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Is resistance training a safe option for children?
Here’s something to keep in mind: The art of resistance training -- if done correctly and with good form -- will not stunt growth.
For years the general fitness public has embraced the idea that resistance training posed a risk to adolescents because it could lead to stunted growth as a result of growth plate fractures.
While it is a reasonable concern, research says the problem is often caused by human error. Most growth plate fractures have been seen in those adolescents who train incorrectly, lift objects that are too heavy, or fall into another object while training. This has been recorded primarily in poorly supervised, heavy, over-the-head type lifts.
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Growth plates (their scientific name is epiphyseal plates) are located at the ends of long bones, primarily in the arms and legs. While the child is growing, the bones elongate from these plates. If the growth plates are damaged, the bone’s blood and nutrient supply may be disturbed, resulting in growth trauma.
An epiphyseal plate fracture has not been reported in any youth resistance training study that adhered to established training guidelines, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Association.
A doctor should always be consulted before starting any exercise regimen and that's especially true for children, but a properly designed and supervised resistance training program can help promote exercise habits in children and adolescents, improve motor skills, contribute to enhanced sports performance and increase a young athlete’s resistance to sports-related injuries. It can also lessen their risk of developing heart problems, the NSCA notes.
Programs for adolescents should focus on the basics, making the exercises easy to learn and leaving less room for error. Even though there is no minimum age for resistance training, children can begin to enjoy a regimen as early as ages 6 to 8, as long as they are mentally and physically competent.
To start, try calisthenics -- jumping jacks, pushups, sit-ups, etc. -- which younger people tend to enjoy. Calisthenics, which are aerobic in nature, enforce the use of a child's own body weight, without the use of added foreign weight such as dumbbells. They are also a good way to practice muscular coordination.
Stay away from plyometric exercises during the beginning phases of resistance training. While jumping onto and off objects may seem like the norm for some, others can easily lose their balance, slip and even fall off the top of the plyometric boxes, causing injury.
Eventually, more advanced exercises can be added to a routine, but with caution. External weights may be used, such as elastic bands, dumbbells or plate-loaded machines but proper form should first be taught, stressed and supervised, and the weight should be kept light. In the beginning stages of the resistance program, the repetitions should range from 10 to 15 per set, and one to three sets should be performed encompassing a variety of upper- and lower-body exercises, specifically focusing on movements that strengthen the abdominal and lower back areas.
A general overall fitness rule regarding repetitions is: two to five for strength/power (anaerobic), six to 12 for size (anaerobic/aerobic) and more than 12 for endurance (aerobic). As a child advances through the routine, it can be progressed by increasing the number of sets and/or decreasing the number of repetitions.
Children should train less than adults do, typically two to three times a week on nonconsecutive days, allowing 48 to 72 hours between sessions. Each workout should be preceded by a five- to 10-minute dynamic warm-up, such as hops and skips.
Done correctly, beginning a resistance program early in life cannot only be beneficial for a child’s short- and long-term health but can also pave the road to a hearty athletic career.
Brian T. Dessart is a nationally accredited Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, a New York State Critical Care Emergency Medical Technician and an FDNY firefighter. He can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter: @briandessart.