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New Guidelines Tout Benefits of Resistance Training for Kids

Child flexing muscles
Kids can be ready for resistance training as early as 7 years old.

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Key Takeaways

  • New guidelines emphasize that strength training can have major benefits for kids and teens.
  • Benefits can include not just physical improvements, but mental health advantages, too.
  • Children can start resistance training at around age 7, but make sure you have a professional to help.

Also known as strength training or weight lifting, resistance training is often touted for its focus on improving muscular strength and endurance, but usually just for adults. The image of a pint-sized weight lifter is still fairly rare—but new guidelines suggest maybe it shouldn't be.

Released by the Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness and published in the June 2020 issue of Pediatrics, the report revises the 2008 American Academy of Pediatrics policy statement on the benefits and risks of resistance training for children and teens. Further research on the benefits of strength training, as well decreasing levels of fitness amongst American adolescents, have made the case for this type of exercise even clearer.

Key points of the report include:

  • Resistance training isn't limited to lifting weights, and can include a wide array of bodyweight movement that can be introduced at young ages.
  • In addition to positive outcomes in improved strength, this kind of training can reduce the risk of overuse injuries and get kids more interested in exercise.
  • Research supports wide use of this training, as long as activities are performed with proper technique and are well supervised.

"Resistance training in children has long been suspected of stunting growth due to damage of the growth plates, but this theory doesn't hold up to the current research," says Alec Hyde, DPT, CSCS, a performance physical therapist in Miami.

Alec Hyde, DPT, CSCS

The force children create to produce high-velocity movements such as sprinting, jumping, and landing exceed that of the force applied to bones during resistance training. That means it's not only safe, but also effective.

— Alec Hyde, DPT, CSCS

Benefits of Resistance Training

In the current revised guidelines, the authors point out that this type of training for kids and teens can have the same type of benefits as it does for adults:

  • Improved muscular strength
  • Better insulin regulation in youth who are overweight
  • Increased resistance to injury
  • Improved cardiovascular fitness
  • Better body composition

Numerous studies have found that exercise in childhood can keep benefits like those going strong for decades. For example, research in Exercise and Sport Science reported that activities that apply force, like resistance training, can improve bone mass and mineralization that has a potential effect on osteoporosis risk in later life.

Plus, this type of training can be modified for nearly all children, regardless of size or physical limitations, and it can have a profound effect on mental health, says Disa Hatfield, PhD, associate professor and chair of the Department of Kinesiology at the University of Rhode Island College of Health Sciences.

She notes that can include improvements in:

  • Self-esteem
  • Body perception
  • Socialization
  • Academic performance
  • Mental discipline

Getting Started

Although there is no established recommendation for when children can safely start resistance training, the new Pediatrics study noted they're usually ready for the basics at around 5 to 7 years old—about the same age they might start in sports.

Mainly, says Hyde, they should be able to follow directions in a gym setting, and have enough body control to adjust when given instructions. It's also crucial to have an experienced coach or trainer who can provide that guidance, he adds.

As a starting point, body weight movements are ideal, followed by light resistance bands or weights, and once they master foundational elements like stabilization and proper form for each move—such as squats, lunges, overhead presses, and others—then they can begin adding heavier weights, advises David Freeman, CPT, national alpha program manager at Life Time in Dallas. 

"The focus should be on mechanics first, then on consistency within those mechanics, and then you can introduce intensity," he says. "Creating a strong foundation leads to less injuries. In playing sports, injuries are often part of the process, but understanding how to properly move, recover, and treat the body is essential in reducing that risk."

Putting that all together, here's a simple sequence for parents, kids, and teens to follow:

  • Find a trainer who is knowledgeable about age-adjusted training
  • Expect to start light and focus only on form and stability first
  • Progress very gradually in intensity and resistance amount
  • Begin incorporating sport-specific moves into a resistance training regimen

Also, don't forget to make it fun, adds Hatfield. (That's an aspect adults sometimes miss, too.) When activities are enjoyable, people of any age are more likely to continue doing them, and that's especially crucial for kids because it can set up a lifelong love of activity.

What This Means For You

As long as children and teens are being guided by professionals who understand how to progress a program slowly and safely, focusing on strength training can have major benefits. Not only can it help prevent sport-specialization injuries, it can also foster an exercise habit for life. And if the COVID-19 pandemic has limited some of your child's group activity options for the summer, there may be no better time to start than now.

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Article Sources
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  1. Westcott WL. Resistance training is medicine: effects of strength training on health. Curr Sports Med Rep. 2012;11(4):209-16. doi:10.1249/JSR.0b013e31825dabb8

  2. Stricker P, et al. Resistance Training for Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics. 2020;145(6):e20201011. doi:10.1542/peds.2020-1011

  3. Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. Strength Training by Children and Adolescents, Pediatrics Apr 2008, 121 (4) 835-840; doi:10.1542/peds.2007-3790

  4. Gunter KB, Almstedt HC, Janz KF. Physical activity in childhood may be the key to optimizing lifespan skeletal healthExerc Sport Sci Rev. 2012;40(1):13‐21. doi:10.1097/JES.0b013e318236e5ee

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