Strength training in children: The myths and the reality

posilovani deti_treninkWe were brought up in the belief that children lifting weights is an absolute taboo. That it is something forbidden that will surely destroy or at least permanently damage a young developing body, something that can be described as a major failure of parents or teachers. Only strength training through one's own body weight is said to be permissible, usually without further elaboration. Parents therefore prefer prohibiting the use of any weights for their children in order not to hurt them.

 

Is that the correct approach?

We are pretty confident today that that's not the case. To put it more bluntly, it is useless nonsense that has simply become accepted thanks to its endless passing on from mouth to mouth by those who were not or are not sufficiently educated or knowledgeable on the issue. However, this is a more complicated topic which can't really be summed up in a couple of sentences containing all wisdom on the matter.

If someone does pull-ups on two fingers of one hand, that would qualify as the talked about strength training using one's own body weight - so, everything should be all right according to our methodology. However, common sense should also tell us that the overburdening of the two fingers will be extremely, absolutely intolerable. After all, doing a set with a five-kilogram one-handed weight is just a very light and harmless warm up compared with that. The same is true with a tug-of-war or with so-called combat sports, where the child must react to the holds of the opponent which can cause great strain. Those are appropriate exercises, but only for a child who is well prepared and trained strength-wise.

Yes, to limit oneself to the insistence on the permissibility of only exercises through body weight is not only methodologically flawed, but in extreme cases misguided and misleading. An appropriate weight load for a child is not only possible, it is even desirable for several reasons. Parents studying at our university of parenthood should understand this extremely well from the beginning.

Strength training for children up to six years old

Until a few years ago, I was of the opinion that it was not necessary to include regular strength training from the age of six years old, because in this period we face enormous challenges in teaching a child in many physical and intellectual areas that should fill up all time dedicated to child development. Teaching one's offspring the basics of all sports, physical activities and appropriate skills, is a hugely demanding challenge time-wise and content-wise both on the theoretical and practical side, no matter how well-equipped the parents are. The days seem way too short for this purpose. And it is necessary to carefully choose and eliminate everything that is a little less important in our opinion.

Look at it this way, when I as a father have to choose whether we will train fifty minutes with weights or begin learning table tennis, I would choose table tennis because it is more rewarding overall for a child.

However, under the weight of modern knowledge and new, truly very convincing information, I am forced to acknowledge that strength training cannot merely be seen as a marginal component of development in the education system in the family or at preschool age. A child simply cannot do without high-quality systematic weight training if the parents have higher sporting ambitions for him or her, or at least want to raise a healthy child, minimally afflicted by musculoskeletal problems in the future. And as far as results go, Kameveda itself is actually built upon demanding strength training from the first days of life. Consider for example the trivial tummy time activity of teaching a baby to lift its head while on its belly. It is an activity that does not seem at all demanding to anyone - after all it's strength training using one's own body weight!

But when you consider the state of development of a child in the first weeks of life, the ratios of the body proportions and the huge weight of the head relative to the rest of the small body, then we must admit that it is at least a similarly challenging act as a child deadlifting a 50-kg barbell at ten years old or bench pressing as far as power is concerned. The head of a newborn imitates a huge weight that the small muscles of the neck and adjacent parts try to lift and with great effort to hold above the mat for a moment, whenever we turn the child over onto its belly.

When I coaxed from my son, who was lying on his back, pressure with the feet or hands against the palms of my hands or against my chest, it was basically nothing more than a simple imitation of a weight training machine, during which it was possible to judge by feel, the degree of resistance that a child can handle. And thanks to the frequent repetition of this exercise, it was actually a sort of super series, which athletes later perform in gyms as part of fitness training on exercise machines. Or at five or six months, the effort to climb up the slide of a Kameveda gym, which takes the form of a sort of creeping along an inclined ramp. This again is a huge exertion and highly demanding muscular work that the child has to perform so he/she can slide down with joy as a reward and try to climb up again.

