Guidelines for strength training

Earlier we explained why it would help to have some form of strength or resistance training for tweens/teens. We also examined the validity of possible concerns that parents might have about starting their child with a strength training programme.

In this final instalment to this series on fitness for life, we discuss important guidelines that must be understood and adhered to when starting such a training programme.

Understand this first

By the time children reach their tween years (7 to 8), balance and posture control skills mature to adult levels. This is the best time to start on a resistance training programme – meaning it should not start before achievement of those skills. For reaping the best value from such a programme, the child should ideally have advanced to a certain level of skill proficiency in their sport.

Strength gains can be acquired through various types of strength-training methods and equipment; however, most strength-training machines and gymnasium equipment cater for adults with weight increments that are too large for children.

Thus it’s better for them to start with free weights. These require better balance control and technique but are small and portable, provide small weight increments, and can be used for strengthening sports-specific movements.

However, remember that strength training is different from the sport of weightlifting (Olympic lifting) which involves explosive and rapid lifting of weights, such as the "snatch" and the "clean and jerk". Children should avoid this because safe technique may be difficult to maintain and young body tissues may be stressed too abruptly.

Starting on a strength training programme

A child’s strength training program should not be viewed as a scaled-down version of an adult programme. So note the following key pointers:

Seek instruction. Start with a coach or personal trainer who has experience with youth strength training. The coach or trainer can create a safe, effective strength training program based on your child's age, size, skills and sports interests. Or enroll your child in a strength training class designed for kids.

Warm up. This is vital to avoid muscle strain. Five to 10 minutes of light aerobic activity, such as walking, jogging in place or jumping rope warms the muscles and helps reduce the risk of injury. Gentle stretching after each session is a good idea, too.

Keep it light. Begin with low-resistance exercises until proper technique is perfected. When 8 to 10 repetitions can be performed, it is reasonable to add weight in 10% increments.

Sources of resistance. Remember that the resistance doesn't have to come from just weights. Resistance tubing and body-weight exercises, such as push-ups, can be just as effective.

Optimal gains in strength. Stick to eight to 10 repetitions. Workouts need to be at least 20 to 30 minutes long and take place two to three times per week, and continue to add weight or repetitions as strength improves. Any increase in such frequency seems to have no additional benefit and may instead increase the risk for an overuse injury.

Endurance training. If endurance is an objective, increase the repetitions but with lighter resistance.

Stress proper technique. This is more important than focusing on the amount of weight lifted. Your child can gradually increase the resistance or number of repetitions as he or she gets older.

Supervise. Adult supervision is an important part of youth strength training. If your child lifts weights, act as a spotter — someone who stands ready to grab the weights — in case the weight becomes too heavy.

Rest between workouts. Make sure your child rests at least one full day between exercising each specific muscle group. This is a basic principle to optimise the benefit of any training. It also helps to reduce injury through strain. Thus two or three strength training sessions a week should be sufficient.

Finally, remember that your goals when exercising with children are simple: Be safe, have fun and help kids learn to love physical activity. Results won't come overnight. But eventually, your child will notice a difference in muscle strength and endurance. This would be the key motivation to establishing a fitness habit that lasts a lifetime.