Strength Training and Children

by David S. Casey & Lynn Laufenberg

For several decades now, all adults have heard and many have heeded the admonition to exercise. Maybe it’s time we extended this message to include our children, whose strongest muscles sometimes seem to be the ones developed while using the video game controller and the remote control.

Exercise for children helps prevent high blood pressure and obesity; strengthens bones, wards off heart disease, diabetes and other medical problems; and improves self-confidence and energy levels.

It is not necessary for the child to be a great athlete or to join an organized sports team. It is only necessary to get out of the chair—or off the couch—and start moving. Start anywhere. Throwing a Frisbee counts. Helping with the household chores—cleaning the pool, or the fireplace, or the bathtub. Walking the dog.

It may seem impossible sometimes, but you can help your children find physical activities they enjoy. Often, these will include you. What’s wrong with that?

Physical fitness requires aerobic fitness, endurance, flexibility, and muscle strength, and endurance. Aerobic fitness requires continuous activity for 20 to 30 minutes, at least two or three times a week. The activity must be sufficiently strenuous to increase both breathing and heart rates, for the benefit of heart, lungs, and circulatory system. As aerobic fitness improves, so does endurance.

Flexibility is the ability to move joints and stretch muscles through a full range of motion. Flexibility reduces the likelihood of injuries during any kind of physical activity. The simplest way to achieve flexibility is to engage in the widest range of physical activities.

Now, what about strength training? First, we should debunk the misconception that such training is ineffective or even dangerous before puberty. Careful, appropriate strength training is entirely appropriate for children. It will not lead girls to develop masculine bodies. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) has established a Committee on Sports Medicine and Fitness charged with advancing the cause of simple physical activity for children. This committee states, “Strength training programs for preadolescents and adolescents can be safe and effective if proper techniques and safety precautions are followed.”

Both the AAP committee and common sense recommend that any strength training program for young people be conducted by well-trained adults fully qualified to plan individual programs appropriate to the given athlete’s stage of maturation. This program should be assessed objectively by medical personnel.

Any good program will focus on developing proper technique, first, then the number of repetitions. The amount of weight is secondary. When 8 to 15 “reps” of a given exercise with a given weight are achieved, a small increase in weight is okay. But, really, you as a parent should not even get into such micromanagement. Leave this to a trusted professional.

Both the AAP committee and common sense tell us that competitive weight lifting, power lifting, and body building are not appropriate for adolescents, much less for preadolescents. If you have any sense that your boy or girl has found any such program, immediate investigation is called for. Don’t be shy. Exercise is safe, but it can be overdone. Your child may be exercising excessively, to the detriment of overall health, if his or her weight drops below normal for age, height and build; if muscle fatigue and soreness is chronic; if school work and other activities suffer. Of course, any injury requires careful investigation.