The Truth About Kids and Lifting Weights
Here at Terre Haute Intensity Resistance and Sports Training (THIRST) our primary audience and clientele is working with youth athletics in the sports performance realm. It’s not uncommon that we get various questions from parents and members about how safe lifting is for children, what kind of approach we use, and what the benefits really are of strength training for kids.
One thing that is for certain, is that children aren’t nearly as active as they once were 10 to 15 years ago. With the introduction of smart phones, tablets, internet at our fingertips, enhanced video gaming experience, and decreased physical education programs around the country, child obesity is steadily climbing. If anything, getting your child into a supervised strength and conditioning program can be a way to introduce them to physical activity they enjoy, without having to do competitive sports.
First, let’s break down some of the common myths about children and lifting, and then we can go into more evidence-based research to show how lifting for your kid could be one of the best things you do in terms of investment.
The Myth About Kids and Lifting Weights
Weightlifting will stunt a child’s growth.
This is probably the longest standing myth out there about kids and lifting. As a shorter person myself (5’1″ at 31 years old, and competitive athlete all my life), I could tell you that people would tell me this all the time in high school.
“Brandon, the reason you’re so short is because you’ve been lifting since middle school.”
Sorry, but that’s just not true. My mom is sub five foot tall, and my dad was barely 5’7″ in his prime. Height isn’t exactly in my deck of cards, genetically.
How this myth started, I’m not sure, but one thing that doctors and others try to blame is that growth plates will fuse early and prevent growth to reach it’s maximal potential. The other is that lifting will fracture growth plates and halt growth altogether once that injury occurs.
According to Jordan Feigenbaum and Austin Baraki, both of whom are strength coaches and doctors, there is no evidence to support that lifting will inhibit a child’s growth. None. Not a single piece.
According to the American College of Sports Medicine, a growth plate fracture has never been reported from weightlifting. In fact, Dr. Feigenbaum has noted that growth plate fractures are incredibly rare and would require a severe amount of trauma, more than anyone would get from lifting weights while being supervised by a professional.
In short, the whole lifting stunting growth myth is entirely false.
Weightlifting is dangerous.
The second major myth is that lifting is dangerous for kids. Most parents and doctors will talk about pulling muscles, back injuries, rotator cuff this, knee and hip that. And while I’ve been injured myself while under the bar, the weights that I’ve been lifting are on a world-class level, trying to do things less than 0.0001% of the population will ever attempt, or even have the genetic potential to attempt.
Believe it or not, weightlifting is one of the safest physical activities a kid can do. Your child is more likely to get injured playing football, soccer, baseball, and other sports over lifting weights. One reason this might be true is because lifting is a controlled atmosphere. There is a proper way to do something, and training is usually planned with set movements. Kids aren’t required to catch a ball falling from the sky, hit the soccer ball with their head, or make a tackle on a kid coming at them full speed.
In this podcast with Dr. Feigenbaum, he discussed research showing that injuries from weightlifting are statistically way lower than nearly every sport, per one thousand participation hours. In this particular study, they found that the injury rate for weight training (not the sport of weightlifting) was 0.0035 for one hundred practice hours. Soccer? It was 6.2 injuries per one hundred participation hours. I’m no math expert, but that’s a pretty substantial difference. And yet soccer is probably one of the first sports most kids are introduced to due to it being safe. Take a look at the list again above, and look where PE and CrossFit are in relation to all the other lifting based activities.
Bottom line: Lifting weights for kids is probably one of the safest physical activities you’re going to find for them so long as the coach is a professional and has experience working with children.
What Age Can A Child Start Weight Training?
This is where things can begin to get a bit murky. There isn’t really an exact age for any particular kid. There are going to be a couple of factors that need to be taken into consideration:
- Maturity Level
- Desire/Want to Workout
- Athletic Background
Here at THIRST, we get a wide variety of kids, some are nine years old, while others are 18 and seniors in high school. For our younger athletes that are 11 and under, we really try to make sure they understand we’re not a playground. We’re going to do everything we can to make sure the child has fun, runs, jumps, throws, and enjoys themselves. But this is something you have to ask yourself as a parent, “Is my kid mature enough to listen to directions and respect coaches?” If this is a “No”, you probably need to wait before getting your child in a program. We have some nine year olds that train and do better than some of our twelve year olds. So please understand this is highly individualized per kid.
Desire/Want to Workout
Nothing makes a coach’s job harder than having a kid that doesn’t want to be in that sport. I get it, you want the best for you child, and want to give them the best opportunity to succeed. But unfortunately, sometimes you’ve got to ask the kid what they want to do. I personally love it when I get a kid in after our assessment and consultation process that is excited and ready to get to work and have fun. But we also get those kids that sometimes just want to go through the motions. As a parent, just ask your kid if it’s something they want to do. Because if they don’t, and you make them, not only is your kid not having a good time, the coach is also trying to pry teeth from a kid that doesn’t want to be there – when there are likely other kids in the same program that DO want to be there.
