The Art and Science of Fitness | For kids, a manual for resistance training
In the 1980s, young children could do 6-9 pull-ups on average. Today, not many kids can. Our children are weaker than any generation ever before. Here's a guide to get them to become stronger and more confident.
Harsheath, my older son, when he got to Class 9 was admitted to a boarding school in Mussoorie, which happens to be my alma mater. Back then, he was slightly built, and courtesy of his asthma, he couldn’t run even 100 metres before coughing his lungs out. He soon started to run because running is a big part of the culture at Wynberg-Allen, where it was instilled in me too. More because of him being headstrong, Harsheath ran his first 10 km at the school.
In the very first year, he repeatedly got into trouble with senior most boys, who were three years senior to him. As in all institutions — and all phases of life — these boys couldn’t handle the power that was suddenly bestowed upon them. Harsheath couldn’t resist standing up to these kids when they would pick on others. But three years at that age is too much of a gap. And Harsheath just didn’t have the hardware to back up what his software was tempting him to do.
When I got to know about it, I couldn’t get the dialogue from the original Top Gun out of my head. “Son, your ego is writing checks your body can't cash!” So, when Harsheath got back home in March of 2016, I was determined to set that right. I put him on three basic exercises: Squats, push-ups, and seated dips. He joined Aikido, a form of Japanese martial arts. And I would take him for runs with me. Gradually, the magic started to happen. He could run longer and faster, along with his posture becoming better, courtesy of his resistance training.
Harsheath took Peter Parker aka Spiderman’s uncle’s advice seriously. “With great power comes great responsibility.” He ended up becoming a prefect of the same school and was loved by his juniors because he wouldn’t let his peers punish or bully other students for no reason. Today, Harsheath is a fourth-year student at a liberal arts college in the United States (US) and happens to be in his college’s cross-country team. I can still run at a pace of 4 minutes per km, but when we got out for a 10 km or longer run, he leaves me in the dust in the first few metres itself.
This fancy term refers to a not-so-fancy power deficiency, something that was earlier associated only with the elderly, but today, is as common in children. I have often been told by my patients who are serving or retired officers in the armed forces that the young officers today are just not as fit as the generations before. The major concern for me is that children and adolescents with low levels of muscular fitness tend to become weak adults, the effects of which are not limited to the physical alone, like being less efficient jumpers, throwers, kickers, runners or getting sick too often. We need to create a generation that has a spine in more ways than one, but for that, they first need to hold their own. That’s why we need to introduce today’s youth to resistance training.
Discipline always trumps motivation
So, how does one get started with resistance training for the young? People talk about motivation and pep talks. As luck would have it, Harsheath is doing a double major in Psychology and Creative Writing. He’s a co-author of La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 and 22 km in 100 days. He makes a powerful point. “Discipline always trumps motivation. The buzz to do something new will last only for a day or two, or even a week. Do it only if you feel like it is not going to cut it.”
We today know that resistance training programmes are most effective in attaining maximal strength gains when they last over 23 weeks. For that reason, it needs to be a year-long programme, rather than a seasonal one. Most people are surprised by how children lose their fitness when they have not done any resistance training for a couple of months. It takes 8 to 12 weeks for detraining effects to take place without any resistance training. The frequency of sessions should be two to three days a week, with at least a day's rest in between.
Among parents and teachers today, there is much talk about letting children “do what they like”. That is one major difference we are adopting in today’s parenting and education versus two decades before and beyond. It doesn’t work when we are setting habits. Discipline is far more important, to begin with. It’s our job to figure out how they enjoy the process.
A non-toxic environment
If we make resistance training (or anything for that matter) an awful-tasting pill or a punishment, it might be done during school years, but will not be maintained after. We need to acknowledge, appreciate, and recognise them for their efforts. We should make sure that they are not being shamed in any way, which is often the toxic culture at gyms. Keep reminding children to be nice to each other in the process, and tell them that it’s not about competition with others. This will make them realise that it is all about becoming better than what they were yesterday.
Just like I did with Harsheath, you don’t require expensive high-tech equipment, as inexpensive low-tech equipment such as medicine balls, exercise bands, battling ropes, BOSU balls, punch balloons, and doing bodyweight exercises will do the trick. Free weights and strength training machines have a role to play too, but we should remember that all these are only tools. What is most important is to get the technique right. For that, supervision by qualified trainers is crucial.
Even without being aware, we are doing resistance training from the time we are born (as I mentioned in my earlier column), so it’s never too early to get started. The later a child starts with resistance training, the lower would be their optimal strength as adults. Hence, it’s important to get started pre-pubertal, say as early as 5-7 years.
The right amount
As much as there is a need for customisation of resistance training, it's far more important to focus on a lifelong adoption of it. Hence, we need to be careful of starting with a bit too much.
To begin with, make them do 1 to 2 sets of 8 to 15 repetitions where the focus is on low-resistance training intensity. There is no worry about the optimal weight because the bigger problem would be overdoing it. First, get moving, and over time, focus on form and range of motion.
As the child gets used to the exercise, they can be made to do 2-4 sets with 6-12 repetitions, and the intensity of the exercise is higher than before. Another thing to remember is that in a sequence of exercises, first do the ones involving major muscles followed by smaller muscle groups. The same applies to complex multi-joint exercises to be done before simple single-joint exercises.
We need to think of short bursts of exercises lasting 30-60 seconds, followed by a minute or two of rest between exercises.
Make the journey fun
At all times, we must remember that children want to have fun, and along the way, learn something new too. For that, we need to be creative, more so with the younger ones below 6-7 years.
The concept of “animals in motion” is a great idea for children in Classes 1 and 2. Crocodile plank, Bunny Jumps, Flamingo Balance, Kneeling Cobra, Hermit Crab Touches, Gecko Lunge, Frog Squat, Circus Monkey Tightrope, Bear Crawl and Mountain Goat Climbers are a few.
For prepubertal beginners with low muscle strength, we can start with basic resistance exercises such as squatting, and push and pull movements. They can progress to medicine ball lunge, exercise band lateral raise, battling rope wave, BOSU mountain climber, punch balloon knee tap, ABC push-up, BOSU squat balance, superman raise and so on.
The difficulty of an exercise is only raised when the child becomes proficient at the previous level. It is important to slow down the speed so that the child can do the movement in a more controlled fashion.
Overtraining is far a bigger issue in youth resistance training compared to direct injuries because of the exercises. Overtraining happens when there isn’t enough rest between sessions to let the body recover. Therefore, one must never do back-to-back days of resistance training without a break in between.
Sleep is another crucial aspect of training that children tend to compromise on. This may also be because of the false narrative that “sleep is for the weak”. On the contrary, sleep deficit leads to poor recovery and will lead to injuries.
Get moving like Harsheath, not only to have six packs, but to become a stronger, better version of yourself. You'll thank yourself later, I'm sure Harsheath will too.
Keep miling and smiling.
Dr Rajat Chauhan is the author of MoveMint Medicine: Your Journey to Peak Health and La Ultra: cOuch to 5, 11 & 22 kms in 100 days
He writes a weekly column, exclusively for HT Premium readers, that breaks down the science of movement and exercise.
The views expressed are personal
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