Strength training for children – what parents need to know
I hear it all the time – “Is it ok for my son or daughter to lift weights?” or “I heard that children shouldn’t lift weights before they have finished growing.”
I have even been told by a parent that their family physician told them that their child should not lift weights – and this kid was a freshman in high school! Apparently, the doctor did not get the update from one of the several scientific or medical organizations that have published position statements on the benefits of well-designed and supervised strength training programs for younger athletes.
Even today in 2019 and surely into the future, we will need to continue to address the questionsand fallacies that parents have about youth and strength training. I ’ve addressed these questions and concerns countless times and so I developed a handout that is a helpful resource for parents (and coaches).
Now, let’s address some of the common myths and fallacies about youth strength training.
Fallacy 1: Lifting weights means “pumping iron”.
I think much of the concerns about lifting weights or strength training could be ramified if those parents and coaches understood that youth strength training, or more appropriately resistance exercise, was not all about getting underneath a heavy barbell. For some of these adults, their memory or image of strength training is Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1977 docudrama Pumping Iron!
Resistance training includes movement against any resistance including body weight (squat, push-ups, pull-ups), resistance bands, machines, dumbbells, kettlebells and barbells. For the younger, inexperienced athlete (and actually all athletes), technique should be emphasised overload.
Fallacy 2: Children get hurt from lifting weights.
Do children get hurt from lifting weights? Yes, they may. Exact injury statistics are difficult to ascertain but in general the risk of injury from strength training is lower than that of playing sports.
Let me repeat that – risk of injury from strength training is lower than that of playing sports. And here’s the kicker – appropriately designed and supervised strength training can actually reduce the risk of injury during sports participation!
Now of course, injuries do occur while or because of strength training but these injuries are often due to inappropriate training techniques, excessive loading, poorly designed equipment, easy access to the equipment, or lack of qualified adult supervision. Again, appropriately designed and supervised programs are essential. Just like going into the chemistry lab without the well-
educated and qualified chemistry teacher can be dangerous, student-athletes should participate in strength training programs designed and supervised by qualified staff.
Fallacy 3: Lifting weights will stunt their growth. Kids should wait until 16 years of age or
when they stop growing before they start lifting weights.
This concern relates to the issue above and more specifically growth plate injuries. This old wives tale also relates to an early study of young, malnourished Japanese boys who worked on the loading docks. Note: malnourished! There is clear evidence that malnourishment is a major contributor to stunted growth.
On a related note, strength training is also related to bone health in children, and actually part of the weekly physical activity recommendation – “As part of the 60 minutes or more of physical activity per day that kids should get, muscle- and bone-strengthening activity should be included as part of the 60 minutes on at least 3 days per week.”
Fallacy 4: Resistance training is ineffective at improving muscular strength prior to puberty
This fallacy also comes from an old and flawed study. Unfortunately, the first study is often the one that is remembered and it takes 25+ years or more to combat it as “conventional wisdom”.
Here’s the statement from 1978 – “It seems that strength development is closely related to sexual maturation. Therefore, specific strength training can only be effective in the post-pubescent
In contrast to being ineffective, the published research and tales from the gyms are clear that muscular strength increases following a well-designed and conducted strength training program in both children and adolescents.
Beyond improvements in muscular strength, there are also positive benefits of strength training for motor skill performance (running and jumping), self-confidence, body composition, and cardiovascular health. Again it is worth stating – strength training reduces the risk of injury in young athletes! Remember, the best ability is not strength or power but AVAILABILITY! If the youth athlete is injured, they are not available to play.
There’s a common theme running through this piece – if properly designed and supervised. But what does that
Designing resistance training programs consumes entire textbooks.
Some of these key considerations are what exercise, what order should the exercises be performed, how many sets and reps, how often should we lift, when should the exercises, sets and reps be changed and by how much, etc.
In terms of supervision – ideally, you want someone with a good education in exercise science, physical education or a related field and/or a certification from an accredited organization (such as the National Strength & Conditioning Association, etc.).
However, this is not always realistic and a sports coach may need to supervise. In this circumstance, it becomes important for the coach to have some understanding of the basic principles and techniques – and most importantly,
to stay within their boundaries to ensure the health and safety of the young athlete. In many communities, there are human movement/sports medicine professionals who can advise and provide support to the coaching staff on strength training and other sport performance topics.
Overall athletic development and fitness
Although the focus in this blog has been on strength training, it is important to note that strength training and the development of muscular strength and power is one component of a comprehensive program for athletic development and physical fitness of a young person.
We cannot spend all of our time in the weight room, nor do we even need to in order to do resistance training (on-field body weight, resistance bands, etc.). It is also important that strength is applied to movement. Exposing youngsters to activities that include running, jumping, skipping, hopping, dodging, cutting, shuffling, changing directions, zigging and zagging are equally important to athletic performance and meeting the Physical Activity Guidelines for
Americans – 60 minutes (1 hour) or more of daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity.
Again, I must stress that muscle- and bone-strengthening activities should be part of the 60 minutes on at least 3 days per week – thus, strength training is not just for youth athletes. As my friend and colleague Rick Howard says ‘you can’t go wrong getting strong’.
With that said, let’s end with this great quote from Frederick Douglass. ‘It is easier to build strong children than to repair broken men.’
This article was originally published on the Volt Athletics Blog and has been edited and republished here with permission.
The key scientific position papers and review papers for those wanting to really dig in or have as Exhibit A when being confronted about the evidence can be found here.
Joe Eisenmann, PhD has dedicated his entire career and lifestyle to the physical development of young people in the context of physical activity, youth sports and fitness. His diverse roles have included youth sports coach, professor, researcher, strength and conditioning coach, sport
scientist, Director of Spartan Performance and Director of High Performance and Coach Education at USA Football. Currently, he works with Volt Athletics, SPT, the National Strength & Conditioning Association, Leeds Beckett University and the UC-Irvine Paediatric Exercise and Genomics Research Centre.