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Should our kids be in the gym?

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The subject of young people training is one of the most controversial topics of its kind out there. Maybe the most controversial.

When children are involved, opinions on any issue are naturally a little more keenly-felt and this one is defininitely no exception. It’s not uncommon to hear some very passionate views on this topic by people who wouldn’t necessarily have much experience with exercise, or kids. Or both!

People can be (understandably) uncomfortable with the idea of young people doing things that may not be appropriate for their stage of physical development, and unfortunately there are some very stubborn myths surrounding this topic that still linger in the public consciousness.

Hopefully this article will be able to help parents make an informed decision when it comes to what their children should be doing; on the pitch, in the training hall, and in the gym.

So; what sort of training is safe and appropriate for young people, and at what stage of their physical development?

The first answer is that almost every physical activity carries with it some degree of risk.

Statistically speaking, field sports (such as soccer, hockey and Gaelic Games) have the highest injury rates for young participants. Contact sports (martial arts, rugby etc ) have a relatively high number. Swimming is up there too, which is interesting given how often you hear that people should avoid going to the gym for fear of injuring themselves and instead are advised to take up swimming because “you can’t get hurt”. Most of these numbers are made up of acute soft tissue injuries; damage to muscle, ligaments or tendons (sprains and strains). There will also be some overuse issues (like tendinitis) or acute skeletal injuries (ie broken bones) but these are far less common.

But at the same time, injury rates for all these activities are still very, very low; roughly one injury per 500 hours of participation, depending on the sport or pasttime.

Very few parents would let something so unlikely stop them from encouraging their children to take part in sports- especially given that the dangers of a sedentary lifestyle pose a far greater risk, especially in the longer term. Our school-age population is becoming less and less active with each passing year. Childhood obesity is at record levels and has potentially disastrous consequences for the future of our country as a whole, given that unhealthy children usually grow up to be unhealthy adults.

Even aside from the physical benefits, the social and psychological aspects of regular participation in sport/physical activity can be absolutely huge for a young person. I would have no trouble recommending introducing children to some kind of organised sport as young as five or six years old. Most popular sports will have specific guidelines and pathways designed to meet the needs of children of all ages. This will ensure they get the training and coaching that is appropriate for their particular stage of physical and emotional development. If in doubt, contact the governing body for the sport you have in mind, they will usually be happy to answer any questions from parents.

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As for organised exercise outside of sport (ie going to the gym), a lot of people are unsure what is appropriate for younger people. It’s very common to hear that children under the age of 16 should never touch a weight, for example, but instead should restrict themselves to “safe” movements like push ups that only use the child’s natural bodyweight. “It will stunt their growth otherwise!!”

Let’s be clear: there is no scientific basis for the idea that using weights will stunt a young person’s growth.

A large part of my formal education focused on the training of children and young people and I can tell you there is no basis for this idea other than old wive’s tales. The research is there in black and white.

The major deciding factor in when a young person should start using weights should be, in my opinion, their emotional maturity. The gym is a potentially dangerous place if you’re inexperienced or careless. There are lots of heavy things that you can drop on yourself or other people and there is a lot of equipment that needs to handled properly. It’s also quite easy to put other people in peril by behaving irresponsibly.

Generally children younger than 12-13 years old aren’t at the level of responsibility where I would feel comfortable having them in a gym, or performing complex exercises safely without getting distracted, but there are certainly exceptions and I have introduced several people below that age to basic versions of loaded movements with absolutely no issues.

Loaded movements have many benefits for the younger trainee, particularly with regards to their bone density. They can be especially beneficial (with regard to injury prevention) to certain populations or kids playing certain sports if programmed correctly.

But as far as arbitrarily saying that loaded movements are “bad” but unloaded bodyweight movements are “good”…If we want to talk about what is safe for a young person’s body, why, for example, would a push-up be safer than a barbell bench press with a light weight? A push-up means someone is pushing approximately 60-70% of their own bodyweight during the movement. For a 13-year old boy who weighs 60kg that means he is pushing 35-40kg while also having to stabilise his whole body. Why is that looked on as being “safer” than the same boy bench pressing a bar than weighs 10 or 15kg?

Is squatting with a dumbell less safe than, say, jumping? If we use the same 60kg young man for another example, we will see that landing from certain types of jumps can result in him momentarily absorbing forces far in excess of the weight of a dumbell or barbell. I am not saying that jumping is dangerous or that our children shouldn’t do it: I am saying that performed correctly a loaded squat can be even safer than jumping.

Proper qualified supervision is essential, it goes without saying (and that means someone with a Strength and Conditioning qualification, and ideally who has specific education and experience in the field of strength training for young people. This does not mean the Geography Teacher who played Junior B Football twenty years ago!).

Children’s participation in regular physical activity outside school hours is made all the more important, unfortunately, by the ever-decreasing amount of time children are spending in PE classes. Primary schools in Ireland are averaging one hour or less a week of dedicated PE. Secondary schools are not far behind. We, as a society, should be finding ways to encourage our young people to become as active as possible, as early as possible.

(Note: When discussing injury levels in particular sports above, I am leaving aside the issue of head injuries/concussions as happily these are not common in most sports played by young children. An analysis of concussion rates in older teenagers playing rugby, for example, is beyond the remit of this article….that’s another discussion entirely!)


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