescent and young adult medicine at Rush-Presbyterian-St Luke's Medical Center in Chicago. Ms Mees is an assistant editor with The Physician and Sportsmedicine.


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