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As our society becomes more sedentary and young people spend more of their time in non-physical pursuits (television, video games, movies, computers, etc.), we see progressively lower levels of physical fitness in increasingly larger numbers of boys and girls.
Over a 15-year period, childhood obesity has increased over 50 percent and super obesity has more than doubled. As a result, Type II diabetes, formerly called adult onset diabetes, has become prevalent in teenagers and even preadolescents.
Research has shown that strength training is the best means for improving body composition in youth, as it addresses two major problems in many preadolescents, namely, too little muscle and two much fat.
Public School Study
In one of our public school studies, the underfit and overfat fifth graders who participated in a basic and brief strength training program gained significantly more muscle and lost twice as much fat as a matched group of students who did not perform strength exercise.
Perhaps most important, the strength trained students made such noticeable physical improvements that the strength exercises were subsequently included in the standard physical education program.
The most critical time for developing strong bones is during the childhood years. Recent research indicates that strength training is about six times more effective for building bone in preadolescent girls that it is in young, middle-aged or older women.
Contrary to the myth that strength training is detrimental to young bones (no such medical report has ever been documented), it is actually the best way to develop a strong musculoskeletal system.
Because children have low levels of testosterone, some people assume that they cannot increase their muscle strength or that any strength gains are temporary. Our studies have consistently shown significant strength gains (15 to 100 percent) in preteens who complete a two-month training program.
Moreover, after two additional months of no strength exercise, the strength trained youth retained 50 percent of their strength gain and were still significantly stronger than their non-training peers. Children, like women and seniors who also have low levels of testosterone, respond most favorably to strength exercise.
In our most recent study, female figure skaters (average age 10 years) did one or two brief strength workouts a week. After 10 weeks of training, the preadolescent participants increased their overall strength by 67 percent, their vertical jump by 13 percent, and their skating performance by major proportions according to their coaches.
The skaters performed one set of 10 basic strength exercises for 13 to 15 repetitions each. We recommend using higher repetitions with moderate weightloads, as we have found significantly greater increases in children’s strength and endurance when training with 13 to 15 repetitions compared to training with 6 to 8 repetitions.
After 15 years of youth strength training programs with no injuries, we are confident that this activity is safe and beneficial (physically and psychologically) for children. A sensible strength training program enhances musculoskeletal development, encourages self-confidence and elicits a physically active lifestyle.
Youth Strength Training Guidelines
Follow these guidelines for maximum results and injury prevention:
- Select basic exercises for major muscles and
- Do 4 exercises x 3 sets each
- Do 6 exercises x 2 sets each
- Do 12 exercises x 1 set each
- Perform 10 to 15 repetitions per exercise
- Increase resistance by 1 to 3 pounds upon completing 15 repetitions
- Use slow movement speed (4 to 6 seconds per repetition)
- Use full movement range
- Train 2 or 3 nonconsecutive days per week
- Train under adult supervision
- Train safely
- Train progressively
- Train consistently
Bodyweight Exercises vs. Weight Machines
For most boys and girls, bodyweight exercises are not appropriate because their muscles are unable to lift their bodyweight. For example, fewer than 50 percent of all children can do a single pull-up and not many more can complete a properly performed bar dip, push-up or sit up.
With weight machines, however, every child can use a resistance that permits 10 to 15 perfect repetitions. Most weight machines allow 1 to 3 pound increases that facilitate safe, systematic, and successful programs of progressive resistance exercise.
Youth Strength Training Equipment
In our experience, boys and girls under 12 years of age appear to do better training on youth-sized resistance machines. However, children 12 years and older can train effectively on standard weightstack machines, especially when using pressing movements (leg press, chest press, incline press, shoulder press, triceps press, assisted bar dip, etc.) and pulling movements (seated row, pull-down, assisted chin-up, etc).
Youth under five feet tall have difficulty aligning their joint axes of rotation with machine axes of rotation, so rotary exercises (leg extension, leg curl, triceps extension, biceps curl, etc.) are not recommended.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., C.S.C.S, is Fitness Research Director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA. He is strength training consultant for numerous national organizations, such as the American Council on Exercise, the American Senior Fitness Association, and the National Youth Sports Safety Foundation, and editorial advisor for many publications, including Prevention, Shape, and Club Industry magazines.