My 11-year-old has inherited a few physical characteristics from me, most obviously my height, unique (OK, big) nose and brown eyes. His brother, almost 9, was blessed with my overbite.
And at the moment, we all have stick arms.
I've always had stick arms, even when I was an in-shape high school basketball player who could run through an entire game with no trouble. "Bony Elbows" was one of my nicknames. My legs were muscular but my arms, not so much. I never really lifted weights, true, but even when I had a stretch of frequent exercise on rowing machines, my arms remained stickish.
My puny arms don't bother me. They only bother my husband when he is reminded that I can contribute absolutely nothing to help move anything remotely heavy. But my tween Tommy, who's finishing up 5th grade, is beginning to want some muscles on his sticks. He's a baseball player, and he sees that bigger kids often tend to get bigger hits.
Rummaging through an upstairs closet one recent day, he found two sets of dumbbells that I didn't know we had: one 5 pounds each, the other 10 pounds apiece. At some point last weekend, he began lifting them in the privacy of his bedroom. I didn't know about it until I found a piece of paper labeled "workout" which listed curls and overhead lifts along with nightly pushups. Thereby, I'm pretty sure I uncovered the mystery of an unusually loud thump that came from his bedroom a few nights ago. He claimed was the cat jumping off his bed, but I'm guessing that was the sound of a 10-pound weight hitting the floor.
"Why didn't you tell me you wanted to lift weights?" I asked Tommy.
"I don't know," he said. "I thought you'd just think it was funny. I was kind of embarrassed."
Actually, I think it's great that he's interested in fitness, just like his little brother who has already finished two 5K races. That is, as long as they're exercising to be healthy and strong, not just for appearance and vanity.
But I do worry about Tommy injuring himself by trying to lift too much or with improper technique. And is he too young to be strength-training at all, since his bones and joints are still growing?
I asked Dr. David Geier, director of sports medicine at the Medical University of South Carolina and a spokesman for the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine. He had an interesting response on the age question: "The benefits of lifting weights in terms of significant increases in muscle size and strength won't be gained until the child starts going through puberty. Any gains before that point really relate more to neuromuscular adaption (the nerves and muscle fibers learning to adapt to new stresses). That fact doesn't mean that children who haven't gone through puberty shouldn't lift weights, but they won't make many visible gains when they are younger."
As for what's too heavy, that all depends on a child's age and size. Dr. Geier suggests an amount that allows a child to safely do 8-12 reps per set if the goal is strength and size, or 12-15 reps for definition.
"Parents should ensure that the child uses the appropriate techniques for each exercise and make sure there is a spotter immediately available to prevent injury," he adds. "Also, parents should communicate with the child to ensure that the child is not having significant pain that continues despite rest. If there is a question about safety, I would urge caution on the part of the parents and have the child back off."
So if Tommy keeps wanting to lift weights, I might splurge for one session with a personal trainer to show him a few techniques and maybe suggest some at-home equipment. I'll also try to keep his expectations about muscle gain realistic, given that he hasn't gone through puberty yet. Maybe I'll even start lifting with him, just like I have started running a little to bond with my 9-year-old. Kids can be fantastic influences.
Of course, pretty soon Tommy will probably be able to lift me, stick arms and all. Well, then he can help his dad move the darn furniture.