Strength training even kids can do

Strength training, also known as resistance training, is an important part of physical activity.1 It has surprising benefits for everyone’s health, adults and children alike.

For children, it builds up their strength, speed and endurance, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP). It also helps build strong bones and more lean body mass, which means your child will develop more muscle and less fat. It also lowers their risk of injury.2 Plus, it’s good for children’s mental health and well-being.3 Adults can reap these same benefits, too.1

So, what is strength training exactly? It includes any movement that challenges the body’s muscles against some form of resistance. That resistance can take the shape of an elastic resistance band, a weight machine, free weights such as dumbbells or your own body weight.

Jump squats and side-to-side hops are two examples of body weight exercises that improve strength.2 Climbing or doing gymnastics also count, notes Teresa L. Lovins, M.D., a board member for the American Academy of Family Physicians.

Aim to do 2 to 3 family strength sessions a week, with at least one day off between sessions to give muscles a rest.3,5 But check with your children’s health care provider first to see if it’s advisable for your kids to start strength training.

Once your children’s health care provider gives the okay, try these strength training ideas with your preschooler, grade-schooler or teen — or all of the above.

Try basic body-weight movements

“Movement is a skill we have to teach,” says Pete McCall, Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist and exercise physiologist.

Fortunately, that may be as simple as bear-crawling around the living room floor with your kids as you navigate an obstacle course of cushions. Or try playing a game of “Simon Says” — and do squats, lunges and push-ups as your child mimics you.

Introduce weights gradually

It’s best to introduce free weights to children when they have good balance and coordination — and are able to follow directions. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, this typically occurs around 7 or 8 years of age.6

While strength training should be fun, it’s important that kids are mature enough to know that dumbbells aren’t toys. Many weight-lifting injuries can occur — for instance, dropping a weight on your toes or lifting too much weight too quickly or with the wrong form.

The key is to start with light weights, such as 2- or 5-pound dumbbells. Never give kids more weight than they can confidently handle. Aim for 1 to 2 sets of 8 to 12 repetitions (reps) of each exercise.3

Go beyond dumbbells

There are other types of muscle-building tools, beyond free weights, that your family can try.  

  • Resistance bands. These elastic bands come in various lengths and levels of stretchiness (or tension) and can be surprisingly challenging.
  • Medicine balls. These weighted balls come in a variety of weights, from as little as two pounds. You can hold in both hands as you move through leg exercises, for example, to add more resistance.
  • Kettlebells. These are tea kettle-shaped weights that you grab by the handle and lift. They come in various sizes and weights.

Consider fun contests

Choose a body-weight exercise such as push-ups or jumping jacks — and set a goal for how many family members will do each day. Then set a date for everyone to complete the challenge. Offer up rewards, such as fun stickers or a weekend nature walk, for everyone who reaches their goal.

Practice safer moves

No matter what kind of strength training you do with your family, safety should always be the top priority.

Follow these guidelines before any strength training session:2,3,4

  • Warm up for 5 to 10 minutes with some cardio, like jumping jacks or jogging in place. Dynamic stretching, which involves moving the body while you’re stretching, is another way to warm up, like arm circles. Stand with legs shoulder-width apart, with arms stretched out, palms down. Then circle your arms around 20 times in each direction.7
  • Make sure everyone is drinking fluids during their workout. Hydration is especially important for small bodies.
  • Cool down after the workout with some static stretches like an overhead stretch or a hamstring stretch. During an overhead stretch, extend your arms up over your head, keeping elbows straight and interlocking your fingers, if possible.8 When doing a hamstring stretch, sit in a chair, extending one leg forward — keeping your knee straight — and placing your heel on the ground.8

Resistance training is a great way for the whole family to build physical strength and energy. Working in a couple of sessions a week can help kids and parents develop healthy habits for a lifetime.

This article is part of UnitedHealthcare’s 6-Day Family Fitness Challenge. Being active — at every age and stage — is key to overall health. And getting the whole family involved makes it more fun and sets good habits early on. We’re helping families get moving every day for a week, and we encourage every member of the household to join.

Ready to check out the rest of the Family Fitness Challenge? Read more:

Already a member?

Sign in or register on your plan website to see personalized benefit details and resources to help you manage your plan and health.