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Pressing For Kids' Fitness

Students in three of Arlington County's six middle schools are now introduced to weight training, and Debbie DeFranco, supervisor for health, physical education and athletics, said she plans to start requiring weight training for ninth and 10th graders next fall. All weight training instructors in county schools have at least an undergraduate degree in physical education.

"Weight training, as part of an overall fitness program, is a lifelong activity," she said. "We want to make fitness a basic part of their lives, and weight training is a part of that. We want them to take more pride in their bodies."

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Some private companies have taken note. For example, Hoist Fitness, of San Diego, is selling workout machines designed for children. Adult machines, said David Salisbury, marketing director for Hoist, tend to isolate one joint at a time and work it hard, a technique that can put undue stress on children's less-developed joints. "Each of our pieces [for children] keeps multiple joints in motion throughout the exercise," he said. Each unit is also designed to be fun to use, Salisbury added.

Cedric Bryant, an adviser to ACSM (which encourages youth weight training, but only with constant adult supervision by a qualified trainer), recommends machines designed for youngsters or light dumbbells and elastic tubing or bands. The YMCA limits weight training to children 13 and older because its facilities' equipment is designed for adults, a YMCA spokeswoman Karen Addis said.

Not Your Dad's Reps

Faigenbaum likens unsupervised weight lifting in children to "giving a kid a pair of skis and leaving him at the top of a mountain." He cites cases of children who died after being trapped under barbells while using their parents' weight benches.

Faigenbaum's programs, which are endorsed by the AAP, don't use barbells. Over the past 15 years, he said, he has worked with hundreds of children age 7 to 18 without any injuries to participants.

As the popularity of weight training for kids grows, however, so may the risk.

Jake Westhoff, a certified trainer who manages the Fitness Image Results program at the Gold's Gym in the District's Van Ness area, said that he has noticed a steady increase in the number of children in gyms and that many are lifting without supervision.

"At least 75 percent of kids under the age of 17 have no idea what they are doing and are doing more damage to their bodies than good," Westhoff said. "They just are not educated in fitness and don't know how to design a safe, effective routine with the proper progression levels for their age. Some have developed bad habits through sports and coaches who come from an old-school style of lifting that holds many myths that have long since been thrown out," like the belief that a full range of motion is needed for all exercises.

"The most important thing is to work with a qualified professional. You get problems in the gym when you get a dad or someone who thinks they know what they're doing and they want their kid to be an NFL player."•

John Briley writes the weekly Moving Crew column on fitness for the Health section.

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