Safe Weight Training for Teens
As soon as she was old enough, Chessy Loudon began working out at her local YMCA. In the four years since, the now 18-year-old from Summit, N.J., is proud of her slow but steady progress in resistance training.
By learning the proper techniques involved in resistance training, as well as pacing herself with the help of a trainer, Loudon avoids injury and says she's boosted both her physical and mental health. The exercise has enhanced her jazz dance skills as well.
"It's a better way for me to get fit without trying to go on some wacky diet or becoming bulimic or anorexic," says Loudon, who follows a combination weightlifting and cardio routine. "It gives you a lot more strength, and you feel a lot better afterward."
Loudon is not alone. An increasing number of preteens and teens are discovering resistance training and incorporating it into their workouts, whether through community programs, during school gym classes or as members of sports teams.
When done correctly, resistance training offers numerous benefits to youth, experts say.
"Resistance training can increase strength, enhance muscular development, improve coordination and improve sports performance," says Bonne Marano, a certified trainer teaching in New York City at Crunch gyms and the Jewish Community Center of Manhattan.
The increasing number of youth interested in resistance training is encouraging, adds Kelli Calabrese, personal trainer.
"Hopefully these kids will keep those habits into their adult years," Calabrese says.
What Is Resistance Training?
"Resistance training is defined as a force against which a muscle is working," Marano says, explaining. "Also known as strength training and weight training, these exercises can be done with free weights, professional machines, resistance tubing and one's own body weight."
Coaching and instruction are critical with this form of exercise, especially when preteens and teenagers are involved. In addition, parents of a child interested in beginning a resistance-training regimen should consider the child's stage of physical development.
"Usually once they hit their adolescent growth spurt, it's a good time to start strength training," Calabrese says. "If they start training prematurely, it may actually stunt growth because their bodies are just not prepared for that kind of stress."
According to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), a limited number of case reports have raised concern about injuries to the wrist and spine from weightlifting in "skeletally immature individuals." However, such injuries are uncommon and are believed to be largely preventable "by avoiding improper lifting techniques and improperly supervised lifts," the AAP states in its policy on resistance training.
Experts agree parents should ensure a child thoroughly understands resistance training before beginning a program.
"Proper exercise form should be demonstrated and explained," Marano says. "There are reference books for parents to read, as well as qualified fitness professionals, physical education teachers and coaches to speak to."
Denise Porretto, thrilled that her 12-year-old son, Steven, showed an interest in exercise shortly after beginning middle school last year, made sure to educate him on resistance training with the help of Steven's father.
"We've both discussed the correct form with him and the proper way to lift and lower the weights," says Porretto of Belle Mead, N.J. "I also bought him a book that has lots of pictures of teenagers working out. He's referred to that book many times."
By working part time at the YMCA in addition to working out at the facility, Chessy Loudon has learned quite a bit about resistance training, says her mother, Peg.
"She knows that proper technique is critical because of her exposure at the Y to the fitness trainers," Peg Loudon says. "She has taken advantage of the free orientation lessons to learn the appropriate technique. She is also acquainted with the trainers and wouldn't hesitate to ask for advice."
School coaches also teach children about resistance training. For Nathan Haapoja, 15, this information complemented safety guidelines that came with equipment his parents purchased for his workouts.
"They've covered the technique and safety basics at school, and we feel comfortable that he is aware of the consequences of not following them," says Nathan's mother, Heather Haapoja of Duluth, Minn.
Experts agree that those who participate in resistance training must understand the importance of taking it slow.
"Resistance should be based on a teen's present muscular ability and progressively increased as strength improves," Marano says. "My preference for youth programs is to use Nautilus, tubing and free weights for resistance exercise and minimize using his or her bodyweight. One's own bodyweight may be too heavy to permit safe and successful strength development.
"Increments of 1 to 3 pounds may be used when a participant can perform 15 reps with proper technique," she adds. "Resistance training can be done two to three nonconsecutive days a week for about 30 minutes with a proper warm-up and cool down including stretching."
Porretto has stressed to her son the idea of taking breaks. He uses a weightlifting machine with several stations that is set up in the family's basement.
"He's been very diligent," she says. "I had to tell him he really needs a day off now and then, especially after a hard workout. Now he lifts weights three times a week."
Technique is critical, too.
"Movements should [be] slow and in control," Calabrese says. "There shouldn't be any jerking."
The amount of weight that is used depends upon a person's physical ability. In general, however, Calabrese offers this rule of thumb: If you can't do 10 repetitions, the weight is too heavy.
"If something feels painful, definitely stop," Calabrese says. "It should not hurt. The 'no pain, no gain' theory went out the window in the '80s."
For youth athletes who are also doing resistance training, Calabrese advises staggering workouts with sports participation.
"Weight training is something that kids should do in the off season, building up their strength and endurance," she says. "They really shouldn't over-train."
Encouragement from parents is important to children who want to exercise, experts say.
"Be a role model: Get in there with them, and make it a family activity," Calabrese says. "Drive them to the gym. Get them the proper equipment."
Joining your child can speak volumes, found Peg Loudon, who enjoys working out with daughter Chessy. "I work out regularly on the weight machines," she says. "We kind of goad each other into keeping up with our exercise routines."
"Sometimes we'll go together and that's nice because it's like a mother-daughter thing," Chessy Loudon adds. "If she works out, I have to work out too. It keeps me going."