For years, strength training and weightlifting have been used by adolescents and adults to improve their sports performance and general well being. But because of the former beliefs of pediatricians and scientists, weight training has been frowned upon for use by preadolescent children. Despite people’s perceptions that weight training is not suitable for young children, a properly designed weight training program is not only safe, but is also beneficial in the improvement of prepubescent children’s athletic performance and overall health.
There are many former myths which make weightlifting for children taboo in most people’s minds. For years, it was considered dangerous and risky for children to participate in strength training programs. It was thought that lifting weights would close children’s growth plates, which control the length and shape of their bones. Closing the growth plates would cause a child’s growth to be stunted, and therefore, lead to limbs being shorter than their possible length. It was also thought that lifting weights would reduce flexibility and cause participants muscles to tighten up. Another misconception was that speed would be decreased as an athlete’s strength increased. Coordination was also believed to be hindered as a result of strength training.
The safety of strength training for children has been examined in many recent studies. Weightlifting injuries usually range from strains and sprains to the occasional fracture. Overuse injuries also occur, but the risk of these can be greatly reduced by using a properly designed strength training program. The stress on children’s joints while playing sports has actually been shown to be greater than the stress put on by lifting weights. Due to this, most reports seem to agree that it is much safer for young children to participate in a properly designed and supervised strength training program than it is for them to play sports.
Growth Plate Closure?
The biggest concern parents and coaches have about letting their children lift weights is the myth that it will lead to bone damage and stunted growth. The epiphyseal plate, better known as the growth plate, is growing tissue at the end of children’s bones. Many fear that weightlifting will lead to the premature closing of these plates and stunted growth. Recent studies have found that proper strength training will not damage a child’s growth plates, stunt their growth, or affect their maximum potential size. The American College of Sports Medicine has said, “There is no current scientific evidence to support that early weight training will stunt a child’s growth”. A few studies conducted by Dr. Avery Faigenbaum have shown that it is possible to experience positive growth effects from strength training when children receive proper nutrition and physical activity. Other studies have found that weightlifting will increase the amount of muscle gained during puberty than normally expected.
One of the most beneficial results of strength training is the increase of body strength. Many studies done in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s reported that prepubescent children were not capable of making strength gains because of their low levels of testosterone. The methods used in these studies were flawed, but led many people to believe that strength training programs were fruitless and ineffective for children. Because of advances in technology, there is now a much better understanding of the possibilities of strength gains in children. Neuromuscular adaptations explain how children with low testosterone levels can achieve strength gains.
The athletic performance of children has also been proven to increase as a result of strength training. As tendons and ligaments get stronger as a result of lifting weights, the body is able to generate more power output, resulting in more speed. Movements performed in Olympic style lifts are also very athletic and similar to many of the movements performed on a sports field, such as jumping in basketball or tackling in football. Performing these types of lifts increase a child’s ability to perform these same types of actions while playing, thereby improving that child’s sports performance. Involving stretching exercises in the strength training program will add flexibility, which will help increase speed. As children participating in strength training programs become stronger, their balance is improved. This allows children to overcome stumbling while they are playing a sport. Lifting weights also involves using many muscles simultaneously, consequently, the body’s coordination and movement is improved.
One of the most beneficial gains of weightlifting is the decreased risk of injury while participating in other sports. In 1993, the American College of Sports Medicine stated that “50 percent of preadolescent sports injuries could be prevented, in large part, by enrolling children in youth strength and conditioning programs”. Because the body adapts to the stress of weight training, the muscles, tendons, ligaments, and bones of the body become stronger as a result of weightlifting. As the tendons and ligaments become stronger, they can better stabilize the joints, resulting in a reduced risk of joint injury. Weightlifting also causes the bones of the body to become denser. One study of 40 prepubescent males found that over a period of 32 weeks, there was twice as much increase in the bone mineral density of boys that lifted weights 3 times a week than there was in boys who did not lift. An increase in the bone mineral density leads to a decrease of bone fractures.
Positive psychological changes can also be noted after children participate in weight training programs. Many children feel insecure about themselves; weight training gives them positive visual reinforcement, which increases their self-esteem and confidence. Weight training also improves children’s ability to cope with stress. Studies done on young girls during times of high stress, found that girls who exercise have less mental and physical distress than those who do not. Endorphins, which can help relieve pain and fight depression, are released by the body during weightlifting, which can make this form of exercise a great tool in fighting their depression.
Participating in strength training programs can also be great for overweight children. Overweight children are at a higher risk of hypertension, hyperlipidemia, diabetes, respiratory problems, and many other health problems. It is usually recommended that overweight children need to get more cardiovascular exercise to help fight obesity, but this may not be the best thing for them to do. Children would much rather perform short bouts of activity, followed by a period of recovery, than performing the recommended half hour of constant endurance exercise. This makes weightlifting very appealing to young and under active children. Weight training is also extremely attractive to obese children, because unlike activities involving running and jumping, where excess weight is unfavorable, weightlifting better suits larger children. Weightlifting builds up the self-esteem of overweight children because they can naturally lift more weight than their smaller friends. This increased self-worth is great for overweight children feeling insecure about their body size. Not only does weightlifting build up the self-esteem of obese children, but it can also be used as a great tool for weight loss and management, by getting these children started on a healthy lifestyle.
There are many other health benefits gained as a result of participation in a properly designed weight training program. Risk factors for cardiovascular disease have been proven to show up in childhood. Research shows that physical activity can be of great help in cardiovascular protection in high risk individuals. Studies have found that individuals who exercise have significantly improved cholesterol levels. Other studies have found significantly lower blood pressure in children that lift weights. Diabetics may also benefit from the improved ability to absorb blood sugars as a result of weight training.
Steps For Safety
There are a few major steps that must be taken to insure safety in a weight training program. The first is making sure that children are using proper technique. Most weight training injuries are resulted from improper technique while lifting; therefore children must be taught how to perform each lift before they begin the program. If proper technique is emphasized, injuries rarely occur. Supervision by an adult who fully understands the program and can properly teach it to the children is a very important component to keeping safety. Another key to keeping children safe while lifting is using a properly designed weight training program. Lifting too much can result in overuse injuries, so the frequency and duration of lifting must be controlled. It is usually recommended that 10-15 repetitions be used per set. When developing a strength training program, each individual’s needs must be considered. The program must be made to benefit the children, be as safe as possible, and entertaining for the children involved.
Strength training is a great way to improve prepubescent children’s strength, athletic performance, psychological well-being, and overall health. When children are involved in a well designed program that stresses technique and is supervised by an experienced adult, weight lifting is not only safe, but will lead to the reduction of injuries. The benefits of participating in a strength training program far outweigh any possible risks.
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