Common Misconceptions about Strength Training for Kids
While much progress has been made in the past 10-15 years regarding the public’s knowledge about strength training for kids, common myths still persist. My experience has been that parents typically voice concerns in a couple of areas:
- They have heard that lifting weights can stunt their child’s growth
- They have heard that lifting weights is dangerous and their child may get hurt
Does Lifting Weights Stunt Growth in Children?
Often, parents have heard from a friend of a friend that strength training can “stunt their kids growth” or prematurely “close their child’s growth plates”. In 2008, The American Academy of Pediatrics published a position statement on Strength Training by Adolescents and Children. In this paper, benefits, risks, and guidelines are discussed for kids that participate in strength training programs. The paper goes on to state “appropriate strength-training programs have no apparent adverse effect on linear growth, growth plates, or the cardiovascular system”. The paper does, however, acknowledge the need for additional counsel regarding certain youth populations such as those that have had chemotherapy, have been diagnosed with a known cardiomyopathy, and kids with uncontrolled blood pressure. While these populations require additional counsel, so do their adult counterparts. Thus, we would seek additional physician advice due to the conditions the adolescent (or child) is presenting with, not simply because they are a child.
Is Lifting Weights Dangerous for Kids?
Another common misconception surrounding strength training for kids is that the activity itself presents an inherent level of increased risk that is somehow greater than the sports we encourage them to play. Nothing could be further from the truth. Consider the velocities associated with the movements common to football, basketball, and soccer. One characteristic common to all levels of sport is they are all played at 100% effort. Much of our time in the weight room is spent far below 100% intensity. In fact, very little time (if any) is spent at 100% intensity. Rather, most kids are training in a controlled, well coached environment free of the unpredictability that is present in all competitions. Most coaches I know (and certainly the ones at our gym) spend a tremendous amount of time teaching kids HOW TO LIFT well before they ever expect them to approach true 100% intensity.
A Comparison of Injury Rates per 100 Participation Hours
In 1994 Hamill and colleagues published Relative Safety of Weightlifting and Weight Training in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. In that article, you can directly compare the “safety” of common sports and weight training.
|Activity||Injuries Per 100 Participation Hours|
|UK Cross Country||0.37|
|Weight Training||0.0035 (per 85,733 participation hours)|
|Weightlifting||0.0017 (per 168,551 participation hours)|
Despite the table above being nearly 30 years old, the data continues to be referenced and discussed in current literature. The point I’m making here is that weight training is in fact incredibly safe for your child. If you’d like to learn more about the nuances of technique, pain, and injury Wyatt and I dive into this topic in episode 6 of Barbell Athlete Radio: How to Lift Barbells. Let us know what you think in comments section.
Physical Activity Guidelines for Children and Adolescents
In 2018 the Department of Health and Human Services updated the Physical Activity Guidelines for all Americans. You can read more about the recommendations for adults in an earlier piece we published, How Much Should You Exercise? For the purpose of our discussion today, let us focus on the recommendations of children and adolescents (ages 9-17 years):
- Aerobic: Most of the 60 minutes or more per day should be either moderate or vigorous-intensity aerobic physical activity and should include vigorous intensity physical activity on at least 3 days a week.
- Muscle-strengthening: As part of their 60 minutes or more of daily physical activity, children and adolescents should include muscle-strengthening physical activity on at least 3 days a week.
- Bone-strengthening: As part of their 60 minutes or more of daily physical activity, children and adolescents should include bone-strengthening physical activity on at least 3 days a week.
At Brentwood Barbell, we use the recommendations set forth by the Department of Health and Human Services for our adult and youth populations. The good news is, most children and adolescents are easily meeting the aerobic requirements simply by playing their prospective sport. Where we might be falling short are the muscle / bone strengthening areas. Yes, I know that gravity provides some resistance and therefore some muscle / bone strengthening benefits but that simply isn’t enough. It’s not enough for our youth athletes nor is it enough for our adult populations. We need to be specifically be engaging in activities with the intent to strengthen our muscles and bones.
3 Reasons Why Kids and Adolescents Should Strength Train
Hopefully, at this point we’ve addressed some of the more common concerns you may have about your kid participating in a strength training program. Additionally, we’ve taken some time to layout simple guidelines that are recommended for children and adolescents. Now I’d like to focus on 3 specific reasons why your kid should participate in a strength training program.
