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Children benefit from strength training

Children and adolescents need to participate regularly (i.e., most days of the week) in 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity that is developmentally appropriate, enjoyable, and varied. While aerobic activities such as swimming and bicycling are generally recommended for youth, scientific evidence and clinical impressions indicate that strength training can offer unique benefits for boys and girls provided that age-appropriate training guidelines are followed. With proper guidance and instruction, regular participation in a youth strength-training program can have favorable effects on musculoskeletal health, body composition, cardiovascular risk factors, fitness performance, and psychological well-being. Furthermore, a stronger musculoskeletal system will enable youth to perform life’s daily activities with more energy and vigor and may increase young athletes’ resistance to sport-related injuries.

During our youth, physical activity did not involve a conscious decision to engage in planned exercise; rather, it was what we did on a regular basis before, during, and after school. Regular physical activities that involved running, jumping, lifting, balancing, throwing, and kicking not only kept our bodies healthy, fit, and strong, but were important for our cognitive, motor skill, and social development. But today, youth seem to spend more time in front of televisions and computer screens than at the playground. The bottom line is that a sedentary lifestyle during childhood and adolescence may increase the risk of developing some chronic diseases such as heart disease, diabetes, and osteoporosis later in life. Thus, it is even more important to encourage youth to be physically active on most days of the week as part of play, recreation, physical education, sports, and transportation.

Physical education teachers, youth coaches, and fitness instructors need to create opportunities for boys and girls of all abilities to be physically active. While organized sport programs certainly have their place, participation in physical activity should not begin with competitive sport; it should evolve out of preparatory conditioning that includes strength training. That is, children should participate in a variety of physical activities that enhance their motor performance skills and improve their musculoskeletal strength in order to better prepare them for the demands of daily sport practice and competition. Focusing entirely on specific sport skills at an early age not only limits the ability of children to succeed at tasks outside a narrow physical spectrum but also discriminates against children whose motor skills develop at a slower pace.

Our youth fitness pyramid (figure 1.1) illustrates the importance of first preparing the musculoskeletal systems of youth for the demands of more vigorous physical activity and sport competition through regular participation in general exercise and what we call FUNdamental fitness conditioning. Unlike other physical activity pyramids that focus on early sport participation, the youth fitness pyramid highlights the importance of FUNdamental fitness conditioning (which includes strength, power, aerobic, flexibility, and agility exercises) before sport-specific training and competition. Enjoyable youth programs that develop both health- and skill-related components of physical fitness will be more likely to spark a lifelong interest in physical activity and sport.

You’ve probably heard that children should not train with weights because it doesn’t work, places too much stress on growing muscles, or is dangerous. Categorically, all of these reasons are misconceptions. As you are undoubtedly aware, strength-building exercise can be beneficial to growing boys and girls. However, because children are not miniature adults, you must progress cautiously when training young people. Over the past several years, research has clearly demonstrated that strength exercise is a safe, effective, and efficient means for conditioning young muscles, as long as certain safety precautions are in place. Fortunately, all the boys and girls in our program have increased their muscular strength, and not one has had an exercise-related injury. This is most likely due to the careful supervision that we provide to all our strength-training participants.

Others also recommend strength training for young people. Several medical and fitness organizations, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Council on Exercise, the British Association for Sport and Exercise Science, the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology, the National Association for Sport and Physical Education, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association, have published guidelines for youth strength training. That’s a pretty impressive list of supporters for youth strength training.

Furthermore, the American Alliance for Health, Physical Education, Recreation and Dance developed a comprehensive school-based program called Physical Best, which enhances young people’s ability to perform physical activities that require aerobic fitness, joint flexibility, and muscular strength. By incorporating components of health-related physical fitness into the elementary and secondary school curricula, school-age youth will gain the knowledge and confidence they need in order to be physically active adults. In addition, strength training during childhood and adolescence may provide the foundation for dramatic gains in muscle strength during adulthood. Thus, the key issue is not only appreciating the potential health-related benefits of strength training for youth but understanding how to provide children and adolescents with the skills, knowledge, attitudes, and behaviors that lead to a lifetime of muscle-enhancing physical activity.

What’s more, regular participation in a youth strength-training program can have a favorable impact on skill-related fitness components, including power, speed, balance, coordination, agility, and reaction time. Although a high degree of skill-related fitness is not a prerequisite for a lifetime of physical activity, confidence and competence in the ability to perform skills that require balance, coordination, and power can indeed contribute to a person’s health and fitness throughout both youth and adult years. For example, since strength training can enhance muscular strength and muscular power, which are required for success in all sports including tennis, basketball, and track, it is likely that youth who strength train will perform better than those who do not strength train.

Moreover, as sport performance improves, the activity will become more enjoyable and therefore participants will be more likely to stick with it. Thus, unlike other modes of exercise training that typically isolate fitness components, strength training provides physical education teachers with an opportunity to integrate health- and skill-related fitness components into a comprehensive physical education program in which all children can feel challenged while they enhance both health- and skill-related fitness abilities (see table 1.1). While it is important not to overemphasize skill development, we believe the best approach is to teach all students to recognize the value of both health- and skill-related fitness components.

This is an excerpt from Youth Strength Training by Avery Faigenbaum