This is a very highly individualized aspect to determine where the kid will start. Some kids walk in our doors absolutely insane athletes, others sometimes don’t even go outside. When we assess and consult on the first day with parents and the child, I know usually how I’m going to start their training. If they are the go-getter, we’re going to do some work. If they are more laid-back and less athletic, we’re going to ease into things. There isn’t a one-sized-fits-all approach, and this is why we use a semi-private model, to give the kid exactly what they need for them at that point in their development.
Essentially understand there isn’t a pre-set age that a kid can start lifting. This is a very individualized thing per child.
How Do You Train Kids?
Here at THIRST, we have a model we use to determine how we train our kids and youth athletes. This is a model that I’ve personally worked on for nearly a decade, and it’s been instrumental on not only teaching our kids how to lift, but keeping them safe and making progressions and regressions simple.
Ages 11 and Under
This is our beginner stage/program. These kids are not allowed to do any major heavy lifting at all. Technique and basics are the main thing we’re after here. We DO NOT give our kids a barbell or put them on a machine whatsoever at this age. The only thing we use are bands, light dumbbells and kettlebells, medicine balls, calisthenics, sleds, ropes, and bags.
All of our programming is usually supersetted with upper and lower body exercises. We stick to basic movement patterns and big bang for our buck exercises. We ensure we use jumps, throws, carries, single leg work, and plenty of core work for these kids. Ensuring they have fun, is also a huge priority for this age group. For these kids, we usually recommend twice a week training.
This is our late beginner stage/program. This is by far the most complicated age range, as most of our kids are beginning to hit puberty and develop into young adults right before our eyes. Many of these kids will stick with the basics like we do with our beginner stage program, but we can begin to decrease rep ranges so long as technique can hold. We’re still not doing anything massively heavy, but we can challenge the kid a bit more. Those that are on the tail-end of this stage, we can begin to implement a barbell for things like front squats and RDL’s, and various landmine exercises. Our more advanced kids that seem to be maturing quickly, can start to bench press with a Swiss bar, squat with a safety squat bar, and deadlift with a trap bar. Some of the more developed kids at the later stage can use some machines in our facility, but this is still pretty rare for most of them.
We have certain benchmarks that these kids have to hit before we let them use these barbells in our facility. Majority of these kids are not using barbells until 8th grade at the earliest. This stage we recommend training two to three times per week, based on age and experience.
This is our intermediate stage/program. This is our high school athlete that is more mature, puberty has certainly hit, and most likely already a Tanner Stage 4 on the puberty scale. These kids can recover at an insane rate, their mental maturity is rather high, and we can begin to load them up quicker than our late beginner stage athlete. They are still required to hit the benchmarks we have set before we will let them use a barbell, but for most of these kids, this is relatively easy. Training becomes more specialized and tailored towards their sport, and bringing up specific muscle groups is more of a priority.
This stage we like to see our athletes three times a week, but we do have some that are in twice a week still making incredible progress.
Your Kid Wants To Lift, What Should You Do?
The first thing you should be doing is researching and finding a qualified professional in your area. They should at a minimum have a certification from a nationally recognized organization (ACSM, NASM, NSCA are what we want from our interns and coaches) with experience working with children in some capacity, and have a good track-record in doing so. Ideally they also have a bachelor’s degree in a related field (exercise science, health and fitness, applied health, kinesiology, biomechanics, etc.). Double check to see if they have personal training as a background, or anything where they are instructing and coaching people through movement. Also don’t be afraid to ask what their philosophy on training is! This one question alone will let you know whether you’d making a good choice or not (you’ll be able to tell if you stump them or if they are legit). As an added bonus, find someone that also competes in something. Having an expert that is a competitor will help your child have better buy-in, but that coach also understands how to train themselves as well.
Second, understand that your child will make a significant amount of progress based on increased neuromusclar adaptations. This means your child won’t probably put on a bunch of muscle, but will literally be teaching his body how to sync everything together and be more efficient in movement. So ensure the program you’re looking at is teaching basic fundamental movements (run, jump, throw, carry, lunge, hinge, squat, push, pull), and is using more repetitions to teach versus loading up the weights. The program should also be engaging and flexible, and allow for some fun and games. You don’t want to go to a coach that is a drill sergeant because your child will likely get turned off by this and have a negative association with lifting weights and exercise.
Lastly, don’t be afraid to be invested in what they are doing. We let our parents watch our athletes do their workouts, so they can see the strides their kid is making. Ask them how they like it, what their favorite thing is they do, and if they learned anything. Try to reward them for hard work, and give them compliments on their biceps or strong legs.
Strength training and lifting weights for kids is completely safe so long as it’s supervised by a professional with a history of working with children. It’s not going to stunt their growth, they’re going to become stronger and faster, and they’re going to learn to have a positive affiliation with exercise and health. That’s a win-win for everyone.