Resistance training for children

The new thinking in the fitness world says strength training is a huge benefit, not only for adults, but for our children as well.

Once upon a time, it was believed that resistance exercises should be avoided by pre-pubescent children, because it was thought it would damage their growth plates and stunt musculoskeletal development. Just like the advice, "don’t exercise when you are pregnant," has gone the way of the horse and buggy, so now is the thinking for resistance exercise and children.

According to Wayne Wescott, Ph.D., progressive resistance exercise training is the best way to enhance musculoskeletal development in boys and girls. Other experts agree and also believe that resistance training has its greatest influence on bone formation if done in the prepubescent years. 

Factor into the scene that today about 15 percent of our youth are obese or overweight, children who are obese have a 70 percent likelihood they will develop obesity as adults, and most overweight children do not enjoy doing cardiovascular exercise because it is uncomfortable and embarrassing for them. You have the perfect storm for choosing resistance training as exercise programming for all children, even if they are not currently overweight!

What is resistance training?

There are three main physical benefits from exercise: enhanced cardiovascular capacity, enhanced flexibility, and enhanced muscular strength and endurance. Although we tend to think that one exercise is only one "type," most exercise methods result in multiple benefits. For instance, yoga is primarily thought of as a flexibility exercise, but it also benefits muscular strength and endurance.

Resistance training exercise is typically defined as exercise that uses your body weight and/or additional resistance for the purpose of adding muscle, increasing muscle capacity or decreasing injury risk due to muscle, tendon and ligament weakness or instability.

Resistance training exercise started with Nautilus machines, but today it has branched out to an almost unlimited variety of equipment. Strength training equipment includes your own body weight against gravity, selectorized weight equipment in a gym (think Cybex or Body Master), free weights, stretchable tubes and bands, medicine balls, kettlebells, pilates machines, and suspension equipment. 

When it comes to resistance training for children, it is better to avoid the typical gym machines adults use. The machines were designed for larger body frames and setting adjustments do not include ranges for small bodies.

One note on resistance training for overweight or obese children: unlike the discomfort and embarrassment often experienced when performing cardiovascular type exercises, overweight or obese children are often able to lift heavier loads then their thinner counterparts. When they perform resistance training activities, not only is it psychologically enhancing for the youth (their self esteem tends to fly!) but it is also impressive to their peers creating a positive socialization experience as well!

The first step in getting anyone, child or adult, to consistently engage in exercise behaviors, is creating an experience making them feel good. Once this is established, it’s much easier consistently doing it, and getting the benefits!

Resistance training for children 2-5

Children are not miniature adults. Their bodies are different on a physiological level. For instance, they don’t sweat as well as adults, so they have a more difficult time regulating core temperature when exercising in the heat. Psychologically, they differ as well. They do not have the same capacity for attention. Children’s exercise needs to be creative and somewhat different from adult exercise.

Children ages 2-5 are learning about their bodies and how to control them within space and time. Engaging in structured but episodic activities is best at this age range. The children are spontaneous, but are not yet able to sustain activity. They will tire out. The best resistance training activities at this age involves weight of the child’s own body and gravity more commonly than any added resistance.

These years are also important because they are setting the foundation for behavioral patterns, likes and dislikes for their entire lives. It’s also a time of life when the children are most in contact with immediate family, sometimes exclusively. It’s very important that parents or primary caregivers are conscious of their own habits with activity and inactivity. Parents may have to push themselves to get off the couch or away from the computer on a daily basis playing home video games or go outside and toss a ball. Children tend to pick up on the behavioral patterns of the people they love at this age in addition to other sources. 

Activities suitable for this age range include: free play, catching with objects including bean bags or light play balls, rolling objects, kicking or bouncing or tossing a ball, jumping, hopping, skipping, tricycles, introduction to swimming and home video games or electronic dance board games.

Resistance training for children 6-9

At this age, it is appropriate to introduce additional resistance to body weight movements and exercises. A parent can introduce their child to free weights in the form of light weight dumbbells, barbells, medicine balls, elastic tubes and bands. 

I love to see adults with their 6-9 year-old children in the gyms, working with free weights and taking turns doing the exercises. Not only does this reinforce the positive psychological benefits (at this age, going to the gym with dad is amazing to the child and makes him/her feel great and important!), but it also helps the child feel comfortable in the gym environment setting the psychological template for future years and linking it with "feel good" feelings. This is unlike the more common experience of being embarrassed in a gym class during team sports or activities where the child, especially those overweight, are having exercise linked with feeling self conscious and worthless if not picked for a team until last.

Other resistance training activities appropriate for this age include swimming teams, martial arts programs, batting a ball, and obstacle course type activities. 

Adults may use music showing children basic exercises including abdominal crunches, push-ups on knees, or arm curls without weights. The child would do the exercise until the adult stops the song.

Resistance training for children 10-16

Children in this age range do well with exercise including goals. Themes are no longer cool and are viewed as babyish. The more adult-like techniques of using sets, reps and increasing resistance loads are appropriate.

Children may engage in structured resistance programs using free weights. Depending on the child’s body size, it may also be the time to introduce machine weights in gym settings.

A fun way to integrate resistance workouts at home is a game of Rolling Dice Fitness. You need dice, light weights, bands, tubes and/or medicine balls. Set up the game by pre-designing a wall chart that corresponds to the numbers on the dice and links each number with an exercise. For instance, 1=push ups, 2=medicine ball press-ups overhead. 

To play the game, partner children and have them take turns rolling the dice. The number on the dice designates which exercise on the chart the child is to perform. The adult or the other child then sets the number of repetitions and the child has to perform that exercise at that repetition number. Then, the children switch with the other partner rolling the dice and setting the number of repetitions. Setting a limit to the repetitions in the 1-20 range is a good idea.

Resistance training is a physiologically and psychologically positive activity for children of all sizes, but especially for overweight children who have negative experiences with other types of exercise. As parents, it is important you model positive, healthy activity habits. Your behavior is sets the precedent for your children. Armed with this information, you can now actively participate in the reversal of our children’s obesity epidemic for future generations! 

Judy Torel is a USAT coach, personal trainer, nutrition consultant and psychotherapist. Her office is located in Planet Fitness, Loudonville. She can be reached at 469.0815 or



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