I recently started looking into the pros and cons of using resistance bands in my fitness routine instead of free-weights. I have discovered that they are an excellent alternative and have wide-ranging applications in multiple contexts from sports, to fitness, to rehab. I realized at some point, however, that I had been concentrating on adult use and had not really considered whether they were appropriate for children and youth. Somewhere in the back of my mind I had this idea that resistance training was not good for children because of the stress on the body. The argument, as I remembered it, was that weight training could have a detrimental effect on growing bones and developing muscles. I wasn’t sure where I had picked up on the notion, but there it was. I decided to look into the matter.
As it turns out, my ideas about weight training for children were not up to date. At some point, I must had absorbed 1960’s theories about children and exercise and these had stuck. As it turns out they were wrong.
Today, for example, the American Academy of Pediatrics [AAP] doesn’t condemn resistance training for children, on the contrary: as long as safety concerns are addressed and barring any specific health or physical concerns, it tends to approve of supervised weight training for youth as an adjunct to a general fitness routine or a sports program. In a 2008 publication* the AAP found that contrary to popular belief and outdated science, resistance training could be beneficial for children. It noted, for example, that even in preteens and younger children, resistance training can lead to increased strength, better balance, stability, motor skills and more.
Of course the exercise routine must be age appropriate and tailored to the child’s needs and physical abilities. While strength and flexibility goals may be perfectly suitable for most children, for example, bodybuilding is not. Bodybuilding’s emphasis on building muscle mass is not realistic for prepubescent youth. They can build strength because of an increase in the motor-neurons that fire with each muscle contraction but they cannot build significant mass because they lack the necessary hormonal component. Also, the AAP recommends full body routines that affect all large muscle groups (including core exercises). These aim for overall strength and toning, which are appropriate for growing bodies because they favor structural soundness. It recommends that bodybuilding be reserved for skeletally mature bodies only.
As we have seen, resistance training is not necessarily contraindicated for children and teens and may even be beneficial. Of course, the latter assumes that proper safety precautions have been taken. For example, resistance training is a great opportunity to teach young people how to do the movements correctly and not to rush them; in this way they can learn to avoid injury and developing bad habits that could lead to injury later. This is true for adults too, of course, but the sooner they learn the better.
The AAP recommends that to keep things safe young people should start with low-resistance exercises until they get the technique down. Once they can do 8 to 15 repetitions per set, weight can be added in 10% increments.
The use of weight training machines for children is discouraged because they are designed to accommodate adult bodies and, the weight increments are not are generally too big. Free weights are fine, however.
I would think that another concern is keeping competition and peer pressure under control. Obviously a certain element of competition is expected in sports and, if it is all in fun, it keeps things interesting. But with weights and bands, or any equipment for that matter, there is a point where it becomes dangerous. If the kids start racing against each other or trying to emulate older more advanced teens by rushing through the exercises or adding more weight than they can handle, it can lead to disaster. Of course that is what supervision is for! I don’t mean they should be supervised to the point boredom, we don’t want to take all the fun out of things, but it is important to be safe so everyone has a good time and no one gets hurt.
The previous discussion covers resistance training in general. The AAP mentions but does not discuss bands in any great, detail nevertheless based on its assessment of free weights and some of its other recommendations, it is probably reasonably safe to infer that, when properly used, resistance bands are a viable option for children. Generally speaking, bands are equivalent to weights and I would argue that in some ways, in some contexts, they are superior:
- Like free weights, bands are easy to use and many brands offer a wide range of weight equivalent levels for incremental use.
- Unlike weights, bands are light, and although they might snap back like a rubber band and ding you if used improperly, they are not too heavy for anyone (including children) to carry around and, if the bands fall to the ground, they will not break your foot.
- Like free weights, they allow you to work all of your big muscle groups and give you full range of motion.
- Unlike free weights, band resistance is independent of gravity so you get some resistance in both directions for the entire movement.
- Bands can also be used to improve flexibility.
- The absence of momentum prevents “cheating”.
- Band workouts can happen in three planes of movement
- Bands can be used in team exercises
- Bands are more versatile than weights for creating group activities and games, keeping things interesting while providing a good workout.
- Like free weights, (and possibly more so) even good quality bands are a generally low-cost fitness solution, especially when it comes to beginner kits.
In conclusion, weight training can be a healthy addition to a child’s or teen’s fitness program as long as there is proper supervision and safety protocols are observed. Resistance bands share qualities with free weights that are likely to make them a suitable alternative in most cases, and they are more versatile. Remember safety comes first but fun is a close second, so take it seriously but keep things light for the kids (pun intended) and have a good time.