The benefits of strength training in children

The high quality strength training of a child has several fundamental positive factors that responsible parents simply can not ignore:

  1. Regular strength training increases the physical potential of a child so that he/she is capable of performing an activity much longer and with a better quality, during which they learn new skills and at the same time myelinate their brain. Motor activities can take place over a longer time period, the child can concentrate better during them and can thus easily perform them correctly methodically. Given this strength potential, his/her overall development accelerates much faster, which at the preschool age is one of the main objectives of Kameveda.
  2. A child well-prepared strength-wise can also handle obstacles and burdens without getting harmed that other kids cannot handle at all, or not without getting injured. It's a kind of safety net. I have already stated that, for example, compression clothing such as SKINS not only improve the overall regeneration of athletes when they are not doing their respective sport (and also enhance the feeling of athletes during sport), but also reduces the risk of injury by 15% thanks to the elastic fixation of individual joints and ligaments. However, a much more significant protective function against losing one's balance and injuries is provided by a firm musculature that holds the skeleton of a child in the correct position, taking over a large part of the burden that would otherwise have to be balanced only by the skeleton and joints, and when strengthening, it multiplies one's resistance to environmental influences. On the contrary, a weak child is more susceptible to injury and trivial causes are often enough to cause an injury, that a child which has undergone strength training basically doesn't perceive as dangerous or difficult
  3. A feeling of strength builds a completely natural sense of confidence in the child from earliest childhood as a by-product that stems from mastering the activities which he/she undergoes. The feeling is then empowered in the group by finding out that he/she can manage elements which are sometimes beyond the power of their peers, with a little effort. This confidence, along with courage represents a basis for ambition and a willingness to set high goals for oneself. While the contemporary digital children's population suffers from conclusive signs of serious physical degeneration, Kameveda children are going in the opposite direction. This allows them to see the striking differences between their capabilities and the backwardness and slowness of the other children right from the preschool age. These daily discoveries further increase their confidence. It is therefore a sort of fertile hotbed for the motivation of a child to overcome difficult challenges and activities that without this support, could not arise and permanently establish itself as a significant and defining feature of the individual.
  4. A strong child is healthier overall, with an appropriate ratio of muscle and fat, so we actually provide good prevention against obesity and other possible health problems in their youth and adulthood through strength training (see the article from the Associate Professor Sedlak about the harmfulness of obesity for the boy's population).
  5. As part of strength training, children also develop their internal discipline, they need to focus on the exercise, to realize the commitment to meet or exceed yesterday's workout results. In addition, the requirement for regularity and the need for internal timing for power output creates self-restraint in children, which will later form an important component of their journey to sporting success.
  6. Strength training increases the overall potential of children. Scientific studies have confirmed that it has a direct effect on the intellect and on learning outcomes.
  7. Strength training provokes an increase in the number of muscle fibers in the load-bearing parts of a pre-school age child, building stronger bones (higher bone density), joints, tendons and muscles.
  8. If children begin weight training in time, they prepare their body for a future top sports career in all regards, and not only the body but also the psyche, the will, the motivation to overcome pain and everything associated with this aim.
  9. There are only a few activities that can be set up precisely for a child's conditioning and its current potential, like strength training. They do not need to do any sparring, it is strictly an individual matter that can be performed with simple equipment anywhere, even at home in the living room.
  10. Strength training can provide the prevention of negative phenomena that affect a large proportion of the young population, such as drugs, alcohol, smoking, gambling and spending all free time on the computer or phone.
  11. If a person is able to build a fondness for regular strength training while still young, they have the chance to maintain a lifelong relationship with this activity, or to return to it anytime as to a familiar environment when necessary or on account of health problems.
  12. Strength training can be great fun. Kids enjoy working on themselves, shaping their figures and overcoming the performance targets, which they have set up. This activity can provide a positive direction of physical development, which is imprinted in their appearance for a lifetime, if they adhere to certain principles and pay attention to their development and fitness.
  13. In the period around puberty,the way children look and how they feel about other people's impression of them plays an important role for every young person. Children are sensitive about their weak sides during that period and strength training is able to ensure that they get respect and recognition and avoid ridicule from classmates.
  14. Muscular strength is the basic prerequisite for speed. A high skill level is also dependent on the ability to achieve a high rate of speed in individual activities which significantly increases the technical difficulty, and therefore demands on skills and abilities. In other words, if a child is not fast and strong enough, they will not be able to train at a level that is necessary for the maximum myelination of the brain and the large increase in the potential of his/her skills, which in turn is known as sports talent.
  15. A child perfectly equipped for versatile activities and targeted strength exercises strength-wise can handle unexpected changes in motion, falls or extreme positions and angles of their body, which spontaneously arise in various situations during children's games, horsing around, going on trips and of course during sport. While an unprepared child will grab the overstrained part of the body and will probably have to sit out of the sports process for some time, a strong child will continue in the original activity without delay, because overstraining and injuries during the same activities did not occur with them.
  16. If we teach a child at a young age to regularly strength train, to perform each exercise performed correctly, and if this process takes place for many years, a kind of permanent habit can be created for them, that can be remotely and metaphorically likened to an addiction to sweets, nicotine or alcohol. It is a positive habit, as if the body requires this activity. A person then feels balanced, relaxed and happy, which can cause a lifelong fondness of physical activities. Strength training as the simplest and most accessible part of these activities, because they can be carried out in a limited manner even in the living room, can be performed into old age - that is, if the fondness for this activity is encoded into the human personality during early childhood.

