It is pretty common to hear parents discussing their child’s safety in physical activity and a hot topic is that kids shouldn’t lift weights. They rationalize this statement by commenting how lifting weights early will stunt growth and lead to problems during puberty. Going through high school, I would hear this typically from concerned parents of my fellow teammates during sport seasons. The bar for competition was always getting raised, so naturally we had to get better as well. The answer? Start lifting weights and get stronger. It’s no different today. With the recent Olympics, we saw teenage athletes crushing some of their older competitors. These athletes have strict training schedules and often include strength training with free weights. In order to perform you must be well-rounded and for youth athletes to get ahead of the competition requires them to start lifting younger.
Now I can truly appreciate the concern of parents. They want the best for their children and will always question the safety of any activity pertaining to their child. Lifting weights has been viewed as an adult training method and the thought of a child cringing to lift a barbell will certainly make some parents anxious. The truth is that if done improperly, lifting weights as a child may do damage and POTENTIALLY stunt growth. But prior to jumping to conclusions, look at the root of the issue.
I believe the problem is that parents hear that injury may occur and freak out without further educating themselves on how this may be possible. In order for growth to be diminished, the child’s growth plate must be damaged. If this occurs, then it is possible that the child may not reach full growth potential or other complications may arise. Again, this is uncommon. The funny thing is that parents always assume weightlifting will always be the culprit when the truth is any activity done improperly could do growth plate damage. You take a hit in football or fall funny in hockey and injury pertaining to the child’s growth plate could occur. Before parents reading this become paranoid, let’s go over what growth plates are and precautions one should take before letting their child benefit from strength training.
Growth plates (epiphyseal plates) are located at the end of long bones in children and adolescents where growing tissue developments occur. If damaged, the growth plate is replaced by stronger or dense bone and growing disengages. Injuries can be caused by an acute injury such as a fall or blow to the joint, or from chronic overuse such as gymnastics routines etc. Like I mentioned earlier, growth plate injury may be associated with weight lifting but by no means is it the sole cause. Similar to any activity, proper cautions must be taken to ensure safety.
There are just as many positives for children and youth to strength train as there are for adults. Increased musculature, higher energy requirements leading to fat mass maintenance and improved physical fitness. I will also like to add greater bone density and joint stability to the list. Plus, kids will have fun learning what we call training and turn it into something fun (wouldn’t you like to be as enthusiastic as a child about anything?).
This being said, there are a multitude of precautions that must be addressed in order to prepare a child for a more vigorous training environment. The first thing to address is their basic knowledge on purpose, form and technique. The child must first be educated on what the purpose of the exercise or movement is and how to do it correctly. Typically with children, body weight exercises are standard. They can do push ups, squats, pull ups or anything using just themselves. This encourages proper form while maintaining safety. By first using body weight, they can develop base strength needed to further improve and prepare for free weight exercises. A good progression from body weight exercises could be the use of resistance bands or light dumbbells. These are great tools to demonstrate proper form as well as add some challenge so the athlete can get a feel of what to expect with resistance.
Once the child feels comfortable and has developed some base strength, they may be ready to start using standard equipment. This is where caution must be taken. Standard barbells, benches and machines were not made with youth size frames in mind. For this reason, children must be extremely careful when using equipment. Proper height adjustments and/or equipment weight may not be suitable for some youth as they have not grown enough yet. If this is the case, alternate exercises or modifications must be made to better suit the individual. It is not worth the risk of trying to force something on a machine that is simply not built for a smaller body. Safety should always come first.
Last point of safety I will point out is the prescription of exercise. A young person lifting should NEVER attempt to max out on lifts. I understand certain sports (weightlifting) must be excluded, however children participating in such events typically have expert coaches who have prepared them for such competitions. If your child is not in a sport of 1 repetition maxes, then this is not applicable to you. The reason being is that the risk out weighs the reward. Just as much benefit can be gained through a safer program that will ensure the child improves without as much risk. For children, rep ranges should be greater than 6-8. This will ensure the child is capable and demonstrate fatigue through continuous repetition, not uncontrollable force. Once older and growth is near complete, consider re-evaluating the young athlete. If they are more experienced and comfortable, progress carefully to heavier or more challenging movements. The most important thing is the child must first be comfortable and prepared to progress, otherwise stick to a more simple regiment.
It is good to see that many gyms require some form of education in weight training before allowing underage athletes to utilize the facilities. Most gyms I see require the individual to demonstrate proof of weight training education through high school timetables or some other course associated through their local municipality. If no education, the minor must first go through a course recommended by the facility to demonstrate competence. Most courses help cover basic muscle anatomy, basic form and techniques for common exercises. Although these courses help, they typically cover the most basic of principles. It is recommended that the young athlete use professional help to better themselves through a higher education and more hands on experience. This will prepare the young athlete and will actually hasten their capabilities to improve through a more fluid technical approach.
Personally, I don’t see any real reason to withhold strength training from children. If they enjoy it and are doing it in a safe manner, then it should be allowed. By focusing on technique, form and basic principles first the child is put in a safer position to train. Furthermore, they will be educated on HOW to train.
It’s like any other activity, you first focus on FUNdamentals.
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Matrixx specializes in adolescent athletic development. He coaches some of the top athlete prospects coming out of high school in the Niagara region. He also works with dedicated members of the community who are passionate about improving personal fitness. Matrixx is also the author of The Iron Guide to Building Muscle.