Keeping Your Kids In Shape Creates Success!

kykisStrength training can even help children achieve non-physical benefits like being able to set and work toward goals, developing an understanding and respect for rules, overcoming failure and developing good work patterns and attitudes. At Lift for Life Gym in St. Louis, Missouri, 92 of children participating in strength training programs graduate from high school, as opposed to 67 percent of nonparticipants citywide.

Faigenbaum takes it one step further, suggesting that successful strength training can build self-esteem. “The psychological effects are huge,” he says. Faigenbaum sees kids developing better social skills, and parents report their kids act up less frequently, have more respect for others and work harder in school.

Many of the ailments that plague adults, such as diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity, have their roots in early childhood. By starting a strength training program early, many of these maladies can be avoided. “The new buzzword in physical fitness is `lifetime fitness,'” says Faigenbaum. This means beginning a fitness program early and making it a habit for life. Strength training should be one piece of the total fitness package, which should also include aerobic exercise, stretching and a well-balanced diet.

The only requirement to beginning a strength training program is that the child have the emotional maturity to accept and follow directions. Children as young as ages 6 or 7 have benefited from strength training, and even younger kids could do milder exercises like sit-ups and push-ups. As a guideline, children who are able to play an organized sport, such as Little League, are ready to begin a strength training program.

Experts also say that, prior to puberty, females have the same potential for strength development as males of comparable size. When boys begin to outgrow girls in weight and height, they will develop greater muscle mass and, therefore, will be able to lift heavier weights. If beginning a program in preadolescence, there is no need for boys and girls to train differently. As they age, proper adjustments should be made to weight intensity.

It is very important that all children receive proper instruction on exercise technique (form) and training procedures (warm-up and cool-down, for example). See sidebar for more information.

General Guidelines for Strength Training

* Stay well-hydrated.

* Get plenty of rest.

* Eat well.

* Stretch as often as possible (ideally before, during and after workouts).

* Use a spotter for heavier-weight exercises like bench presses and squats.

* Give muscles at least two days to recover.


Although strength training machines are available in smaller sizes for children, most traditional weights and machines can be adapted to fit a child’s smaller frame. The most basic decision to make about equipment is whether to use free weights or machines. The decision may depend on personal preferences or on the availability of equipment in the home or local gym.

Free weights are often cheaper and more adaptable to smaller body types, but movements are less controlled, so strict emphasis must be placed on proper form. Machines tend to be more expensive and less adaptable to size (unless child-size machines are used), but they offer more controlled movements. In addition to free weights or machines, you will need a bench (if working with free weights) and good athletic shoes with traction. A weight belt and gloves are also recommended.

Workout Structure

Experts differ on their preferences for training various body parts. Some people prefer to work a specific body part per day, either because of time restrictions or because they only want to focus on one body part at a time. Then there’s the total body workout, in which the entire body is trained in one lengthy session once or twice per week. The majority of people fall somewhere in the middle, working several muscle groups in one workout. An example of this would be to work back, biceps and abdominals one day, chest, shoulders and triceps another, and legs and abdominals on a third day. Regardless of the method, the most important thing to remember is that muscles need at least 48 hours to recover. Never work the same muscle group two days in a row.

Weight, Sets and Repetitions

Faigenbaum and his colleagues at the South Shore YMCA recently conducted a study of boys and girls ages 5 through 11 which shows not only that strength training can improve muscular strength and endurance in children, but also that high repetition/ moderate load training is significantly more successful than low repetition/heavy load training. For the adult population, it is generally considered more beneficial to increase muscular endurance through high repetition training. To increase muscular strength, however, heavier weights and fewer repetitions are thought to be more successful. This study suggests that high repetition/moderate load training may be just as effective in enhancing both the muscular strength and muscular endurance of children. Figure 1 shows the muscular increase in chest press and leg extension strength achieved for each study group.

When beginning a program for a child, start with the lowest weight available and concentrate on proper technique and safety. It will be obvious whether the child is struggling with the weight or handling it easily. A good recommendation is to perform one to three sets of 6 to 15 repetitions, using a weight that is challenging but still allows for good form. A weight that cannot be lifted for six repetitions is too heavy. When the weight is still being lifted without difficulty on the final repetition, it is time to increase the weight. The kids in Faigenbaum’s classes complete a log which reminds them which exercises they’re performing, as well as weight and repetition levels. It’s also a great way for them to track their success and progress.


The most common strength training injuries are sprains and strains, which can be avoided with proper warm-ups and cool-downs and by stretching as often as possible. The program at South Shore YMCA begins with a warm-up game of hot potato, which is similar to musical chairs, played by passing a medicine ball from child to child. The group then completes some floor stretching before hitting the weight machines.

In the past, there have been concerns of permanent damage to bones and joints among children involved in all sporting activities. Children’s growth plates are particularly vulnerable to blows, sudden wrenchings and other severe stresses. Little or no evidence exists of any negative effect on bone growth as a result of training. In fact, the opposite is true. Children most susceptible to bone plate disturbances are those with poor muscle development. Resistance training will increase bone density and lessen the chances of growth plate damage from other activities.

Many experts believe strength training is actually safer than some team sports, including basketball and football. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) contends that strength training can be safe and effective for children, provided it is properly designed and supervised. Other national organizations that concur include the American Academy of Pediatric Medicine and the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine. According to Faigenbaum, “safety is our foremost concern” and maintaining close supervision at all times is important, adding that they haven’t had a single injury during the program’s 8-year history.

Where to Get Help

Information is available from television, books, organizations (see sidebar), videos, computer software and individuals like personal trainers and exercise physicians. Most sources can provide detailed information on designing a workout, including specific exercises which will be safe and effective, or direct you to someone in your area who specializes in training children. Local gyms and YMCAs are also excellent sources of advice and/or programs. A couple of good books to consider are The Weightlifting Encyclopedia by Arthur Drechsler and Strength and Power for Young Athletes by Avery D. Faigenbaum, Ed.D., CSCS and Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D.

How to Be Successful

Success is determined by many factors, especially feasibility. To institute a valid program requires time, equipment and expertise. The best solution for families who would like their children to begin a program may include a group class like the KidsWorkout program in Quincy. “We need to make it affordable,” says LaRosaLoud. Fees at a local YMCA are often much less than the hourly fees paid to a personal trainer. These classes provide training, supervision and equipment.

Faigenbaum insists that the instructors are key to a successful program. Kids need explicit directions and demonstrations as well as constant encouragement and respect. Most of all, children need to know that strength training is just one part of healthy living and, therefore, they should be encouraged to enjoy many other activities.

For kids, success is easier to measure. “They see themselves getting stronger,” Faigenbaum says, explaining that tangibles will fuel continued success.

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