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Strength Training for Kids
by Wayne Westcott, PhD, Avery Faigenbaum, EdD

Practical guidelines and recommended resistance exercises you can use today to improve youth muscle strength by as much as 74 percent! Most people are aware that children in developed nations are experiencing epidemic levels of obesity, and that this problem is, in large part, associated with physical inactivity. However, the standard fitness recommendation to get more cardiovascular exercise may not be the best advice for overweight, underactive children. The fact is, very few children choose to spend 20 to 30 minutes doing any kind of continuous endurance exercise, regardless of the benefits or incentives. Most youngsters prefer to play hard or run fast for 30 to 60 seconds, rest a minute or two, then repeat their performance, essentially alternating brief bouts of vigorous exercise with longer recovery periods. Ideally, children should have access to exercise programs that meet their physiological needs and match their personal activity patterns. Fortunately, it is possible to provide such exercise programs through sensible strength training—and the beneficial effects typically exceed most people’s expectations.
Benefits of Kids’ Strength Training

Strength training for kids not only offers many advantages over other types of exercise; it also appeals to children’s activity preference to alternate brief bouts of high-effort movement with longer periods of rest/recovery. Strength training exercises for kids also provide visual reinforcement, because young exercisers can easily see how much weight they are lifting and how much progress they have made. One of the best features of strength training for kids is the success rate that overweight boys and girls experience. Unlike most athletic activities (e.g., running, jumping, soccer and basketball), in which extra body weight is undesirable, strength training actually favors larger youth and gives them a much-needed sense of physical accomplishment. Because the amount of weight lifted is positively related to body weight, heavier children can usually train with heavier weight loads than their lighter peers. Here are some more compelling reasons why sensible resistance training benefits children:
Dispelling Myths & Misconceptions

Conceptually. Pikosky et al. Strength Training For Kids Guidelines As a rule. contrary to popular opinion. children should do about 20 minutes of well-designed and carefully supervised strength training (ideally sandwiched between 10 minutes of warm-up and cool-down activities) 2 or 3 nonconsecutive days each week. In fact. many people mistakenly believe that strength training is an inappropriate and unsafe activity for youth. If strength training is safe and effective for your frail elderly clients. bar-dip or push-up. but it may actually help reduce the number of injuries they sustain during other physical activities. But.4 percent in those who did not strength train (Morris et al. it is even better for healthy young people with full movement capacity and plenty of energy. then women and elderly individuals would also be unresponsive to strength training. calisthenics exercises are safer than strength training exercises. Not only is strength training safe for kids. Although some of the strength gains are due to motor learning. no serious injury has ever been reported in any prospective study on youth strength training.and 10-year-old girls. we have personally conducted regular strength training classes for children 6 to 12 years old for the past 17 years without experiencing a single injury! Some of you may have heard that strength training can be detrimental to bone development in children. especially in the area of sets and . In a 10-month study involving 9. This is likewise untrue. in much the same way that adults do. some people question whether children can gain strength and enhance muscular development in light of their low levels of testosterone. which is obviously not the case.2 percent in those who performed both strength and aerobic exercise. 1997. in large part. but this has never been demonstrated. 1993. Again. this does not make sense.Unfortunately. 2002. Westcott et al. making these calisthenics maximum-effort exercises that result in failure. Finally. these same kids can adjust the weight load as necessary and are able to perform 10 to 15 controlled repetitions of every exercise. 1996). Most children—especially those who are underfit and overweight—cannot complete a single pull-up. research has shown that these strength training effects are relatively long-lasting (Faigenbaum et al. 1977). compared to about 1. if this were a true limitation. by enrolling kids in youth strength and conditioning programs (ACSM l993). Furthermore. Indeed. According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). we have found that using resistance equipment. studies have revealed significant increases in muscle strength and mass in preadolescent boys and girls (Faigenbaum et al. Although optimal strength training protocols for adults and children are similar in certain ways. On a more anecdotal front. Morris et al. 1995). children add muscle tissue through increased protein synthesis. bone mineral density increased by about 6. However. strength training has been shown to enhance bone development in kids. You may also have heard that for children. we have discovered some notable differences. 50 percent of preadolescent sports injuries could be prevented.

