Kids don’t always get enough exercise; this is especially true during the pandemic. The American Heart Association recently reported that more than half of American kids don’t get enough exercise for basic cardiorespiratory fitness. This study was completed before the pandemic, and many of us are more sedentary now that we’re staying home from work and school. Any kind of exercise that motivates kids to move may seem worth encouraging. But is it safe for kids to lift weights?
The American Academy of Pediatrics published a position statement on strength training for kids and teens, confirming that strength training can help kids with weight control, bone density, cardiovascular fitness, and mental health.
At what age can kids start lifting weights, though?
First things first
Kids can’t safely lift weights until they can reliably follow instructions. Wait until your child is able to focus and control impulsive behavior for the length of a strength training class. Social maturity is key for safe and successful weight training.
The AAP emphasizes the need for strict adult supervision and safe practices. They poiunt out that “most injuries occur on home equipment with unsafe behavior and unsupervised settings.”
The right age
Strength training can begin at 7 or 8 years of age, when kids have full control of balance and posture. Strength training machines in gyms are not appropriate for young children. Free weights are fine, but dumbbells designed for kids, in smaller sizes and with smaller weight increments, are safer and more effective.
The AAP discourages competitive weight-lifting or bodybuilding for kids, and discourages the kinds of moves used in competitive lifting.
A good strength program
Strength training for children can include exercises that use the child’s own body weight. This includes exercises such as push ups or frog jumps. The AAP recommends a balanced program of weight training in 20-30 minute sessions, two or three times a week. All muscles should be involved, including the core (back, glutes, and abdominal muscles).
Training four or more times per week did not improve results beyond those gained with training sessions three times per week, according to research.
5-10 minutes each of warm up and cool-down time should be included, and aerobic exercise can also be part of the mix. Start big — with larger muscle movements — and end small with movements of smaller muscles.
Kids should start with light weights or no weights and focus on form until they can lift correctly. At that point, the weight of dumbbells can be increased gradually to the point where they must work hard to complete 8-15 repetitions with good form.
When that becomes easy, increase the weight and work up to 8-15 repetitions with the new weight. There is no reason to rush to increase weights. Higher repetitions with lower weights produce beneficial results.
Planning weight training for kids
The AAP found in their review of the literature that kids lost much of the strength they gained within six weeks of giving up strength training. Instead of thinking of weight training as a single project, encourage kids to get into the habit of strength training.
In fact, since the American Heart Association recommends balanced strength training twice a week for adults, too, you can make a family habit of working out with weights.
Do talk with your pediatrician before starting a weight training program for your kids, since there are some medical conditions that make weight training inappropriate for some children.