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Weight Room No Longer Off-Limits to Kids

Strength training is an important part of physical conditioning for adults, along with aerobic exercise and stretching for flexibility. But what can—or should—kids do when it comes to strength training?

Although pediatric experts once thought that children should not train with weights, that attitude has changed. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) now say that strength training is fine for kids, as long as they are supervised and don't try to lift too much weight.

Strength training, when done properly, builds muscle strength, improves athletic performance and can help young athletes avoid injuries. It also builds bone density, strengthens ligaments and tendons, and can help a child who is overweight lose extra pounds.

A child who is strength training can use free weights, his or her own body weight, fitness machines, or devices such as elastic bands.

Unlike weight lifting and power lifting, which are competitive sports that emphasize lifting heavy weights, strength training focuses on using lighter weights through many repetitions. Children should be discouraged from engaging in weight lifting or power lifting, the ACSM says. Children also should avoid bodybuilding, which focuses on building muscle mass, because their muscles will not increase in size until after puberty.

How old?

A child of 5 or 6 may be able to do exercises that use the body's own weight, such as push-ups and sit-ups. These should be introduced only when the child is old enough to follow directions and use proper form. A child of 7 or 8 may be old enough to use free weights, as long as he or she knows to be careful with them and lifts them safely.

A general rule about readiness for strength training says that when a child is old enough to participate in organized sports, then he or she probably is also old enough to begin training with weights.

A key part of any strength training program for children is enjoyment. Kids should have fun doing the exercises, should be given breaks in between the exercises, as well as time to warm up and cool down.

Growth concerns

One reason that doctors discouraged children from lifting weights in the past was a concern that kids' growing bones would be damaged. The incidence of growth plate fractures have not been reported in programs designed by experts with appropriate supervision.

Going by the guidelines

The ACSM offers these suggestions for a safe strength training program for children:

  • Although the long-term goals of a strength training program may be performance enhancement and injury reduction, the primary focus should be skill development and having fun.

  • Strength training can be done two to three times a week, but with at least one day of rest between sessions.

  • The program should include all major muscle groups and go through a full range of motion.

  • Each session should begin with a warm-up and end with a cool-down.

  • A typical program might have one set of 10 to 15 repetitions for six to eight different exercises.

  • A trainer or coach should be present at each session to ensure that the child is following proper form and to act as a spotter.

  • The workouts should be varied so the child doesn't become bored with the same drill of exercises each time.