Weight Training: Weighing in for Adolescent Weight Control

In the United States at least one child in five is overweight and the number continues to grow each day. Over the past two decades, the number of children who are overweight, as well as the number of grossly obese children has more than doubled. And no, children do not out grow it. Overweight children are at a higher risk of becoming unhealthy adolescents and adults. And, it’s overweight adults who are most at risk for a number of problems including heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure, stroke, and all forms of cancer. Overweight in children and adolescents is generally caused by lack of physical activity, unhealthy eating patterns, or a combination of the two, with genetics and lifestyle both playing important determining roles. Children whose family members are overweight are also at an increased risk of becoming overweight, although not all children with an obese family will become overweight. However, it is more likely then not, shared family behaviors such as bad eating habits and lack of activity will have an impact on a child’s body weight.

Our society has become very sedentary with television, computer and video games contributing to children’s inactive lifestyles. Children are spending less time playing outdoors and more time watching TV or sitting in front of their computers, and as a result, they’re getting heavier.  In fact 43% of adolescents watch more than 2 hours of television each day, and only half of U.S. children get as much exercise as they need. As a result, children are displaying signs of heart disease and diabetes before they even reach their teens.

The good news is that almost any kind of physical activity can help prevent the rising tide of obesity. In addition, studies have found that physically active children are far less susceptible to emotional problems, are more likely to stay away from drugs, resist smoking cigarettes, delay sexual activity; develop more self-confidence and higher self-esteem, and even get better grades.

In addition to competitive and recreational sports, weight training has become increasingly popular as an effective method of exercise for preadolescents and adolescents. From Hercules to Arnold Schwarzenegger, the image of the muscular hero has inspired children for generations. And now, perhaps more than ever, physical education experts are encouraging kids to hit the weights.  The benefits of weight training in the preadolescent and adolescent population outweigh any possible risks. Improved muscular strength, endurance and flexibility; prevention of bone loss and osteoporosis; improved self-image, confidence and well-being; improved motor coordination and sports performance; decreased risk of injury; lowered blood pressure and cholesterol levels; weight maintenance; neuromuscular therapy and physical rehabilitation; improved aerobic capacity; and the promotion of a lifelong lifestyle of physical activity can all be attributed to weight training.

Weight training also offers particular advantages to children who are overweight and struggle to keep up with their peers in more traditional sports.  By lifting weights, children can improve their strength, endurance and coordination, enhancing their performance in other sports. And, when they lift weights, children can exercise in privacy, away from the critical eyes of their schoolmates.

Despite increasing acceptance of strength training for preadolescents and adolescents, some parents, coaches and instructors are skeptical that weight training offers benefits without causing harm. Myths and misinformation have helped persuade many to disapprove of preadolescent weight training. This is changing, however, as new knowledge replaces old misconceptions. The most common is the concern about musculoskeletal injury and epiphyseal fracture, however, this old “damage the growth plates” myth has never been clinically proven to occur as a result from weight training, but most often from falls due to horseplay or simple accidents.  If we consider that a standard push up involves pressing 60% of your body weight with the muscles of the arms and chest, then a child weighing 80 pounds doing 10 push ups is basically pushing 48 pounds with his arms and chest for 10 repetitions. Why would this be safer than having the same child do a bench press with a 20 pound barbell for 10 repetitions? The answer is…it’s not!!  Damage to the bones and epiphyses, or growth plates, is potentially serious, however, it is more likely for injury to occur due to improper training techniques or lack of supervision. The risk of injury can be minimized with a properly designed training program and close adult supervision.

As with any sport, however, children can injure themselves if movements are not performed properly or with too much intensity. Children should not be treated as miniature adults, particularly in terms of intensity, and training principles for adults do not necessarily correspond to those for children. Children are affected by interacting components such as musculoskeletal growth and sexual maturation.  Therefore, borrowing exercise prescriptions from adult strength-training programs is inappropriate. For example, pushing to failure and performing forced may be dangerous. Exercise prescriptions must be tailored to children’s individual needs, and fitness professionals or certified trainers must closely supervise all children while performing weight training exercises. It is imperative that trainers possess the background knowledge and experience to handle the preadolescent population, as well as have current CPR and first aid certifications.

In 1996, the National Strength and Conditioning Association laid out guidelines to ensure the of children safety who want to lift weights.  Considering these general guidelines, as well as some basic principles of a good beginner weight-training program, the following recommendations should be considered when starting a child on a weight-training program.

Children can begin around the time they would participate in organized sports (about age 7), but each child’s readiness needs to be evaluated on an individual basis with careful attention given to their ability
to follow directions.

Children should use machines that are properly designed for their size. Only child certified machines or weight-lifting equipment specifically designed for children should be included in a preadolescent and adolescent weight-training program. Machines designed for adults are not safe for most children because children’s arms and legs are not long enough to use them correctly. Light free weights may be more appropriate for some children, but even doing squats while holding a broomstick may be a good starting point.

Optimal prescription parameters, such as the number of sets and repetitions, have yet to be defined for the preadolescent population. It is recommended that children use the minimum amount of training that produces beneficial improvements in strength and health without undue risk.

Of all of the strength- training parameters, exercise intensity seems to be the key determinant of an effective program. Present guidelines suggest that intensity be moderate (approximately 10 to 15 repetitions) and that preadolescents avoid lifting maximal amounts of weight.

A child should begin a program with one set of little or no weight and concentrate on learning proper form. Once proper technique is demonstrated, a resistance can be selected that allows approximately 10 repetitions to be performed. The number of repetitions is slowly increased until the maximal number (15) can be completed. Resistance is then advanced in small increments of one to three pounds. As the child advances, one to three sets can be performed as tolerated.

The sequence of exercises should progress from larger muscle groups to smaller ones, and the frequency of training can start at two days per week and advance to three, as long as at least one day of rest is permitted between each training session.

Workouts of approximately 30 minutes should be preceded by an appropriate warm-up and finished with a cool-down. Proper training techniques, such as lifting in a controlled manner, must be demonstrated and consistently emphasized throughout the program.

Supervising trainers should encourage children to achieve at their own personal best and discourage children from competing with their peers.

Competitive sports such Styles of Olympic powerlifting and bodybuilding should be highly discouraged in the growing child and adolescent.

Perhaps the most valuable lesson is to be a good role model for your child and teach the next generation how to develop a lifelong habit of physical activity. If your child sees you enjoying healthy foods and physical activity, he or she is more likely to do the same now and for the rest of his or her life. Promoting a healthy lifestyle, maintaining the habit of activity throughout the school years and preventing sedentary behaviors in adulthood will benefit not only today’s children, but also future generations to come.

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