Strength Training for Kids- Whats, whys, whens and… weights?
It’s easy to dismiss strength training for kids.
For a long time it’s been widely believed that strength training, especially when it comes to lifting weights, is dangerous for children. Many people think that starting too young can have negative developmental impact, like affecting bone plate growth. Combine this with the idea that weights ‘bulk you up’ and any interaction with your neighborhood meathead, and few people are interested in starting their kids on a strength program anytime soon. But before you jump to any conclusions, strength training for kids might not be as bad as you think. In fact, it’s actual pretty great.
In this post I’ll address why strength and (when appropriate) weight training can be fantastic for kids and explain the whats, whens, and hows of getting started. But first it’s important to answer the most important question- is it safe?
While many people still believe that weightlifting can be bad for kids, according to nearly ever major fitness and health organization, that theory is now considered a myth. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and many others have all made statements highlighting the benefits of strength training for kids… when done appropriately. As is the case with kids and adults alike, lifting heavy weights with improper form will always put one at risk for injury. When done correctly, it can have huge benefits.
Why is strength training good for kids?
Strength training and weight training for kids can:
- Increase body awareness
- Increase strength
- Increase motor control
- Increase self confidence
- Decrease risk of injury
And that’s only a partial list. As an adult, think of how many times you or someone you know has said, “I wish I had known that when I was a kid.” When it comes to strength and weight training, it’s a similar sentiment. Learning early makes staying in shape later in life easier and more accessible.
When is it appropriate to start?
There is no set age when kids should or shouldn’t begin a strength program. But there are a few prerequisites, the most important being that the child can listen and follow directions. Especially when working in a typical gym setting surrounded by lots of weights and equipment, it’s essential that they’re able to follow the instructions of his/her coach or trainer.
When it comes to lifting weights, the biggest question is, can they perform the movement with proper technique using only their body weight? If a child can’t do a proper squat, it’s not safe to add weight to the movement. Instead they should focus on developing the proper technique, a very important step that many adults tend to skip when beginning a strength program.
Is there a difference between girls and boys?
Strength training for kids can be a tricky topic given the previously mentioned stigmas that surround it. When you start to talk about strength training for girls, there’s even more resistance as parents fear that weights will make their daughter ‘bulky’ or think that training is less beneficial for girls. Both are far from the truth.
“A well developed strength training program creates healthier girls both physically and emotionally,” says Elizabeth Dix, founder of Work. Play. Train. LLC. “They gain all the physical benefits we see in strength training, plus they witness first hand the advancements of their own efforts and bodily capabilities. Girls who train are more confident in who they are and their ability to go after their goals no matter the difficulty level or time to obtain.”
Overall there are very few differences when it comes to boys and girls in regards to strength and weight training. Both enjoy the range of benefits previously mentioned. But according to Dix, “The only difference between boys and girls weight training is a girl who has yet to reach puberty should stick to lifting weight less than her body weight, unless working with a professional. Regardless, the amount being lifted (for boys and girls) should not increase until form is mastered.”
What does a good program look like?
Like any athletic endeavor for kids, a great program won’t be sport specific. The primary goals should always be focused on increasing body awareness and motor control. As always, the experience should be a positive one for the child. A good strength program for kids will:
-Not be sport specific
-Improve quality of movement
-Provide constant supervision
-Focus on technique over performance
-Take place in a positive environment
With most things for kids, I always believe that expectations should be set high but be centered around effort and improvement over competition and results. Good strength training programs for kids should also help children set goals.
“Be age appropriate with realistic benchmarks. Giving a child advanced movements too soon can result in low self-esteem. Instead, give them something challenging yet attainable where they can feel a sense of accomplishment and positive self image,” say Maria Chatman, co-founder of PopFit Kids.
How do you find the right program?
Great coaching always wins. A good coach not only creates a great program, which includes the above mentioned components, but fosters a positive environment where kids are eager to learn and feel comfortable making mistakes. Certifications and education is important, but mostly because they show that the coach has taken the time and commitment as a professional to hone their craft. But certifications and fancy letters after your name don’t mean everything.
Ask other professionals who work with kids for references- physical therapists, your child’s team coach, teachers. Or ask other parents.
Once you find a program that looks like a good fit for your son or daughter, ask a lot of questions. High quality instructors and coaches should feel comfortable explaining their philosophies and methods, in turn making you feel comfortable trusting them with your children.
What kinds of programs are available?
There are many different ways that you can begin your child with a strength training or weight training program including:
And those are just a few of the choices available. When starting with weights, it’s always a good idea to work with a professional (like a personal trainer) first. But with general strength training for kids, there are lots of great options that will teach mechanics and techniques first.
As always don’t forget that kids learn a lot from modeling. If you do strength training or weight training (which you should!) talk to your kids about it and/or let them watch (from a safe distance). You’d be amazed by how much kids like to watch people working out, and like any healthy habit, it’s always a bonus when you can share it with your entire family.
While this post in no way covers every detail of strength training for kids, the purpose is to highlight not only how it can be safe, but the wide range of benefits it can have for children. As you would with any new form of exercise, it’s always a good idea to check with your child’s doctor first.
Steve Ettinger is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (NSCA) and kids fitness expert. Learn more about his school visits, books, and fitness adventures at www.SteveEttinger.com.
I'm a registered dietitian, mom of 4, avid lover of food and strong promoter of healthy habits. Here you will find lots of delicious recipes full of fruits and veggies, tips for getting your kids to eat better and become intuitive eaters and lots of resources for feeding your family.Learn More about Natalie