The answer is YES! A supervised strength training program is a safe and effective way for children to increase strength and performance. Many health care and fitness groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Sports Medicine, the American Orthopedics Society of Sports Medicine, and National Strength and Conditioning Association all support the safety and effectiveness of strength training in children.
Why should my child weight train?
There are many advantages to children weight training. Children who strength train have increased bone density, more developed physique, improved performance, achieve higher self-esteem and improve living habits that carry on through adulthood. Without a doubt, exercise and sports are an important part of maturation. It is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics that school-age children are involved in 60 minutes of strenuous exercise each day — and this can include weight training.
How do I know my child is ready?
Several factors determine when a child is ready to weight train. A child’s physical, mental, and social maturity all determine when a child should begin to strength train. A child can start a weight training program when able to listen to instructors, follow directions, and pass a medical exam. Some children with chronic illness and/or medical conditions (such as certain heart conditions), specific heart murmurs, cancers, or Marfan’s syndrome (a syndrome defined by long fingers, unnaturally tall stature, and heart abnormalities) may preclude or limit one’s strength training capabilities.
What should the session include?
Every training session should include at least a 10-minute warm-up and a 10-minute cool down period. It is important to recognize that new studies do not support traditional static stretching (e.g., the hurdler’s stretch) before athletic events. Static stretching should be done at a different time because it has been shown to decrease muscle force production immediately after the stretch. Therefore, try other dynamic aerobic activities that will cause sweating prior to lifting such as a light jog, or a combination of push-ups, sit-ups, and jumping jacks.
How far should my child push himself or herself?
The program should be designed around lifting lighter weights, emphasizing higher numbers of repetitions, and maintaining good form. A child must have demonstrated appropriate form before adding weights to the exercises. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has made the statement that lifting the greatest weight for a single repetition should not be performed by children. Furthermore, children should work through a full range of joint motion and emphasize larger muscle groups (chest, legs, or back, rather than rotator cuff). As the training progresses, the child can work smaller muscle groups. If a child experiences any joint pain or popping they should consult a doctor. Some muscle pain is perfectly normal after lifting.
What should my child’s exercise program include?
A child’s program should include various exercises that include using free weights, weight machines, and rubber resistance tubing during training sessions. Some types of fixed weight machines create challenges for smaller-sized children because the machine’s lever arms are made for larger adults. Free weights are appealing to the smaller athlete, but younger children may not have the coordination to stabilize the weight during certain lifts. Lifting free weights can lead to injury in younger children because some children may lack the coordination to stabilize certain lifting motions. Resistance band training is a very safe way to strength train younger athletes as they develop better coordination.
But someone told me that…?
Some parents are afraid to have their children lift weights because of unfounded or controversial information.
- First, it is true that growth plate injuries can occur with lifting. However, most injuries occur as a result of lifting heavy weights, executing lifts with poor form, or performing excessive numbers of repetitions.
- Second, some still believe that boys cannot improve their strength until after puberty. However, scientific evidence has demonstrated that children can improve strength by up to 50 percent after three months of a well-designed strength-training program. The strength improvement of younger children is secondary to neural adaptations (activation of muscles units and improving muscle firing rate and pattern) and not from muscle hypertrophy (getting larger). As a child approaches maturity, increased size of muscle occurs as a direct result of the sex hormone testosterone.
- Lastly people believe Olympic-style lifting, including the clean and jerk and the snatch, should not be performed until after puberty. This belief is accurate, and this style of lifting should not be allowed until after puberty and then only with appropriate supervision.
All myths aside, strength training can be performed by children safely and the benefits far outweigh the risks. Strength training is a great way to condition our youth and to the health of young maturing boys and girls.
James Slauterbeck, MD, is an orthopedic surgeon at the University of Vermont Medical Center and associate professor at the Larner College of Medicine at UVM. He is also the team physician for UVM Athletics.