Over the last couple of decades, our children have become increasingly sedentary. While we could blame this on technology, parents becoming more overprotective, or a change in the school system, it doesn’t really matter.
What matters is the fact that this lack of physical activity is having some seriously negative effects on our kids – not only during childhood, but as they enter adulthood as well.
And it all stems from a loss of muscular fitness.
What is the difference between muscular fitness and cardiovascular fitness?
Most of us have a general understanding of what physical fitness is. However, very few of us realize that it can actually be further broken down into two components – muscular fitness and cardiovascular fitness (Ortega, 2008).
What is muscular fitness?
Muscular fitness essentially describes the capacity to perform work against some sort of physical resistance.
Now, you might be thinking that this definition is somewhat broad, and this is because it is. You see, muscular fitness encompasses a combination of muscular strength, muscle power, muscular endurance, and neuromuscular coordination.
With this in mind, those individuals who have a high degree of muscular fitness also tend to display higher amounts of muscle mass, and better muscle fiber recruitment.
What is cardiovascular fitness?
On the other hand, we have what is known as cardiovascular fitness.
Cardiovascular fitness describes the global capacity of the cardiovascular and respiratory systems to facilitate energy production during exercise. This is reliant on several factors, including the:
- Ability of the lungs to extract oxygen from the air
- Capacity of the blood to carry that oxygen to the working muscles
- Capability of the muscle tissue to use oxygen to produce energy
As such, people with better cardiovascular fitness are much more efficient and effective within each of these key factors.
What are the benefits of strength training in children and adolescents?
Given that muscular fitness is heavily dictated by muscular strength, it stands to reason that the optimal way to improve muscular fitness is through strength training.
Now contrary to popular belief, there is a growing body of evidence clearly showing that strength training offers an incredible amount of merit for children and adolescence alike – with almost no discernible risk to think of.
These benefits include:
- Increased nervous system function: strength training during childhood and adolescence appears to enhance the neural development that is already underway. This can lead to more effective muscle fibre recruitment and enhanced physical performance across the lifespan (Myers, 2017).
- Injury reduction: children and adolescence who strength train see a significantly reduced risk of injuries during sport and play.
- Better motor control: children and adolescence who undertake strength training see large improvements in coordination, balance, and general motor control. This enhances their ability to manage the many rigors of sport and life (Zwolski, 2017).
- Less fat mass: strength training in children and adolescence has been shown to lower fat mass and limit their risk of becoming overweight or obese (Collins, 2018).
- Improved heart health: strength training in children and adolescence has been shown to improve the function of veins and arteries. This causes a marked increase in cardiovascular health, which can help stave off the onset of heart disease (Yu, 2016).
- Better metabolic health: finally, strength training in children and adolescence has been shown to improve insulin sensitivity, lower blood pressure, and enhance blood cholesterol. This leads to improvements in metabolic health and a reduced risk of diabetes (Bea, 2017).
Now, while the health benefits of muscular fitness are indeed impressive, it does not stop there. In fact, there two other key benefits of strength training in children that deserve special attention…
Self-esteem effect of muscular fitness in children and adolescents
The first of these key benefits relates to strength training and self-esteem (Schranz, 2014).
You see, children and adolescents who routinely strength train tend to experience a markedly higher sense of self-esteem than those who do not. Importantly, these long-term improvements in self-esteem and self-confidence can also lead to lasting improvements in mental health and social function, causing a reduced risk of depression and anxiety.
I should also note that interestingly, these effects do not seem anywhere near as potent if children choose to perform cardiovascular exercise, rather than strength training.
Bone health benefits of strength training
Our second key children’s health benefit associated with strength training is heavily related to the health and function of their bones (Legerlotz, 2016).
See, strength training in children and adolescence has been shown to cause a marked increase in bone mineral density. This can reduce their risk of experiencing bone fracturs and breaks, and may even help prevent osteoporosis later on in life!
And again, like the self-esteem benefits discussed above, these effects are vastly superior with strength training than cardiovascular exercise.
Strength training and muscular development in children: what are the pros and cons?
So, what are the pros and cons of weight training and enhancing muscular fitness in children?
I have already outlined the pros above in quite a bit of detail, but still think there is some merit in summarizing it here briefly:
- Better nervous system development, coordination, and motor control
- Improved cardiovascular and metabolic health
- Better mental health and self-esteem
- Lower fat mass
- Improved bone health and a reduced risk of injuries
Talk about some serious pros!
One of the most common questions I get with this topic is mind looks a little something like this: “but isn’t strength training bad for children?”
And I can say with certainty, “no it is not.”
See, the risk of strength training in children is extremely small. In fact, the only times injuries do occur tend to be the result of either training with poor form, or training with maximal intensities and to muscular failure (Myers, 2017).
So, if you make sure you do everything properly (and follow the tips listed below) then the cons of strength training in children are practically zero.
Does muscular fitness in childhood predict health in later life?
Before I outline my best tips for getting child into strength training, I wanted to give one more example of the true benefits of increasing muscular fitness during childhood (García-Hermoso, 2019).
See, research has shown that those children who exhibit a higher degree of muscular fitness during their childhood years see improved health as an adult. These improvements in health come in the form of:
- A lower body mass index,
- Reduced skinfold thickness
- Lower insulin resistance
- Reduced resting blood triglycerides
- A reduced incidence of cardiovascular disease risk
- Higher bone mineral density
In short, prioritizing muscular fitness during childhood will literally set you up for a lifetime of success!
The best tips for introducing muscular fitness into your child’s life
So how can you introduce muscular fitness into the life of your child?
Well, here are my top tips:
- Encourage a sport: The first step to improving muscular strength and endurance comes down to introducing your child to a sport at a young age. While this won’t necessarily maximize the development of muscular fitness like strength training, it will ensure that they develop a solid foundation of strength and coordination from which they can then commence strength training upon.
- Perform active play with your children every day: active play that involves lots of sprinting, jumping, and bounding is integral to developing reactive strength and muscular endurance. It also helps ensure that the maintenance of muscular fitness becomes the norm.
- Role model strength training: If you choose to actively role model strength training for your children, they themselves will be more likely to develop good exercise habits as they transition into adulthood. This sets a fantastic foundation for muscular fitness across the lifespan.
- Introduce a formalized strength training program 1-2 days per week: Lastly, as your child reaches 10-12 years of age (this is often considered the best age to start weight training), there is merit in introducing a formalized strength training program to enhance the development of muscular strength specifically. The key here is to start with bodyweight exercises, and then transition into free weights as they develop the movement skills required to do so. Moreover, make sure to start with 6 to 8 exercises per session, 1 to 2 sets per exercise, 6 to 15 repetitions in each set, and around 2 minutes or rest between sets.
If you follow these tips appropriately, then I can assure you that your children will be certain to maximize their muscular fitness across the entirety of their lifespan!
Take Home Message
Maintaining a high degree of muscular fitness is integral to the health of your children. Moreover, this can further improve their health and function not only into adolescence, but also as they enter adulthood.
It really is one of the most important things you can implement into their life.
The tips in this article offer some great ways that you (as a parent) can guarantee that your kids maximize their muscular fitness across the lifespan, and experience huge improvements in both their physical and mental health as a result!
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