Should tweens be lifting weights or doing strength training?

Should tweens be lifting weights or doing strength training?
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When I think of lifting weights and strength training, I don't automatically think of tweens. (I may think of Arnold Schwarzenegger hopped up on steroids, but that's a different story.) The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), however, is all for strength training for adolescents. In fact, doctors are all for strength training for kids as young as 8 years old, and some say 7 is a fine time to start.

Strength training is not the Arnold kind of weight lifting, and while it can involve free weights and/or weight machines, it can also be exercises that use an individual's own body weight or inexpensive resistance tubing. It is not lifting weights for the pure purpose of adding bulk, which is not advised for tweens. Instead of focusing on bulk and mass, the focus is on, well, strength.

There are many benefits of strength training, including cardiovascular fitness, body composition, bone mineral density, blood lipid profiles, and mental health.

For tweens, even those on the young side, strength training can be a valuable part of an overall fitness plan according to the Mayo Clinic, which cites the following benefits:

  • Increase your child's muscle strength and endurance
  • Strengthen your child's bones
  • Help protect your child's muscles and joints from sports-related injuries
  • Improve your child's performance in nearly any sport, from dancing and figure skating to football and soccer

But strength training is not the direct route to making your son a starter on the basketball team or guaranteeing the your daughter will be a volleyball star. The AAP advises that "young people who want to improve sports performance will generally benefit more from practicing and perfecting skills of the sport than from resistance training. If long-term health benefits are the goal, strength training should be combined with an aerobic training program."

Most tweens are new to strength training, and there are risks. Injuries, including very serious ones, can occur. It is particularly important that they understand that they must lift weights correctly, using proper form and with adequate supervision from an adult who is adequately trained.

APP advises, "Proper technique and strict supervision by a qualified instructor are critical safety components in any strength-training program involving preadolescents and adolescents" and offers these guidelines:

  • Before beginning a formal strength-training program, a medical evaluation should be performed by a pediatrician or family physician.
  • Strength-training programs should include a 10- to 15-minute warm-up and cool-down.Strength-training programs should include a 10- to 15-minute warm-up and cool-down.
  • Specific strength-training exercises should be learned initially with no load (no resistance). Once the exercise technique has been mastered, incremental loads can be added using either body weight or other forms of resistance.
  • Athletes should have adequate intake of fluids and proper nutrition, because both are vital in maintenance of muscle energy stores, recovery, and performance.
  • A general strengthening program should address all major muscle groups, including the core, and exercise through the complete range of motion.

Most of the serious injuries have come from situations with home gym equipment when there was no supervision and the kids were playing around or challenging one another, or from youth attempting to do a max lift before they are physically developed or have the right instruction, accordiron-kids-apping to HealthyChildren.org.

There is an AAP-approved app called IronKids developed Dr. Jordan Metzl, a sports medicine physician at  the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York, that is available on iTunes for $4. If you need something more, there's a Home Strength Training for Young Athletes DVD for $52 on Amazon that guides kids through moves intended to increase bone density and core strength and improve balance.

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