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When we think of weightlifting, our first thought might not be about kids — but in reality, it can be a good form of exercise.
Alison Regal, exercise specialist with UW Health's Sports Performance program, explains that weightlifting fulfills many dimensions of overall wellness — including the social, physical, emotional and even intellectual.
"Weightlifting can help increase bone mineral density and lean muscle mass. It helps to prevent injury and increases athletic performance. From an emotional perspective it can be a great way to relieve stress. If you're part of a team — weightlifting can increase team cohesiveness and participating in a weightlifting program can increase an athlete's confidence, open their mind to new experiences and help them step outside their comfort zone," she said.
It can be challenging for some kids to figure out a physical activity they enjoy doing. If they try lifting and discover they enjoy doing it, they may be motivated to continue weightlifting into adulthood. But with so many benefits, at what age is it actually appropriate to get started?
Regal explains that determining whether a kid is ready for weightlifting is less about chronological age, and more about their biological age.
"All kids develop differently. There will be some instances when you have a 12-year-old who can train like a 16-year-old, and some instances when you can't," she said.
Maturity is a major consideration. For safety reasons, it is important for athletes to listen and follow directions, especially if they are doing more complex movements such as a body weight squat jump where proper form is critical.
"If you're uncertain whether weightlifting is appropriate for your child, it can be beneficial to speak with a professional in the field of strength training — a person who has the appropriate license and certification," she said.
When getting started, Regal suggests staying away from any sort of machine exercises.
"They should learn how to do basic movement patterns such as a squat, lunge, step up, single leg balance and inverted row," she said. "Mastering these basic pushing and pulling exercises are more specific to sport, require more muscles and joints to be involved, and are similar to the movements that we do every day."
Another consideration she suggests is adding resistance to a particular movement if a kid or teen can't quite perform the movement the correct way. "And everyone should learn how to do a body weight squat before using dumbbells or stepping under a barbell," she said.
It can be easy to do too much too soon when it comes to lifting, but the body needs a certain amount of time to recover. Establishing reasonable goals is strongly recommended so that kids and teens don't over-train and so their body has a chance to rest. And as they progress, adaptations can be made by either increasing the volume — or number of reps — or intensity — the amount to be lifted.
"A typical program includes increasing the amount of weight you are lifting and decreasing the amount of reps you are doing. You want to manipulate either one or the other on a weekly basis," but, she stressed — not both. "You don't want to lift more weight and do more reps as it can lead to injury."
For someone who is more advanced with weightlifting, they can lift up to four times per week. Regal notes that if a kid or teen experiences pain or muscle soreness that does not go away after a few days, it should be checked out by a physician.
When starting a weightlifting program, teens may also be tempted to try to "bulk up" to enhance their size, but Alicia Bosscher, a UW Health clinical nutritionist, explains that they need to be careful.
"Bulking up on greasy — or junk — food can be tempting," she said. "The problem is that without plenty of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, legumes, nuts and seeds, they're putting themselves at risk for vitamin and mineral deficiencies, which could contribute to fatigue, a weakened immune system and even poor sports performance."
Bosscher, who works with Regal at UW Health at The American Center, adds that with the foundation of a healthy diet, occasional splurges are absolutely allowed and even encouraged. A few slices of veggie pizza on a whole grain crust, or a lean burger on a whole grain are good options.
Reading through lifting magazines or talking with friends, another temptation may be supplementation, such as with anabolic steroids (a.k.a. gym candy, 'roids or juice). But taking any steroids without a prescription is illegal and unsafe. Bosscher explains that side effects can include enlarged heart, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, heart attack or stroke, even severe acne.
"Some supplements — like glutamine and creatine — while legal and proven somewhat effective in adult athletes, have not been studied in teenagers or children," Bosscher said, adding that it is important that teens and kids talk with their physician about any supplements they may be considering.