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Strength Training As A Family Affair

About six months ago, Rebecca Milano’s daughter MacKenzie fell and twisted her knee while playing lacrosse.

At first, the prognosis was bleak. Doctors told MacKenzie, 14, she would have to avoid exercise and cope with knee pain for two years. But Ms. Milano, unhappy with that idea, sought a second opinion from a sports medicine doctor, whose advice to her daughter was the opposite.

“He said, ‘Your muscles are weak, and your homework is to do strength training three times a week,’ ” said Ms. Milano, a teaching assistant in Cornwall, N.Y.

MacKenzie soon began using dumbbells and doing strength-building exercises like lunges and jump squats. Since she started the program in May, the pain in her knee has subsided, she says, and she is now playing lacrosse again.

“It definitely has made her stronger,” Ms. Milano said.

Not long ago, many doctors would have warned parents like Ms. Milano to keep their children out of the weight room, citing the conventional wisdom that young people don’t need muscle enhancement and that pumping iron will only stunt their growth and cause injuries.

But in recent years the medical establishment has changed its tune. The American Academy of Pediatrics says that when done properly, resistance training has no adverse effects on growth in children and can increase strength and bone density without creating bulky muscles, and many studies have found it can be safe and beneficial.

“In pediatric medicine, we encourage kids to lift weights for their health,” said Dr. Andrew Gregory, a sports medicine doctor at Vanderbilt Children’s Hospital in Nashville. “We now know that it’s safe for kids. They don’t get bigger in terms of muscle growth, but they do get stronger.”

One of the most vocal advocates of young people picking up weights — albeit light ones — is Dr. Jordan D. Metzl, a sports medicine doctor at the Hospital for Special Surgery in New York. A marathoner and triathlete, Dr. Metzl says strength training can begin as early as age 8, and is particularly important for helping young athletes prevent injuries on the playing field.

About 30 million children participate in organized sports in the United States; every year, three million to four million of them get injured. Dr. Metzl points to the rising number of young athletes suffering injuries to the anterior cruciate ligament — the main ligament that stabilizes the knee joint — as evidence of the need for greater emphasis on strength training in youth sports. Exercises like squats can strengthen the muscles around the knee joints, making them less vulnerable.

“A number of studies show that strengthening the muscles around the knee reduces the risk of A.C.L. injuries,” Dr. Metzl said. “Stronger muscles make you a better athlete, but also a safer athlete.”

“We want kids to play sports,” he added, “but we also want to figure out how to make them safer.”

But exactly what constitutes safe and effective strength training for young people? Dr. Metzl says the most important thing to realize is that strength training is not the same as powerlifting. For youngsters, the emphasis should be on low weight and high repetitions. If a child cannot lift a weight for 15 reps, then it’s too heavy, Dr. Metzl says. In fact, many of the most useful strengthening exercises for children are full-body movements that do not involve any weights at all.

Many of these movements are demonstrated in a video that Dr. Metzl and the American Academy of Pediatrics released this month for parents and adolescents, called “Home Strength Training for Young Athletes”.

The video looks like any other workout series, except the instructor — a buff Dr. Metzl, who is preparing for an Ironman race — leads a group of children ages 8 to 16 through a variety of exercises that can be done at home. The only equipment required is a set of light dumbbells.

Many of the exercises involve functional body weight training — essentially using your own weight for resistance. Dr. Metzl leads his pint-size workout warriors through exercises like jump squats, biceps curls and overhead “presses” with weights (done while balancing on one foot). Some other movements Dr. Metzl teaches his young athletes are push-ups, single-leg squats and a tough, core-building exercise called mountain climbers, as well as burpees, a series of movements executed in rapid succession that develop agility, coordination and strength.

Doing these exercises at home — in a roughly 45-minute session two or three times a week — has several advantages, said Dr. Gregory of Vanderbilt Children’s. For one, it allows parents to watch or join in on the workout. Many commercial gyms have a minimum age limit that forbids adolescents, and most children would risk injury trying to use machines designed for adults anyway.

“The programs that are safe are the ones that are supervised and use appropriate weights,” he said.

One parent who has embraced Dr. Metzl’s program is Trish Compton, a teacher who lives in Mountainview, N.J. She took both her children — her 11-year-old son, Drew, who had pain in his elbow from pitching, and her 14-year-old daughter, Meghan, who had a sore hip from running — to see Dr. Metzl after an orthopedist told her that her daughter just needed to rest. “She would rest and then go back to running and have the same amount of pain,” Ms. Compton said.

Dr. Metzl put them both on a strength-training program, which they do at home as a family about twice a week. Four months later, their pain has mostly gone away, and they have both gotten stronger, Ms. Compton said.

“I’ve shared a lot of what I’ve learned with my son’s coaches,” she said. “They’re very interested in strength training for the boys. The team plays 12 months a year, basically, and it’s the No. 1 concern of the coaches who run this team to keep the kids healthy.”

“I think as long as they’re doing it correctly,” she added, “it will be good for everyone.”

Article from The New York Times Health.