By Mayo Clinic staff
The young athlete in your family is disciplined and devoted, squeezing in practice whenever he or she can. Now your child wants to start strength training. You've heard coaches and other parents talk about strength training, but you wonder - is strength training really good for a child?
The answer is yes. Strength training exercises that are supervised, safe and age-appropriate offer many bonuses to young athletes.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association all support strength training for kids - if it's done properly. Today's children are increasingly overweight and out of shape. Strength training can help put them on the lifetime path to better health and fitness.
Strength training, not weightlifting
Strength training for kids - not to be confused with weightlifting, bodybuilding or powerlifting - is a carefully designed program of exercises to increase muscle strength and endurance. Weightlifting, bodybuilding and powerlifting are largely driven by competition, with participants vying to lift heavier weights or build bigger muscles than other athletes. Strength training for kids, however, isn't about lifting the heaviest weight possible. Instead, the focus is on lighter weights and controlled movements, with a special emphasis on proper technique and safety.
"Heavy lifting can put too much strain on young muscles, tendons and growth plates, especially when proper technique is sacrificed in favor of lifting larger amounts of weight," says Edward Laskowski, M.D., a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minn., and co-director of Mayo Clinic's Sports Medicine Center.
Your child can build muscle strength using:
Benefits abound for young athletes
Strength training for kids has gotten a bad reputation over the years. Lifting weights, for example, was once thought to damage young growth plates - areas of cartilage that have not yet turned to bone. Experts now realize that with good technique and the right amount of resistance, young athletes can avoid growth plate injuries. Strengthening exercises, with proper training and supervision, provide many benefits to a young athlete.
Supervised strength training that emphasizes proper technique:
Your child may gain other health benefits from strength training, too. These include:
Some studies suggest that improved self-esteem and a decreased chance of depression also are upshots of strength training. Your child may get a feel-good boost after improving his or her performance.
Who benefits most?
Strength training benefits older preteens more than younger kids, according to Dr. Laskowski.
"It's certainly not necessary for 5- or 6-year-olds to be lifting weights," Dr. Laskowski says. "At that age, kids should be learning body awareness and body control, balance, running, jumping and throwing - movement skills we used to learn in P.E. class."
Strength training also helps those kids who have a focused interest in a particular sport.
"A figure skater who has a goal of jumping higher will be able to improve with strength training," says Dr. Laskowski. "Football players, soccer players - just about all young athletes - can enhance their performance with a strength training program."
Because technique and proper form are so important, don't let your child begin strength training until he or she is mature enough to accept directions. A good rule of thumb is if your child is old enough to participate in organized sports, such as hockey, soccer or gymnastics, he or she is ready for some form of strength training.
Guidelines for youth strength training
The right strength training program for your child isn't just a scaled-down version of what an adult would do. A youth strength training program needs to focus on:
That's the opposite of many adult programs, which focus on fewer repetitions with heavier weights.
Your child's coach or athletic instructor can tailor a strength training program for your child according to your child's age, size, skills and sports interests.
The general principles of youth strength training are:
Results won't come overnight. But over time, you and your child will notice a difference in your child's muscle strength and endurance.
A healthy habit for a lifetime
If your child shows an interest in strength training, know that it can be a safe and effective activity.
"Strength training is one part of a well-rounded fitness program, along with aerobic exercise and stretching," says Dr. Laskowski. "If you establish a habit of strength training with good technique early on, your child will likely reap benefits for a lifetime."
Encourage physical activity in your child - it's a key step to becoming a healthy adult.
January 14, 2004