Weight training has grown in popularity in recent years. It’s also one of the more controversial topics in youth sports.
Is weight training healthy for kids?
The answer to this question has been shifting in recent years. In 1983, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) advised against weight training for children, citing the risk of injury. Seven years later, the same group stood its stance but said there wasn’t enough data to know if it was actually detrimental. Then in 2001 it said strength training can be good for children, and actually reduces injury risk while promoting long-term health. (Larson, 2021) There’s a widespread belief that strength training will stunt children’s growth, but studies do not support this idea.
So when done properly it appears strength training can be beneficial to children. Of course, this comes with a giant caveat: It’s often not done properly. When parents or the kids themselves push themselves too far, it can result in injuries that may follow them throughout their life.
Strength training guidelines for teens/adolescents
Build into it slowly. Parents shouldn’t be pushing a child to do more than they feel comfortable lifting.
Avoid heavy weight all at once. “No one should ever do just one bench press with the maximum weight you can,” says Dr. Benjamin. This may be good for the ego or to impress friends, but it does very little for the body, other than risk injury. Kids age 12 and older should be able to do around 8-10 reps per set, and 2-3 sets over a 20-30 minute period. If they can’t, take some of the weight off. As this becomes easier and they are able to do more reps, then you can pile on more weight.
Avoid power lifting, which is the definition of everything we’ve said not to do: Putting as much weight on the bars as you can and then trying to dead lift from the ground.
Mix weight training with stretching and other physical exercise. You want a child to keep their range of motion as they get stronger.
When can children start strength training?
It all depends on what you mean when you say “strength training.” From preschool on up all children can do strength training to work on core strength, which includes exercises such as push-ups, sit-ups, handstands and squats. Though the AAP puts its guidelines for this at age 7, such exercises are part of what “a 6-year-old gymnast would think of as normal for the sport,” says Dr. Holly Benjamin, a professor of orthopedic surgery and pediatrics at the University of Chicago, who helped write the AAP guidelines. “Such exercises are healthy for kids, improving bone density, cardiovascular fitness and mental health. It also helps to reduce injury for [people of all ages], and core strengthening could be sit-ups or Pilates and not involve weight lifting at all.” (Mitchell, 2-28-2019)
That said, children should stick to exercises that work against their own body weight, and hold off on actual weights until after puberty. Not only can weight lifting damage an immature body, but kids aren’t going to realize any appreciable muscle gain at these ages anyway. “Puberty and the associated hormones allow muscle hypertrophy, which is when muscles get bigger,” says Dr. Benjamin. “A 10-year-old won’t get bulky with resistance training, but at the microscopic level the neurons will learn to ‘fire’ the muscle more quickly.”
You can, however, have kids practice these exercises with little or no weight to work on good form, which will help them when they’re older. “I have seen coaches teach kids as young as 6 to do overhead presses, deadlifting and bench-pressing with a broomstick to teach good form.” So it’s okay for kids to imitate the motions using a prop (3 pounds or less) but don’t use adult size machines with the pre-teen category.
Guidelines for weight training for preteen & elementary school children:
- No power-lifting
- No body building; it doesn’t work at this age anyway
- No weights
- Stick to exercises that involve kids pushing or pulling against their own body weight.
Weight training for teens
After puberty strikes, it’s okay for parents and teens to start working with actual weights in a slow, reasonable manner. Just because your child is now a teen doesn’t mean it’s okay for them to go nuts. “I have a 14-year-old male patient who is still growing, and he was trying to deadlift 300 pounds on his own at the gym,” says Dr. Benjamin. “Now he has stress fractures in his back, because he was never taught to lift correctly.” (Mitchell, 5-28-2019)
When teenagers hit the weights too heavy and hard, they can cause themselves permanent injury. Your child has their whole life ahead of them; you don’t want them suffering from crippling back problems at age 20 or have tendinitis in the elbow that flares up whenever they do anything physical because they lifted too much when they were teens.