- Improved Sport Performance
- Injury Mitigation
- Long Term Health
Benefit #1: Weight Training Improves Sport Performance in Children and Adolescence
There are a couple potential mechanisms through which strength training will likely improve sport performance. The first being improved neuromuscular coordination, which is just a fancy way of saying improved coordination or motor function. As kids strength train, assuming they utilize basic compound exercises like squats, presses, and pulls, they get better at coordinating their muscular contractions to produce a result (in this case move a barbell). This improved coordination can then be taken to the field or court and often times, results in improved play.
The second mechanism is through increased muscular tissue and and ligamentous / tendinous strength. Depending on the child’s age, kids will display a hypertrophic response, comparable to … if not better, than their adult counterparts. Bigger muscles are potentially stronger muscles and stronger muscles win games, it’s really that simple.
Benefit #2: Weight Training May Mitigate Sport Related Injury in Children and Adolescence
While all the weight training in the world won’t be able to reduce incidence of catastrophic sport-related injuries, weight training has been shown to be beneficial in the mitigation of “non contact” type sport injuries. Non-contact injuries are exactly what they sound like, an injury involving only one athlete. These injuries are commonly muscle strains, ligamentous (ACL) tears, and ankle sprains, etc.
Injury mitigation + simply plyometric exercises might even increase an athlete’s durability when it comes to these common non-contact injuries. The mechanisms here seem pretty self explanatory. Most sports require rapid acceleration, deceleration, and change of direction. The forces associated with these sport components can be quite high (much higher than any athlete will squat). When the tissues being asked to solve these physical problems aren’t adequately prepared, injury likelihood may increase. Weight training is simply an effort to prepare the tissues for such forces.
Benefit #3: Weight Training May Improve Health Outcome Measures in Children and Adolescence
The benefits of exercise cannot be overstated so we won’t go into excruciating detail here but let’s discuss an important couple of ideas. We have good evidence that increased physical activity (PA) has been shown useful in the prevention of the big 3: heart disease, cancer, and stroke. Furthermore, we know that obesity rates are on the rise (especially in younger children and adolescents). In fact, the National Institute of Health (NIH) has recommended PA as a leading strategy in the treatment of obesity, second only to dietary therapies. Additional benefits of increased physical include:
- Improve weight management efforts
- Increase force production (strength)
- Reduce body fat
- Promote bone, muscle, and joint development
- Improve heart and lung function / capacity
- Improve endurance
- Improve sleep quality
- Decrease depression risk
- Improve energy and self esteem
- Decrease stress
- Increase life expectancy
In addition to many of the benefits noted above, resistance training has also been shown very effective in the preservation of basic physical function (i.e. successfully navigating your environment), the prevention of osteoporosis (loss of bone mass), sarcopenia (loss of muscle mass), and low back pain due to the profound effects it has on the musculoskeletal system. While these issues are likely not relevant to your adolescent athlete at this time, we know that they will eventually become adults. One thing I can attest to as a gym owner of over 5 years is that kids want to be like their parents, especially in the gym. When kids see mom and dad moving weights, climbing ropes, and flipping tires, they want to do it. So it stands to reason that if we get them having fun and interested early, they might carry that habit on into adulthood. Strength training at an early age will only increase their comfort and confidence in the weight room as kids age as well, again making overall increased physical activity i.e. health outcome measures more likely!
As parents, we love when our kids play sports but we also need to understand the importance of preparation for chaotic, high-velocity sports. I’m of the opinion that I want my kids to be prepared when they are competing with their peers. I also consider it my job to model active behavior as their father. Hopefully some of that will rub off on them.
Good luck with your training! Get those kids in the weight room!
James Harris, MPT
You Might Also Enjoy Reading:
Barbell Athlete Radio Episode 6: How to Lift Barbells
Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness; Strength Training by Children and Adolescents. Pediatrics April 2008; 121 (4): 835–840. 10.1542/peds.2007-3790
Hamill, Brian P. Relative Safety of Weightlifting and Weight Training, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: February 1994 – Volume 8 – Issue 1 – p 53-57
2018 Physical Activity Guidelines: https://www.hhs.gov/fitness/be-active/importance-of-physical-activity/index.html
2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Executive Summary: https://health.gov/sites/default/files/2019-10/PAG_ExecutiveSummary.pdf