Strength training is an important part of physical conditioning for adults, along with aerobic exercise (cardio) and stretching for flexibility. But what’s OK for kids to do when it comes to strength training?
Dr. Kelly Davis, a pediatric sports medicine physician at CHOC’s Orthopaedic Institute, says that with proper supervision and instruction, kids and teens can safely do strength training to improve sports performance, treat or prevent injuries or lose a bit of weight if needed. Here, she discusses how kids and teens can strength train safely and effectively.
What are the benefits of weight training for kids and teens?
When done correctly, strength training can help children and teens build muscle strength. In addition, it will build bone density; strengthen ligaments and tendons; improve athletic performance; help young athletes avoid injuries; and help an overweight child lose extra pounds. With a well-designed and supervised program, they can:
- Improve overall fitness and sports performance.
- Increase lean body mass (more muscle, less fat).
- Burn more calories.
- Make bones stronger.
- Improve mental health.
How old should my child be before they start strength training?
A good rule of thumb to follow is that if kids and teens are ready to participate in organized sports or other activities such as baseball, soccer or gymnastics, they usually can safely start strength training, says Dr. Davis.
Kids as young as 7 or 8 years old can safely do strength training if they have good balance, control of their body, the ability to follow instructions and can do the exercises with good form.
A child’s strength-training program shouldn’t be just a scaled-down version of an adult’s weight training regimen. Instead, kids who strength train should learn proper techniques and know how to use the equipment safely. Kids should not use machines and equipment designed for adults.
Trainers who work at schools, gyms and in weight rooms know about strength training. But look for someone who is a certified strength-training expert and who has experience working with kids and teens.
Is strength training safe for kids?
Strength-training programs are generally safe for kids. When done properly, strength training won’t damage growing bones.
As with any sport, talk to your doctor before letting your child start a strength-training program. Kids and teens with some medical conditions — such as uncontrolled high blood pressure, seizures, heart problems and other conditions — need their doctor’s OK before they start strength training.
Also, your child should be closely supervised and use the right equipment and proper technique.
The best way to learn proper technique is to do the exercises without any weight. When the technique is mastered, weight (or resistance, if using exercise bands) can be added if your child can comfortably do the exercise for 8 to 15 repetitions with good form.
Children and teens should never attempt to “max out” when lifting weights, which is intentionally lifting the heaviest weight that their body can handle. muscle strains are the most common injury associated with strength training, and they typically happen when a child is unsupervised or goofing around.
Some young and professional athletes try anabolic steroids and other performance enhancers to build muscles and improve athletic performance and appearance. Talk to your child about the dangers of using these drugs.
What’s strength training routine for kids?
In general, kids and teens should tone their muscles using light weights (or resistance) and a high number of repetitions rather than lifting a heavy load once or twice.
The amount of weight will depend on a child’s age, size and strength level. But in general, kids should be able to lift a weight with proper technique at least 8 to 15 times. If they can’t lift the weight comfortably at least 8 times, the weight is too heavy.
Preteens shouldn’t be concerned about adding muscle bulk, which won’t happen until after they’ve gone through puberty. After puberty, the male hormone testosterone helps build muscle in response to weight training. Boys have more testosterone than girls do, so they get bigger muscles.
The focus of each training session should be on proper form and technique, with qualified instruction and supervision.
Kids’ strength training program guidelines
Here are some guidelines when considering strength-training programs:
- Light weight with perfect form is the key to safe strength training for kids.
- The main focus of the program should be skill development and having fun.
- An instructor-to-child ratio of no more than 1 to 10.
- The instructor should have an approved strength-training certification and experience with kids and strength training. They should ensure that kids are using correct form and act as a spotter.
- Warm up with at least 5 to 10 minutes of aerobic activity and dynamic stretching. Cool down with less intense activity and static stretching.
- Begin with one set of 8 to 15 repetitions of 6 to 8 exercises that focus on the major muscle groups of the upper and lower body and core.
- Kids can start with body weight exercises (such as sit-ups and push-ups) and work on technique without using weights. When proper technique is mastered, a relatively light weight can be used with a high number of repetitions (8 to 15). Increase the weight, number of sets or types of exercises as strength improves.
- Workouts should vary so kids don’t become bored with the same drill of exercises each time.
- For best results, do strength exercises for at least 20 to 30 minutes 2 or 3 days per week. Take at least a day off between sessions.
Strength training is one part of a total fitness program. Kids and teens should get at least an hour a day of moderate to vigorous physical activity every day, including aerobic (cardio) activity, like running, biking and playing outside. Also, be sure your child drinks plenty of liquids and eats a healthy diet for better performance and recovery.
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Learn more about CHOC’s Orthopedic Services
CHOC Hospital was named one of the nation’s best children’s hospitals by U.S. News & World Report in its 2023-24 Best Children’s Hospitals rankings and ranked in the orthopedics specialty.