Q. I am a concerned parent and would like your opinion on something. At what age do you think a boy or girl should begin a strength-training program to develop strength and musular fitness? What type of lifts should they do and are there any they should avoid?
A. First, realize that exercise is a necessity for muscles of any age. Without it, muscle tissue will atrophy and die. It's especially important for children to exercise if the muscles are to develop normally. There are no adverse effects from exercising properly. Any exercise, including strength training, is good for the muscles regardless of age. Muscles perform work. They can't distinguish the difference between performing a strength- training exercise and climbing a rope, wrestling with a friend or hanging from monkey bars. There are some misconceptions surrounding strength training's effect on youth. Developing the muscles will not stunt the normal growth of the bones. In fact, strength training will enhance the development of bones and tendons. Another misconception concerns the effect on flexibility. It's assumed that additional strength will decrease the normal range of motion of the muscles involved. Not so. If the exercises are performed correctly, flexibility will actually improve. Many studies have been performed to determine the effect of weightlifting on flexibility and each demonstrated that flexibility increased. Parents need not fear any adverse effects on the body if proper care is taken. Children need to be exposed to all of the elements that make up their fitness profile. Educate them on the dos and don'ts. It may be too late if you wait until they're in high school. What you should fear is some of the information they'll be exposed to. Somestrength teachers are qualified; some aren't. Those who aren't force the kids to learn from the muscle magazines and some self-proclaimed experts with big arms. Another concern I have is the overly eager parent who wants little Johnnie or Susie to win a gold medal or make a million bucks. They force their kids into a strict, structured, strength-training program at an early age. That's a mistake, in my opinion. Most boys aren't physically mature enough to make any noticeable gains until they're at least 14 or 15. And even then the gains will not be that significant until they reach 17 or 18. The most significant changes will take place for the average male between the ages of 19 and 21. The female matures a little faster than the male, so better gains can be expected sooner for the female. Because of that, I would question the value of any youngster below the age of 13 or 14 participating in a regularly scheduled, intense strength program. Kids that age can work hard but will show little improvement because the hormonal balance within the body won't allow it. My two boys, Marty and Timmy, age 10 and six, both have developed an interest in fitness, including strength training. I've taught them the basic concepts of strength training and how to properly perform some of the basic movements using their bodyweight. These movements include situps, chinups, pullups, dips and pushups. But I don't encourage them to do these or any other exercises. They're both normal young boys who are constantly on the go. Periodically they will ask me to watch or help them do some of the above exercises. I show interest when they do. When they are old enough, I will take a more active role if they show an interest. And I'll know when my children are old enough physically and emotionally. They'll probably be at least 13 or 14. You'll have to help your children decide when they are old enough. If you have to encourage or force them to work out, they're probably not ready. If they begin around the age of 14, I'd recommend fewer exercises than when they're 17 or 16. And when they're 20 or 21, I would recommend no more than nine or ten exercises for the entire body (not counting the neck). That would include two to three exercises for the hips and legs, one for the midsection, one for the lower back and five for the upper body. Perhaps these general guidelines may be of some value to you for children 13 or younger. 1. Encourage your children to play and involve themselves in a wide range of physical skills and activities. 2. Make them aware of the basic elements making up their level of fitness. 3. Teach them how to correctly perform exercises and show an interest when they do. 4. If they do exercise, encourage your children to perform exercises primarily with their bodyweight (build some chinup and dip bars if necessary). Always perform between 10 and 12 reps. 5. Machines are easier and safer to use than conventional barbell and dumbbell equipment. 6. All movements should be performed in a slow controlled manner. 7. Teach your children the value of lowering a weight (it's half the exercise, you know) and allowing three to four seconds to lower it. There are some things you should avoid: 1. Don't nag or pester your children to lift weights (it's hard work, boring, no fun). 2. Avoid any fast, jerky, explosive movements or lifts (they're guaranteed to cause an injury). 3. Avoid any maximum-attempt lifts. Kids often challenge each other to see how much they can lift (it's an inefficient and dangerous way to train). 4. Avoid the muscle magazines. Some of the information in them is good but much of it is based on outdated and even dangerous concepts. 5. Avoid the following exercises, which are potentially dangerous: barbell squat, deadlift, power clean, snatch, clean and jerk, neck bridge and straight-legged situp.