The correct level of strength training is key

Due to the above, everything indicates that if we have high ambitions in sport, they can not be achieved without the same high level of physical fitness and strength capabilities. The important thing is that this activity also be part of the system of education or that its preference over training skills and games that young children most enjoy and which should be a big part of their youth, not occur. If parents and coaches are able to measure the ideal ratio of strength training to other physical activities, it can significantly accelerate the child developmentally, which gives this effort a platform.

Practical examples for the strength training of children

So how can strength training be carried out with a child? I would not divide it into exercises with weights or without weights. We can include strength training exercises that put high demands on the strength of individual muscles. Therefore exercises without the use of additional equipment are included, such as push-ups, pull-ups on a horizontal bar or crunches or sit ups (separately crunches performed laying down on an inclined bench, where the feet are higher than the rest of the body).

A very good exercise for children is medicine ball throws, because it is good dynamic strength training, which is good preparation for a wide range of sports.

Another similar exercise is jumps conducted with 70 to 90% strength. These jumps conducted in different one-foot two-foot variations (with closed eyes, freely as well as over artificial barriers, leaps onto stairs, on a Swedish box, etc.) are exercises during which the high burdening of the bottom of the legs occurs. This in many ways surmounts the weight used in static strengthening with weights. Very effective and popular are jumps and sprints in the sand, which don't put excessive strain on the musculoskeletal apparatus, while being very effective. This is a very difficult exercise, which results in an extraordinary effect. We can monitor it with occasional performance tests:

  • Jumping with the legs together from a fixed point
  • Jumping while measuring how high you can reach with your hand
  • Classic high jumping and distance jumping, where the jumping technique and the run-up to the jump plays a big role

It is advisable to use a variety of jumps. For example, with jumping from a point we distinguish between shallow jumping with a slight bending of the legs at the knees, where especially the ankles work (i.e. a volleyball jump), jumping from a half-squat and finally jumping from a deep squat. Everyone works differently and trains the muscles in a different way. Finally, we can add jumps from a deep squat with simultaneous heavy medicine ball tosses.

When exercising with weights, preferably dumbbells, when strengthening the upper body, we start with light weights and low reps to get the body accustomed to this kind of burden, and so the individual body parts have enough time to adapt. Once this phase takes place, you can slowly increase the weight of the dumbbells.

Strength training with weights should be progressive, which means that the child should see that they are improving. The increasing of the weight should therefore occur very slowly and patiently, because simply increasing the number of repetitions does not bring the desired progress.

The ideal seems to be creating some sort of exercise set that your child will like and learn to build on one exercise after another, according to their rules. After some time, the trained body parts get so strong that it is possible to try to set performance targets and attempt to break personal records if the desire to do so comes from the child and his competitiveness.

As parents or coaches we must in turn be careful when introducing new activities. Many have surely been persuaded of this in the case of thrusting one leg forward and returning back to a standing position. This strengthening exercise can cause pain in the buttocks, which may last longer than a week, because it is an exercise involving often flaccid muscle groups. If we immediately start doing such an exercise with weights and in a larger series, it can force the child to stop training for a longer period of time.
Children may not even recognize long fitness training sessions of 60 or 90 minutes, which have their place in adult training. For our purpose, short training sessions of 15 to 25 minutes are sufficient, which, however, should be performed at least 2-3 times a week. Strength training once a week or even less is often meaningless.

Sources:

The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends strength training for children from the age of eight years
https://www.aap.org/en-us/about-the-aap/aap-press-room/Pages/Are-Weights-Safe-for-Kids.aspx
http://www.coretraining.cz/2016/03/pravda-o-detech-a-silovem-treninku/
https://www.telocvikari.sk/preco-upada-kondicia-dnesnych-deti-rozhovor-s-viktorom-bielikom/
https://is.muni.cz/th/360093/fsps_m/diplomka_final.pdf
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n_55bvIQnG8&t=3103s

Article from 23 April 2017

JUDr. Pavel Zacha

JUDr. Pavel Zacha
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