If children perform more than one set of each exercise. this is consistent with our research on adult trainees (Westcott & Guy 1996). each using the six-repetition maximum (6 RM) weight load. a higher 10 RM weight load is determined and the training protocol repeats. TRAINING REPETITIONS Because the children in the research cited above appeared to respond better to higherrepetition training.repetitions. Children (also 10-year-olds) who performed three sets of six repetitions. we have observed similar strength gains in children whether they exercise 2 or 3 nonconsecutive days per week. We recommend beginning with two . The following sections describe the specific guidelines and exercises we have used in our kids strength training programs. and the final set consists of as many repetitions as possible with the 10 RM weight load. we decided to conduct a study that compared different numbers of repetitions (Faigenbaum et al. the second set consists of 10 repetitions performed at 75 percent of the 10 RM weight load. Owing to the time constraints of our 1-hour training sessions. In this protocol. the 10-year-old boys and girls who followed this program increased their overall muscle strength (five exercises) by 74 percent. Half of the children performed one exercise set to muscle fatigue using six to eight repetitions. 1993). These comparative results suggested that three high-effort sets of each exercise may not be necessary for strength development in preadolescents. TRAINING SETS We have obtained our best research results using the DeLorme-Watkins strength training protocol. saw less improvement (47 percent strength gain) over an 8-week training period than those who used the DeLormeWatkins protocol (Faigenbaum et al. 1999). our youth strength studies over the past 6 years have incorporated one set of each resistance exercise—with excellent results and no injuries. compared to 13 percent for the matched control subjects (Faigenbaum et al. The average strength improvement was 18 percent for the lower-repetition group and 29 percent for the higher-repetition group. 1996). and the other half performed one exercise set to muscle fatigue using 13 to 15 repetitions. we recommend that they rest for approximately 2 minutes between sets. These results were consistent with our previous studies and supported higher-repetition strength training protocols for preadolescents. TRAINING FREQUENCY When it comes to training frequency. When a child can complete 15 repetitions. During 8 weeks of training. A follow-up study using the more challenging Berger strength training protocol showed less success. the first exercise set consists of 10 repetitions performed at 50 percent of the 10-repetition maximum (10 RM) weight load.

we prefer moderate movement range on complex exercises that require excessively stretched starting positions (e. including the quadriceps. TRAINING TECHNIQUE Training technique encompasses movement speed. anaerobic exercise. We recommend that you progress from large to small muscle groups in the same . from 20 to 21 pounds. Recommended Resistance Exercises for Kids Our experience indicates that preadolescents should perform six to 12 different strength exercises each training session. When the youngster can complete 15 repetitions. We generally recommend full movement range on simple exercises (e.. TRAINING PROGRESSION Although there are no hard-and-fast rules for increasing exercise resistance for kids. we follow a double-progressive protocol to avoid doing too much too soon.. For example. upper trapezius. movement range. and again we increase the resistance slightly (no more than 5 percent). children’s knees should not flex more than 90 degrees. allowing about 2 seconds for each lifting movement and about 2 seconds for each lowering movement. torso erect and hips level. performed on nonconsecutive days. gluteals. with the option of adding a third session if youngsters desire it.g.g. abdominals. correct breathing and proper posture during the exercise performance. For example.. turning and squirming actions. during the leg press. spinal erectors.g. Proper posture—which facilitates correct breathing and exercise performance—is typically characterized by standing or sitting tall. biceps curl and triceps extension). deltoids. Correct breathing technique requires exhaling during the lifting movement (concentric muscle action) and inhaling during the lowering movement (eccentric muscle action). In this manner. hamstrings. biceps and triceps. leg press and chest press). The child trains with the higher weight load until he or she can complete 15 repetitions. latissimus dorsi. we increase the resistance by as little as possible (typically 1 to 5 pounds) and by no more than 5 percent (e. However. We prefer controlled movement speed. which represents an appropriate bout of high-effort. and avoiding twisting. children can complete one set of 15 repetitions in approximately 60 seconds. or 40 to 42 pounds). to reduce the risk of injury. shoulders square. pectoralis major. keeping the head up. The key to successful kids strength training is gradual progression. which facilitates safe workouts that are both challenging and reinforcing. we begin with a weight load that the child in question can lift for 10 to 13 repetitions. The exercise program should address all of the major muscle groups.strength workouts per week.

