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Action heroes literally project an idealistic physique on the cinema screens. This has happened for decades, but social media ensures today’s young teenagers get less respite than their parents did. Instagram and Snapchat feeds show their heroes frolicking at the beach. 

Young teens in the midst of hormonal change may aspire to look like these musclebound celebrities, unaware that their physiques are attributed to months of a full-time training regimen and having personal nutritionist-chefs on hand. However, if your 14- to 16-year-old is pushing to bulk up like a young Arnie, it’s important to keep things realistic.

Keep expectations in line

“The first step would be expectation management,” says Richard McWade, Studio Manager at Fitness First. “The physiques seen in movies are from years of training and occasionally the use of banned substances such as steroids. It would need to be highlighted that constant effort and a good nutrition plan is the only way to success.” 

Building strength doesn’t necessarily require lifting massive barbells. “If your child expresses an interest in strength training, remind him or her that strength training is meant to increase muscle strength and endurance,” says the US-based Mayo Clinic. “Bulking up is something else entirely — and most safely done after adolescence.” 

However, it is possible for post tweens to lift safely. “There is no harm in weightlifting for [14 to 16-year-olds] if it is done properly,” explains Prof. Dr Suad Trebinjac, Consultant in Physical Medicine and Rehab at Dubai Physiotherapy and Rehabilitation Centre. “While overuse injuries are common, it’s otherwise useful and healthy for teenagers if combined with proper food and rest.”
Strength and supervision

Dr Trebinjac adds that strengthening muscles can even take precedence over cardiovascular exercise in some instances — particularly if the teen suffered an injury in childhood. “First strength, then cardio.”

McWade says, “Ensure that your [teen] is under constant supervision so that they do not put themselves into a dangerous position. Effort should be closely monitored to make sure mechanics remain sound.” 

Technique matters but the weights should stay moderate, says Mayo Clinic. The site emphasises the importance of a five- to ten-minute cardiovascular warm-up ahead of any strength training session. Light aerobic activity such as walking, jogging in place or jumping rope are recommended. “This warms the muscles and prepares them for more vigorous activity. Gentle stretching after each session is a good idea too.”

Myths busted

A number of myths exist around weightlifting for tweens. One of these is that the activity may stunt their growth and development. “No, it is not true — there are no scientific studies to confirm it,” says Dr Trebinjac. “It is a myth. But again each person is different and training has to be individually designed not tailor-made. Not exercising and excessive exercise are both harmful. Moderate, individually designed [workouts], are right.”

While children can exercise using their own bodyweight with movements such as squats, pull-ups, lunges, planks and press-ups, it can be difficult to pinpoint exactly what age is appropriate for them to begin a weightlifting programme, explains McWade. “That’s difficult to answer since many children age at different rates. However, a serious weightlifting programme can commence at 15 to 16 years old. Again, supervision and constant monitoring are needed.”

Free, not fixed, weights

Writing on Bodybuilding.com, columnist Jay Horowitz — who claims to have begun lifting weights at the age of eight — recommends younger lifters focus on free weights. “While machines may seem to be attractive, they are not 
made for children. Free weights allow you to better mimic a sports movement.”

When it comes to children using free weights, the emphasis should be on higher repetitions and fewer sets. This can even bring orthopaedic benefits. 

“Free-weight training is the best way to build bone in children,” says columnist Nelle Butler on Livestrong.com. “Although some children are a little young for lifting, free weights are the better option over machine weights, which require that the bone take more stress. By having the child use very light weights — about 2.5kg — you can tailor a programme to meet her fitness needs.”

4 FANTASTIC BODYWEIGHT EXERCISES FOR CHILDREN

If your child is under ten, their bones are still growing and their bodies probably won’t benefit from lifting weights. However, there are a number of bodyweight exercises that can help build chest, back, core and leg strength in pre tweens.

Press-ups 

These not only develop the chest, shoulders and triceps but also the core. Place your hands on the ground shoulder-width apart, keep feet in line with shoulders and ensure the body is making a straight line. Lower the body until the elbows are at least a 90-degree angle, but remain close to the body. Push. Repeat. If a child is having trouble, get them to start with hands placed on an elevated surface. 

Sit-ups

A strong core is vital for healthy muscle growth later in life. There are several variations, but one of the easiest and most effective starts with lying on your back with both hand clasped behind your head. Flex your abs and lift the shoulder blades, reaching forward until the elbows touch your knees. Using a timer, aim for 30 reps in one minute, moving up to 60-80 in two minutes. Encourage the child to pace themselves.

Squats

A crucial building block of leg strength, proficiency in squats will determine the quality of a child’s running, lunging and jumping. Beginning with knees facing slightly outwards and arms forward in line with shoulders, push into the ground with the outside of both feet as you lower your body.

When pushing back up, use your glutes, not the back. Watch that the young one keeps their heels down.

Pull-ups

More challenging than the previous exercises listed, but pull-ups are a fantastic way to develop back strength, biceps and an improved posture. After jumping up to grasp the bar with an overhand grip and hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, pull the body upwards with legs crossed together, and elbows pointed downwards. Help a child build their strength by partially supporting their weight.