What does “strength training” mean? Is it lifting weights? Is it lifting heavy weights? Is it sprinting, jumping or calisthenics? Can kids do it, or is it only for adults? While these questions will get covered in more detail below, let’s get right down to the point: strength training for kids and teens is healthy and recommended, and in fact lays the foundation for more continued exercise and training into adulthood.
At its heart, strength training is improving the body’s ability to perform physical tasks by training several structures: muscles, bones, tendons and ligaments, and the nervous system, all of which a good regimen will target. There is a continuum of performance that starts with absolute strength – a one rep max – and goes all the way to endurance and strength training plays a part in the whole continuum. While they may not specialize in it, even distance runners need enough strength to maintain good posture and positions to perform efficiently and avoid injury. Strength training can look different for different sports and activities but ultimately a stronger person is a more effective person at whatever they’re trying to do. Next, let’s look at some of the activities kids tend to do and how strength plays a part in their performance.
For kids, the typical physical tasks tend to be sports, playing with other kids or any other physically demanding hobbies. All of these activities generally involve the following three challenges:
1) Multi planar movement. Any sport will involve moving not just front to back, up and down, or side to side, but usually some combination. To perform optimally and safely in these movements, there must be enough core strength to stabilize joints and transfer force efficiently. For any kind of rotational movement such as kicking in martial arts, swinging a bat or racquet, the body relies on synchronization of stiffness and looseness in the appropriate structures to produce force and eventually decelerate and bring back to starting position. When these structures are weak or imbalanced, at best there is decreased performance and at worst potential for injury. Getting kids to work on movements like walking lunges, lateral lunges, wood chops, palloff presses and one sided carries, even at light weights, primes their bodies and nervous systems to excel in multi planar movement and rotation.
2) Challenging endurance while demanding high power output. Whether running around in sports or play, kids tend to wear themselves out. Combining increased fatigue, imprecise movement and loss of concentration with the constant need for short bursts of power such as jumping, quick direction changes, sprinting, etc, and you have a recipe for injury. Strength training can help mediate this by increasing the resilience of fragile structures and their surrounding tissues like menisci, ACLs, labrums and the shoulder girdle and teaching proper movement patterns that enforce good joint alignment. Using basic but important movements like a bilateral or unilateral squat, a proper hip hinge, full range of motion pushups and holding core-challenging positions like planks, hollow body holds or bear crawl holds can improve spine and knee mechanics, strengthen the hips, quads, feet and eventually translates to avoiding a valgus knee collapse, having fewer sprained or twisted ankles, breaking falls more safely and using play or sports time more constructively. Furthermore, using these movements in a circuit can improves strength-endurance, challenging the child aerobically and teaching them to maintain good form and position under duress.
3) Impact and unbalanced surfaces. Awkward positions and footholds are a part of life, and strength training can specifically address weaknesses that can lead to compensations, bad patterns, and inefficiency or injury. A great way is to work on stability and balance by using more unilateral work both on the legs and the arms. A typical progression would be two legs, split stance or “kick stand,” single legged, two legs on unstable surface or with uneven forces, then one leg on unstable surface. Is balance and stability strength work? Absolutely! While the body has a sense of balance, it communicates environmental information to the brain which makes adjustments in the muscles as a response. The more violent the stimulus the stronger the muscles need to be for the body to adapt. Using tools like bosu balls and resistance bands can also add an element of instability to foundational movements where one limb or side is being pulled or pushed more than the other and the body is forced to adjust. To be sure, these movements should definitely be attempted AFTER the more stable version has been mastered – jumping into deep water too early can just as easily cause injury even under a watchful eye.
Now that we have a better idea of what strength training can look like, let’s dispel two big myths: “Strength training can stunt growth” and “kids shouldn’t lift weights because it’s dangerous.” Strength training does not stunt growth and there is no evidence of this phenomenon. When the growth plates are damaged (usually through injury – bone breaks, maybe dislocations, etc) then there is potential for stunted bone growth, but this type of damage is rare in strength training, especially with a qualified trainer. This leads to the second point, that lifting is not dangerous if done correctly and with appropriate supervision. In fact, it’s lifting (along with other forms of weight training and general strength training) that keep us healthy and injury free both as kids and adults!
By John Venditti, an NASM Personal Trainer and Youth Exercise Specialist in Strength Training and Sports Skill.
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