ADULT-SIZED RESISTANCE MACHINE EXERCISES FOR KIDS Although youth-sized resistance equipment is best suited for smaller-framed boys and girls. 1995. Safety & Supervision Without question.way you would for adults. youth-sized resistance machines are configured with smaller frames and shorter lever arms. children may use 1-pound magnetic addon weights. (One resistance exercise we feel children should not perform is the barbell squat.) For gradual progression in dumbbell exercises. YOUTH-SIZED RESISTANCE MACHINE EXERCISES FOR KIDS If children have access to youth-sized resistance machines. However. The exercises described on pages 40-42 are the specific ones we use in our youth strength training programs and are shown in the order of progression. FREE-WEIGHT EXERCISES FOR KIDS Resistance machines are particularly useful for overweight children because the equipment supports their body weight. 1996). children can exercise safely and effectively using free weights (dumbbells rather than barbells) or elastic bands. as long as they comply with the strength training guidelines outlined in this article. we recommend the exercises on page 40. When properly . including appropriate performance feedback and positive reinforcement. Faigenbaum et al. We are happy to report that the hundreds of boys and girls who have participated in our strength training programs over the past 17 years have had a 90 percent compliance rate and a 0 percent injury rate. most preadolescents can train safely and productively on adult-sized machines that use linear (pushing or pulling) movements. which we attribute to proper supervision. is essential to injury prevention. The adult-sized resistance machine exercises listed on page 41 are appropriate for most boys and girls. Consider the dumbbell exercises listed below as alternatives to machine strength training. which places excessive loading forces directly on a child’s developing spinal column. Typically. if resistance machines are not available. participant satisfaction and the development of children’s competence and confidence in this activity. the most important aspect of a safe and successful kids strength training program is qualified adult supervision throughout each exercise session. As for equipment preferences. we have observed the same strength improvements whether our young subjects used free weights (dumbbells) or resistance machines (either youth-sized or adult-sized) (Westcott et al. Proper instruction.

and it is essential to maintain those engines to steer an active lifestyle. Fortunately.designed and carefully conducted. stronger muscles stronger bones stronger tendons stronger ligaments more muscle less fat higher metabolism greater physical capacity greater self-confidence lower injury risk SIDEBAR: Kids Strength Training Guidelines at a Glance Sets: one challenging set of each exercise. which may or may not be preceded by one or two preliminary sets Repetitions: 10 to 15 repetitions in each exercise set Frequency: 20-minute training session performed on 2 or 3 nonconsecutive days each week Progression: a weight increase of 5 percent or less (typically 1 to 5 pounds) once a child can complete 15 repetitions with a given load Speed: 2 seconds for lifting movements and 2 seconds for lowering movements Range: full movement range on simple exercises and moderate movement range on complex exercises . there is a simple solution. 8. In the past. as well as develop an activity pattern that should serve them well throughout their lives. The Little Engines That Can Muscles are the engines that “run” the body. 9. strength training may very well be the safest and most physiologically beneficial activity children can do. 7. 10. 4. your young charges will be on the right track for a lifetime of activity and good health. but today’s children tend to be preoccupied with inactive pastimes and few do enough resistance exercise to develop strong musculoskeletal systems. feel better and function better. 2. 3. Research confirms that sensible strength training will help children look better. With their engines revved up. 5. childhood was the most active time in people’s lives. SIDEBAR: Top 10 Reasons Why Kids Should Strength Train 1. 6.

com Books From Human Kinetics. www.acefitness. (800) 825-3636. and inhaling during lowering movements Posture: standing or sitting tall with head Strength and Power for Young Athletes by Avery Faigenbaum and Wayne Westcott (2000) Strength Training for Young Athletes by William Kraemer and Steven Fleck (1993) Total Training for Young Champions by Tudor Bompa (1999) From the American Council on Exercise. Tampa. www. torso erect and hips Youth Fitness by Avery Faigenbaum and Wayne Westcott (2001) .ifpa-fitness. (800) 548-5438. shoulders square. (800) 785-1924.Breathing: exhaling during lifting movements. turning and squirming SIDEBAR: Strength Training for Kids Additional Resources Certification in Kids Strength Training The International Fitness Professionals Association. (800) Youth-Sized Equipment Hoist Fitness Systems. avoiding twisting.hoistfitness. www. Florida. www.