The message to parents: If you want your kids to excel in sports, you need to start them young. Of course, beyond developing specific skills -- such as throwing, kicking, and swinging -- improving strength, power and speed are key components of sports performance training.
Which leads many parents to wonder, Should my kid lift weights?
Well, some experts warn that weight training at a young age can damage a child's growth plates. And that concern has merit. “The dangers to growth plates -- found at the end of long bones -- are real,” says Michael Mejia, C.S.C.S., Men’s Health fitness adviser and owner of B.A.S.E. Sports Conditioning, an organization that specializes in youth athletic training.
However, Mejia is quick to point out that these injuries are almost always the result of using too much weight with improper technique. Plus, he adds that smart strength training is absolutely acceptable -- as long as the right exercises are chosen and that the youth has an appropriate level of base strength and mobility.
"Exposure to a variety of sports and fitness-based games -- such as tag and tug o' war -- is the best approach for younger kids," says Mejia. "But as they reach that middle and high school age, you can start implementing more of a structured approach to strength training." (Looking for a simple workout for yourself? Discover how to Blast Fat With Just Two Exercises!)
But proceed with caution: "Even when kids are ready for weights, the loading is often times imbalanced and that leads to problems down the road." One common issue: "People put too much focus on popular exercises like the bench press, and start piling on weight even before a kid can do 10 good push-ups," says Mejia. "That's a recipe for injury."
Mejia's advice: Before a kid ever touches a weight, make sure she can perform basic body-weight exercises with perfect form. Fair warning: You may even be surprised at what perfect form is. Watch the videos below and have your child complete the movements while you observe. Even better, use a video camera to record your kid doing the exercises, so you can better compare to the form used in Mejia’s videos.
Then rate his or her form on a scale of 0 to 3, using this scoring guide:
3 = Perfect form
2 = Able to do the exercise with slight deviation from proper form
1 = Significant deviations from proper form
0 = Can't do the exercise at all or the drill causes pain
The Overhead Squat
5 Strength Rules for Kids
1. Master the basics first. Work on the two movements above -- the push-up and overhead squat -- until they can be completed correctly, says Mejia. If your kid doesn't pass the body-weight tests with a score of 3, he or she is not ready for actual weights. That's perfectly fine, by the way. These movements require total-body strength that will help in just about every sport. So by improving at them, you’ll develop a more sound athletic foundation.
2. Once your child aces the tests, focus on compound, multi-joint movements. Choose exercise that emphasize the upper back, core, and hips, says Mejia. Think: Less benching, more rowing. Smart exercises to include: stability-ball leg curls, inverted rows, and reverse flys with light dumbbells. (For an encyclopedia of more than 500 great strength-training exercises, check out The Men’s Health Big Book of Exercises and The Women’s Health Big Book of Exercises.)
3. Stay away from most machines. Many gym machines -- such as the leg extension, leg press and chest fly (a.k.a pec deck -- force kids to work through unnatural movement patterns that have little carryover to sports and activities of daily living. (Cable machines are the exception.)
4. Watch the weights. Poor form and excessive loading are the reasons kids wind up injured. Once they've mastered their own body weight, start with a resistance that allows for 12 to 15 repetitions with perfect technique, advises Mejia. "Just 1 one 2 sets per exercise is fine initially, working up to a maximum of 3 sets once strength and endurance improve." And be sure not to take any sets to the point of muscular failure.
5. Use a variety of strengthening equipment. Medicine balls, bands, and cable-based machines allow for three-dimensional movement. These are ideal because they offer kids variety, while training balance and stability just like free weights, says Mejia.
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