Strength training: Myths and misconceptions

IN a previous article on why have strength or resistance training, we touched on the physical softness of today’s youth due to increasing sendentary pursuits and less than ideal diets associated with an urbanised lifestyle that expects food delivered fast. Citing pertinent examples from the recent Beijing Olympics, we noted the importance of muscular development to the growth and self-esteem of the tween, and introduced the idea of having a strength training programme.

In this article, we examine the concerns parents may have of such a program that would involve some form of weight training.

Some misconceptions

Two of the most common misconceptions are that strength training may stunt the growth of children and that children should not lift weights until they are 12 years old.

However, there is simply no evidence to support either of these statements. In fact, all of the major fitness and medical organizations in the US recommend strength training for youth, assuming that basic guidelines are adhered to and that appropriate leadership is present.

When can a tween begin strength training?

During childhood, kids improve their body awareness, control and balance through active play. As early as age 8, however, strength training can become a valuable part of an overall fitness plan — as long as the child is mature enough to follow directions and practice proper technique and form.

Benefits of strength or resistance training

Guidelines issued by the world famous medical institution, the Mayo Clinic lists the following advantages for children when strength training is done properly under qualified supervision:

a.  Increase their muscle strength and endurance

b.  Help protect their muscles and joints from injury

c.  Improve their performance in nearly any sport, from dancing and figure skating to football and soccer.

Even if your tween isn't interested in sports, strength training can:

a.  Strengthen their bones

b.  Help promote healthy blood pressure and cholesterol levels

c.  Boost their metabolism

d.  Help them to maintain a healthy weight

e.  Improve their self-esteem 

Improvements in muscular fitness, bone mineral density, body composition, motor fitness performance and injury resistance should be compelling evidence for all parents, though children will likely focus on things like enhanced sports performance and the social aspects of exercise. 

In fact, children don't usually have the ability to comprehend long-term concepts until they are in the tween years, so abstract ideas like healthy bones and disease prevention will do little to motivate them, and may in fact demotivate instead. 

Stick with ideas like self-improvement and individual success, and always make sure everyone is having fun. Fun is the number one motivator in almost every aspect of a child's life.

In the next and final instalment of this series, we will discuss some guidelines for strength training.

Fitness for life: Why have strength training

THE RECENT Beijing Olympic Games should have fired up the imagination and motivation of many a person to become fit, strong and healthy. However, this effect may not last unless you had already cultivated a lifestyle of regular exercise.

But better late than never, and appropriate to start with your tweens. This could well be the most important life-saver you provide them for a healthy future. This urgency for exercise must be evaluated against the increasing sentiment that the kids of today are somehow not as tough as those of yesteryears.

Sedentary pursuits and diet
This physical softness is commonly attributed to our increasing digital lifestyle, to a greater engagement with computer and video games, a pursuit that is generally sedentary. In addition, there is an increasing tendency to consumption of fast food, a byproduct of our highly urbanised society. There is thus a need for parents to take an active interest in the moulding of physical strength and fitness of their tweens. Regular exercise, taken as a family, becomes ingrained in their psyche as a lifestyle habit contributing to a lasting healthy body and mind.

In this 3-part series on fitness for life, our focus is on strength or resistance training. In this introduction, we focus on the case for strength training.

A compelling argument for strength-training programs is that significant improvements have been seen in the self-esteem, mental discipline and socialization of children who participate.

Muscular strength
Think back to your days in school physical education classes. What games did you play? What types of physical attributes and skills were most often rewarded with success? Most likely, you are thinking of team games that featured speed, agility, jumping ability and overall athleticism. But a glaring omission in that list is muscular strength.

The 2008 Beijing Olympics was an obvious testimony to the value of muscular strength. Look at Usain Bolt, the world's fastest Olympian! It's strength that made him deliver that last spurt to capture and maintain a lead for longer in order to win. In the upset Olympic 400m win by American LaShawn Merrit, one sports commentator voiced the thoughts of many when he noted strength was probably the deciding factor as Merrit is more muscular than the favourite who lost, fellow American Jeremy Wariner.

In our humbler home arena, what else can strength training deliver? Well, it provides an opportunity to let tweens who typically struggle with group activities to stand out from their classmates and perform well on an individual basis - a tremendous way to boost self-esteem in those who need it most.

Strength or resistance training is a usual part of sports and physical fitness programmes for young people. Training may include the use of free weights, weight machines, elastic tubing, or an athlete's own body weight. The amount and form of resistance used and the frequency of resistance exercises are determined by specific program goals.

But parents may object to this, voicing concerns that this is too much or too early. In the next instalment, we will examine the myths and misconceptions about strength training.

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