Only a generation ago it was generally thought to be taboo for children under 14 to lift weights. It was commonly believed that it would stunt their growth, damage their joints, or injure their spines, among other things. Over the years, most of these assumptions have been disproven, and youngsters are now experiencing the benefits of weight training for personal development and sports training.
So, how old SHOULD your children be before they start strength training? Some people have been known to start even their babies lifting weights by progressively increasing the size and weight of their baby rattles. The age you start your children is relative, but 7-8 years old is probably a good age to start only because they will have a better understanding of what they are doing. Why? Because lifting weights is not a game and weights are not toys.
It’s always a good idea to schedule a physical exam for your child before beginning any kind of weight lifting regimen. Next, find a knowledgeable instructor. And, no, dad is usually not a good choice unless he knows what he is doing. By that I mean really knows what he is doing other than what he learned from his old high school football coach a dozen years ago. Most injuries in weight lifting – for adults and children - are caused by improper technique. Technique is everything, and you can’t afford to make a mistake instructing your child the wrong way. An injury from lifting weights incorrectly can be permanent and life-changing.
A good preconditioning routine might involve some basic body weight exercises (pushups, situps, pull-ups, etc.) combined with some stretching and aerobic activity and then progressing to resistance tubing, elastic bands, cables, and weight machines before graduating to free weights. In fact, younger children might even follow a preconditioning course for as long as 2-3 years to prepare them for weight lifting.
Aside from technique – which is still paramount – the free weight emphasis should be on repetitions. A good rule of thumb is to find a comfortable weight that your child can perform sets of 8-15 repetitions (with proper form) with a full range of motion on each exercise. Usually one set on each exercise is sufficient in the beginning. Once the child can perform each set with ease for 15 repetitions, increase the weight or resistance slightly and drop the repetitions back to 8 and start the cycle back up to 15 again. Each workout should take 20-30 minutes at least 2-3 times a week. Eventually the routine can involve multiple sets of each exercise as the child progresses in strength and physical development. Maximum lifts should not be attempted until the child has reached physical maturity – usually in the late teens.
Children are easily bored and, boys especially, will often become competitive and try to show off by “outlifting” their peers, so close supervision is important. Again, the emphasis should not be on how much weight they lift but lifting with proper technique.
Strength training is much more than just building big muscles. It can be extremely beneficial for youngsters – boys and girls – for building strong healthy bodies, confidence, discipline, and self-esteem. And the earlier the better.
Jim Evans is a 41-year veteran of the health and fitness industry and internationally recognized fitness consultant.