Increasing childhood obesity is driving a review of the exercise recommendations of many countries for children and youth. Most exercise specialists now recommend that children spend at least an hour each day in play involving moderate to vigorous exercise, and that periods of inactivity of more than two hours are discouraged. This means not letting them sit in front of the TV or computer game for more than two daylight hours. Strength training with weights for children is no longer discouraged, particularly in pre-teens and adolescents.
The US National Association for Sport and Physical Education recommends the following:
Children should accumulate at least 60 minutes, and up to several hours, of age appropriate physical activity on all, or most days of the week.
Children should participate in several bouts of physical activity lasting 15 minutes or more each day.
Children should participate each day in a variety of age-appropriate physical activities designed to achieve optimal health, wellness, fitness and performance benefits.
Extended periods (periods of two hours or more) of inactivity are discouraged for children, especially during the daytime hours.
What about Weight Training for Children?
In the past, weight training for children and adolescents received much bad press. Delicate bone developmental processes could be disrupted, leading to growth abnormalities, some experts said. It now seems that this concern was over-emphasized. If children are given a well-designed and supervised program, trained in the essentials of good form and technique, and the weights aren't too heavy, few problems arise during workouts or in the longer term.
However, if you encourage or allow your children to lift weights, always be aware of safety requirements including proper technique and appropriate weight selection. Competition between friends or other children in the training group can lead to selection of weight that is too heavy, or the use of poor technique that could lead to injury.
Kids will fool around. I’ve seen this in action in a gym where high school children attend a session. Trainers and supervisors need to be on the lookout for this behavior. Strength training for children is not weightlifting, powerlifting or bodybuilding in their purest forms, which are aimed at competition. These distinctions, and the distractions, should be clear to parents, trainers and children.
Although young children under 10 years may develop strength from training with weights, they’re almost certainly better off running around and playing ball games and developing spatial, movement and balance skills at that age. Children in the range 10-15 years are usually the group for which this information is most relevant.
Benefits of Strength Training for Children
Children may benefit in the following ways:
- Muscle strength and endurance
- Improved sports performance
- Physical fitness
- Weight maintenance
- Strong bones
- A fitness habit for future benefit
Given that good form and lifting technique are essential, exercise type, weight selection, repetitions and sets are the main variables to choose from. Here is an example walk-through using a dumbbell curl as an exercise example.
- Ensure sufficient food and fluid is taken prior to the exercise session, preferably with carbohydrate content.
- Do a warm-up first. This could include a jog, running on the spot, mild stretches and some simulation of the exercise with very light weights or just body weight.
- Demonstrate the correct form and technique. For example, for a dumbbell curl the weight should be light enough so that other body parts are not bought into the movement in order to lift the weight. Jerking the head and torso backward with the lift is an example. Even if this occurs at the top of the repetition range -- number 12 for example -- the weight is probably too heavy.
- Choose a weight that allows at least 12 repetitions and preferably 15. This ensures the weight is light enough not too place too much stress on joints and the developing cartilage and bone, which is one of the potential risk areas for weight training for children.
- Two sets for each exercise is probably enough for younger children, and it should minimize boredom as well.
- Aim for six to ten exercises depending on age, fitness and maturity. Exercise weight can be increased gradually as children get older or stronger.
- Supervise as much as possible. Parents should take some responsibility for learning a few weight training basics so that they know what’s appropriate.
- Cool down with stretches and mild callisthenics.
- Two sessions each week is sufficient, three at the most. Children and adolescents should have at least one day in between sessions to ensure recovery from muscle soreness.
- Make the workout fun, perhaps with music. Boredom comes quickly to younger children and can produce careless behavior.
Malina RM. Weight training in youth -- growth, maturation, and safety: an evidence-based review. Clin J Sport Med. 2006 Nov;16(6):478-87.