Feel the power
The potential hazard of heavy weights dropping on toes, combined with the controversy over whether young children should be lifting them at all, has led to many schools leaving resistance training out of PE classes altogether.
However, following a recent report by the British Association of Exercise and Sport Sciences, which recommended two supervised weight-training sessions per week for young people, one school has been experimenting with soft dumbbell substitutes and has found them to be both popular and effective.
Powerbags, which resemble long tubular cushions made of strong ripstop tarp and are filled with sand weighing from 3kg to 50kg, have been used by England's Rugby Union players since their inventor, Mark Bellamy, asked the team to sample prototypes he made three years ago.
Their versatility and portability made the bags such a success that many rugby-playing schools soon wanted them. One, Bishops of Hereford Bluecoats School, a comprehensive in Hereford, is now extending their use to PE and extra-curricular classes.
Along with Bellamy, Steve Bradley, the school's head of PE, and PE teacher Mike Stubbs have drawn up a programme using Powerbags for their pupils, which follows guidelines published last year in Journal of Sports Sciences:
"I young people should be encouraged to participate in safe and effective resistance exercise at least twice a week I part of a balanced physical education programme that fits in with the national curriculum".
The result is a 10-week programme that includes lifting and movement drills, throwing and catching, lunges and squats, and core stability work.
Sessions can be conducted indoors or out, with or without additional gym equipment and, because they are soft, there are no concerns over the bags being dropped or hitting anyone, or damaging floors.
"One of the best things about the bags is how inclusive they can make exercise," Bellamy says. "Many overweight kids find cardiovascular exercise hard work, but often they are strong so find this kind of exercise very rewarding."
Participating in some sort of resistance-training programme is important for all children, to ensure their muscular-skeletal system is robust enough to withstand other forms of exercise. In their book, Designing Resistance Training Programs, SJ Fleck and WJ Kraemer suggest that, provided the programmes are appropriate, there may also be strength gains and an enhancement in bone development from regular resistance training.
According to Bishops PE teacher Mike Stubbs, all of those who come to his morning strength session, Monkey Club, have experienced improvements, particularly in their core stability, since beginning to use the bags.
"We started off trying them out on a group of year 10 boys who were just ready to progress from rope-climbing and swinging on beams," he says.
"Everyone thinks the bags are fantastic. They are safe and allow for more natural movement patterns, which replace the sorts of things kids are no longer able freely to do, like climbing trees."
As well as allowing for a more varied class, doing any sort of resistance training can be an effective means to lose weight and improve posture, says Bellamy, who is a doctor of sports psychology and has been involved in sport training for most of his life.
The movement within the bags and the flexibility of the handles makes them less predictable than dumbbells, which forces the user to engage and therefore strengthen the stabilising trunk muscles.
"We have made the training sessions fun, and so far the kids seem to love them," Bellamy says. "It also helps that they know they are doing the same sort of routines and using the same training tools as many of the country's top sportsmen and women."
Apart from being used by the national Rugby Union teams and about half of the Premiership clubs, Powerbags have been bought by a number of Premiership football clubs, by England squash, tennis and hockey teams, the disability swimming team and most English and Welsh institutes of sport, where those bound for this year's Children's Games went to train.
"You can mimic almost any exercise and use any combination of body parts,"
Bellamy says. "The body needs to be trained as a unit, because that is the way we use it, and if children can be taught the correct biomechanical movement patterns as they become stronger, they will be better co-ordinated and more powerful. That will stay with them for life."
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Powerbags range from pound;38 to pound;80 and are available from E.XF Fitness Tel: 01473 735115