Is Strength Training Safe for Your Child?

You’ve probably read a lot of conflicting information in the media on whether or not strength training is safe for a child. Gyms geared to kids and teens are popping up around the country as the obesity level among children in the United States rises. Strength training can be a fun way to build healthy muscles, joints and bones. With a properly designed and supervised program, your child can improve his endurance, total fitness level and sports performance. Strength training also can help prevent injuries and speed up recovery.

Some kids and teens want to lift weights so they can look muscular like the professional athletes that many of them idolize. But lifting weights won’t produce big muscles in children who have not yet gone through puberty. Professional athletes are adults, and their bodies are different from children’s bodies in many ways. However, with supervision from a coach or trainer, kids and teens can do a lot to build strong, healthy muscles on their way into adulthood.

Strength training, also known as resistance training, refers to the use of hand-held weights (also called free weights), weight machines, medicine balls and rubber resistance bands or tubes to build muscles. Resistance causes the muscles to work extra hard just to move. When this happens, they grow stronger and more efficient just like regular aerobic exercise, such as running, strengthens a person’s heart and lungs.

While strength training and weight lifting are often thought of as the same thing, they actually aren’t. There’s a big difference between strength training, weight lifting, power lifting, and competitive bodybuilding. The goal of strength training isn’t to bulk up, but rather to help strengthen the muscles and tendons around bones and joints. Power lifting concentrates on how much weight a person can lift at one time. This type of lifting can lead to serious injuries to growing bones, muscles and joints, and isn’t recommended for children and teens due to their rapid growth and body development during their adolescent years.

It’s always best to check with your child’s doctor before starting an exercise program or sport. If your child is ready to participate in organized sports or activities, like softball, soccer, or gymnastics, it’s probably safe for basic strength training. Make sure the child’s strength-training program isn’t a miniature version of an adult’s regimen. Although there is no minimum age requirement to begin a strength training program, it’s important that children have the emotional maturity to follow directions, stay focused on proper techniques, and understand the risks associated with exercise before they start.

The first few sessions should focus on technique, safety issues and correct form without exhausting the child. By age 6, kids can usually do push-ups and sit-ups. These exercises can help build a sense of balance, control and body awareness. Typically, it’s a good idea for younger kids to stay away from heavier weights. Instead, they should lift a smaller amount of weight with a higher number of repetitions. As kids get older and stronger, they can gradually increase the amount of resistance they use. Make sure your child works with a trainer who has experience working with kids. This person should be able to design a program for your son or daughter and also demonstrate correct techniques, safety precautions and how to properly use the equipment.

As long as your child is using the proper techniques and lifting an appropriate amount of weight, strength training shouldn’t have any negative effect on his growth plates, the layer of cartilage near the end of the bone where most of the bone growth occurs. Growth plate injuries and muscle strains are the most frequent form of injury, and the lower back is the most commonly injured area. These injuries usually happen because the child hasn’t used the proper lifting technique or is trying to lift too much weight.

Because your teen’s bones, joints and tendons still are growing and developing, it’s easy to strain or even permanently damage them. Pain, limited motion or abnormal sounds while lifting should be evaluated by a sports medicine doctor before resuming training.

An even more dangerous safety concern for parents as their child ages should be the potential for experimentation with sports supplements, including anabolic steroids. Sports supplements enhance athletic performance by helping users increase muscle mass or strength, build stamina or lose weight. But these drugs, some of which are illegal, can pose severe risks to a teen’s immediate, and long-term physical and psychological health. These supplements come in different forms. They include, but aren’t limited to, vitamins, drinks, synthetic (man-made) drugs, and hormones, many of which are available over-the-counter without a prescription (keep in mind this doesn’t automatically make them safe for use). Just because a supplement is available on the internet doesn’t mean it is safe to use! Sports supplements aren’t regulated by the Federal Drug Administration (FDA), and no sports supplements have been tested on kids or teens. That means that scientists and doctors don’t know whether supplements are safe or effective for teens to use.

In general, kids and teens should tone their muscles using a lower amount of weight and a higher number of repetitions (also known as reps), instead of trying to lift a very heavy weight just one or two times. The amount of weight your child should work with will depend on her current size and strength level. In general, your child should be able to lift a weight with proper technique at least 10 to 15 times. If she can’t lift the weight at least 10 times, the weight is probably too heavy for her.

Attempting to add muscle bulk shouldn’t be considered until after puberty. Even then, it’s important for kids to focus on technique so that they can strengthen their muscles safely. A good coach or trainer knows there are some basic rules to follow when developing a strength training program. These should include: 

Many kids and teens first discover strength training when a coach or gym teacher suggests it to improve their performance in a particular sport. But another little known benefit of strength training is that it also may help improve your child’s grades by developing her ability to focus and concentrate. According to the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), strength training helps to improve cardiovascular health, motor skill performance and to promote and develop exercise habits that will hopefully carry over into adulthood. In addition, it also reduces body fat and increases muscle mass, which can help the body burn more calories even when not exercising. Increased muscle mass raises a person’s resting metabolism (in other words, people with more muscle burn more calories even when they’re resting).

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, strength training can help reduce the risk of short-term injuries by protecting bones and joints, as well as helping prevent long-term medical problems including osteoporosis (weakening of the bones) as a person ages. Also, don’t underestimate the importance of feeding your child the proper balance of nutritious foods so she has the energy to exercise.

Remember, when beginning a new sport, activity or exercise regimen, start out slowly so that the body gets used to the increase in activity. Whenever the body does something different than what it’s become accustomed, muscle soreness should be expected even if your child has always been active. And, because of something called delayed onset muscle soreness, the pain may be at its worst two or three days after starting a new program. 

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