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Can My Child Start Strength Training?

By Aaron Paitich, Touchpoint Media, 05/21/13, 10:00AM CDT

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There’s a misconception out there when it comes to kids and strength training. It’s not taboo.

University of Minnesota strength and conditioning coach Cal Dietz has trained athletes of all ages, including collegiate All-America players, professional athletes and Olympians. Now he’s helping his 7-year-old son – but only because his son wanted to.

“Only when he wants to,” says Dietz, who works with the Gopher men’s and women’s hockey teams. “Are we lifting weights? Sure. But it’s so light. The bench press might be less weight than an actual push-up. There’s nothing negative about that.”

The American Society of Exercise retracted a statement it made in the 80s where strength training could hurt a child’s growth plates. That would only happen in a most extreme case, such as a gymnast falling from great heights. Kids simply can’t produce enough force.

Dietz notes that if a kid jumps off a couch and he weighs 50 pounds, that child may have 200 pounds of force on their bones. A kid would never be able to move that force with weights.

Start with a certified trainer or coach to develop exercises and a program suitable for your child. Always have supervision and safety as a top priority.

Benefits of strength training

The Mayo Clinic also supports the safe practice of strength training for kids as early as 7 or 8 years old, so long as it involves light resistance, quality movements and supervision. The Mayo Clinic explains some benefits of strength training for kids on their website:

Done properly, strength training can:

  • Increase your child's muscle strength and endurance
  • Help protect your child's muscles and joints from sports-related injuries
  • Improve your child's performance in nearly any sport, from dancing and figure skating to football and soccer

Keep in mind that strength training isn't only for athletes. Even if your child isn't interested in sports, strength training can:

  • Strengthen your child's bones
  • Help promote healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels
  • Help your child maintain a healthy weight
  • Improve your child's confidence and self-esteem

Let the kids decide and make it fun

So, strength training can be safe and beneficial for your child, but that doesn’t mean parents should be forcing them to participate.

“I think it all relies in interest and what the kid wants to do,” says Dietz, who also owns XL Athlete. “Make sure it’s fun and play games. Make it enjoyable. Then you’re learning to train and learning what to do to set yourself up for future development if that’s what your goal is.”

When it comes to incorporating fun games, Dietz suggests little exercises that aren’t stressful. If it’s a real youngster, throw a balloon in the air and have the child keep hitting it at its highest point. Play volleyball or soccer with them. Then go back and do the high-quality work, which is where the real benefits are generated.

Make sure they’re having fun and enjoying the experience. After all, these are just kids and that’s why they participate in youth sports. Technique and skill are important, but if there is no desire, then you are wasting your time.

“The coach can’t be yelling and screaming,” says Dietz. “The kid has to try to produce that effort because they want to.”

Don’t pressure your kid into training for the National Hockey League. The numbers are heavily stacked against it. Instead, use safe strength training as a fun way to improve health, development and quality of life.

“Do you want to get your kid to the NHL?” says Dietz. “This country produces more neurosurgeons than it does hockey players. Let’s just create an overall healthy person. Sports aren’t that important, let’s be honest. However, sports do teach us some amazing life lessons. That’s where it’s important.”

It’s all about quality

Focus on the quality of training, don’t just try to wear them out.

“Any idiot can make a kid tired with a whistle. That’s not the goal,” says Dietz. “When the kid becomes fatigued they aren’t training high-quality motor movements and motor patterns. If the movement isn’t of high quality, you’re wasting your time. There’s no development there.”

When the world’s fastest humans train to become faster, they sprint really short distances and then they rest for seven or eight minutes. Then they do it again. It’s all about quality. That’s especially important for youth.

“There’s a time to get in shape, but it’s also about the quality of what you’re doing and making sure the kids are having fun,” adds Dietz. “The kids will play themselves into shape during practices.”

If the kid can’t perform a certain exercise, don’t push them.

“Everything needs to be about success here,” says Dietz. “If it’s a skill they can’t do yet, break that skill down even simpler and have success.”

Create an overall athlete

Don’t focus on hockey-specific exercises. Hockey practices and games will take care of all that. If kids focus on just hockey workouts, it can actually be harmful by causing injuries due to overuse.

The specificity kids get comes from playing the sport itself.

“Really, you want to train the non-specific skills a majority of the time,” says Dietz. “Then you make a holistic human. That’s what you want to try to do.”

By branching out and working on all sorts of different motor skills, you’re creating an all-around athlete from top to bottom. This also falls in line with USA Hockey’s American Development Model, which pushes athletes to play multiple sports and avoid early specialization.

What else does this improve?

“The biggest thing is brain development,” says Dietz. “By playing a lot of different skill sports, you develop the brain at the highest levels. Playing other sports – at least until you’re 17 or 18 – is of vital importance.”

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