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Resistance Training for Children
I received this in a newsletter and thought it maybe helpful.
Kids and Exercise
by Chris Mohr, PhD
Physical inactivity and poor nutrition habits are ruining our kids lives. This is the first generation of children who will not outlive their parents, according to a recent report. That is scary, particularly because this is preventable. There is not some autoimmune disorder or widespread virus kids are suddenly contracting that’s shortening their lifespan. It is simply physical inactivity and poor eating habits, which together lead to overweight and obesity, type 2 diabetes (which many years ago was unheard of in children), and many other ailments. Simply put, kids need to move more and eat less!! And parents need to lead by example. Educating children is definitely an important step to improving their health, but kids are not buying their own groceries or cooking their own meals, so parents must play a role as well.
We touched briefly on nutrition for children and adolescents last time, so this time we’re focusing on physical activity. I often hear parents ask, “is it safe for my child to exercise or weight train? I don’t want to stunt his growth or injure him or her.” It’s great to hear that parents are taking an active role in their child’s health, so these types of questions are good.
First and foremost, before even considering lifting weights, jogging or anything else, turn off the computers, TV’s, cell phones, Ipod’s, and every other electronic device your family owns. We need to MOVE! As many of you may be aware, the USDA updated the food pyramid to include exercise (www.mypyramid.gov) in 2005. And, last I heard, they are fortunately following this up with an activity pyramid that is to be released in 2008. In fact, in yesterday’s paper I saw a first attempt at this…and a very good one at that. Check out this activity pyramid from the University of Missouri at : (http://muextension.missouri.edu/expl...ut/n00386.pdf).
This sums things up very well. Notice at the bottom of the pyramid, meaning the activity that should be done the most, is general “everyday activity.” Things like playing, biking, skateboarding, sports - just being kids, which many have gotten away from. As we move up the pyramid, there are more specific recommendations for aerobic and strength based activities. Finally, at the very top of the pyramid are sedentary things like watching TV, staring at a computer, and other things that put children and adults at risk for a number of diseases.
With all of that said and assuming most kids know how to “play”, let’s get a bit more into weight training, since this is a point of confusion for a lot of folks. Over the past 10 or 15 years, resistance training for children has gained acceptance and popularity, but that’s not to say it’s without controversy. Many believe that training closes bone growth plates too early, contributes to a lack of flexibility because the growing muscles become too tight, increases the risk of injury, and some have even suggested it negatively affects hormone levels in growing children. However, exercise governing bodies such as the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, and the American Academy of Pediatrics all suggest that children can benefit from a properly prescribed and supervised resistance training program.
In fact, there is research to support each of the benefits from following a properly designed resistance training program.
* Increased muscular strength and muscular endurance
* Decreased injuries in sports and general recreational activities
* Improved performance capacity in sports and recreational activities
* Enhanced bone development
What is most important, is to ensure a safety-first approach, meaning children need to learn about proper form and lifting techniques and should not be sent blindly into a weight room. They need to have competent supervision and be given a properly designed fitness program. I always highly encourage parents to talk with the kids about learning body weight exercises first. A well respected strength coach and good friend of mine, Alwyn Cosgrove, always says that you should not even use additional weight unless you have mastered the body weight version first – and this goes for adults and children. For example, there is no need to get under a barbell for a chest press if you cannot comfortably do 10 or 12 pushups, using perfect form.
The best advice for anyone, children or adults, who are starting an exercise program and looking for general health improvement, is to work on full body movements, through the greatest ranges of motion possible. Learn to do a push-up properly, a chin-up and
pull-up, squat, dead lift, dips, and lunges. These all work large muscle groups and help build a strong foundation. Again, with children the emphasis needs to be on perfecting form – this means taking the ego out of the picture, not worrying about how much weight they or others are lifting, practicing proper movements, and of course focusing most of the time on general physical every single day, rather than sedentary down time.
In addition, don’t push a child into resistance training, but encourage them and work with them—lead by example. Before starting any resistance training program at all, here are a few basic guidelines for children and adolescents of various age groups; they are loosely adapted from the book Strength Training for Young Athletes, written by world renowned strength coaches, William Kraemer and Stephen Fleck.
* Ages 5 – 7: Introduce child to basic exercises with little or no weight. Teach technique, progress from body weight calisthenics, low volume.
* Ages 8 – 10: Continue to practice technique, use simple exercises, and monitor tolerance to exercise stress.
* Ages 11 - 13: Teach all basic exercise techniques and introduce more advanced exercises, using little or no resistance.
* Ages 14 – 15: progress to more advanced exercise programs, always emphasizing exercise techniques.
* 16+: Entry level into adult programs assuming a solid foundation has been gained.
Using the information above, it’s important to also focus on the needs of a child; gaining strength can’t be the only goal. A sound resistance training program needs to consist of :
* Conditioning of all fitness components
* Balanced upper and lower body development
* Balanced choice of exercises for muscles on both sides of the joint (e.g., quadriceps and hamstrings)
Caution: Don’t Lift too Heavy!
And when developing each of the abovementioned components, children should keep the number of repetitions above 10. Remember, we’re not trying to max out weights here, but rather build a strong, healthy foundation. In fact, I don’t believe it’s safe or warranted to even attempt max lifts for children or adolescents; I remember in football we used to do a max bench press every year starting as freshman. At the time I didn’t know to question it, nor would I since our coaches made us do this, but to me it doesn’t even make sense---a max bench press is not going to correlate to performance. I knew plenty of athletes who could lift a lot of weight, yet still sat on the bench because moving a barbell from point A to point B is much different than performing on a field.
There surely are dangers of lifting too heavy – first and foremost is that form is often compromised during a max lift (or just an attempt at a max lift). And when form is compromised, you’re setting yourself up for an injury(ies). Not only are young bones and joints not prepared for maximal loads, but there is a very real risk of compression damage at the spine when overloaded with exercises such as heavy squats and dead lifts. Remember, master the body weight version first, in perfect form, then “graduate” to adding some resistance. But to this day, a lot of what I do includes body weight exercises. Trust me you can very easily work your muscles by changing your body angle, working on one leg at a time, even without an external load.
The weight room can be a very safe, structured environment for children and adolescents, as long as there is qualified support and supervision. Don’t let something which can be very good, turn out very bad with an injury.
In summary, everyone needs to move, from infants to the elderly. It is most important to focus on general everyday activities, less overall sedentary behaviors, and then also work on some more specific physical activity (resistance, aerobic, flexibility, etc). Couple these positive habits with sound nutrition tips and you and your family will be much better off in the long run.
For much more in depth and solid information, I highly suggest the book by Kraemer and Fleck, published by Human Kinetics.
Christopher R. Mohr has a PhD in exercise physiology, is a registered dietitian, and is owner of Mohr Results, Inc (www.MohrResults.com).
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