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We’re used to children playing team sports like soccer and baseball at a young age. And strength-based activities like climbing frames are time-honored childhood pastimes. But somehow lifting weights looks wrong to many of us when kids do it. But how young is too young to pick up a barbell?
Why strength training is important for kids
First, let’s talk about whether it makes sense for children to exercise strength. Lifting weights is just one form of resistance training – others may include bodyweight exercises like pushups or working with resistance bands, machines, or other equipment. So “strength training” doesn’t just mean “lifting”.
The American Academy of Pediatrics, in their Position paper on strength training, suggests that strength is important to children’s health and athletic performance (when exercising). According to some studies, strength training is also a gateway to spontaneous physical activity, which makes it a great introduction to training for kids who don’t like running or other aerobic activities.
Rather than just discussing the risks of weight training, say the paper’s authors, we also need to consider the risks that weight training does not have. Building strength makes children (and adults) less prone to injuries in sports and in life, so we shouldn’t skip this significant Aspect of exercise.
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Heavy weights are okay for kids
In the past, experts have said that strength training is okay for children, but they have often shied away from recommending actual weights, or particularly heavy weights. For example, it has sometimes been considered inappropriate for children to find a maximum of one repetition.
But research shows that testing with one repetition of max is absolutely safe for children when properly designed with the proper technique and supervision from a qualified person, such as a trainer. You shouldn’t just let your kids walk heavy weights and poor technique at a HAM home gym – but that’s not good for adults either.
Will Weight Training Stunt A Child’s Growth?
No, but the myth was no accident. The growth of long bones (such as those in the arms and legs) occurs near the end of each bone, called the epiphyseal plate or growth plate. It is possible, though rare, for this plate to be damaged so badly that the bone can no longer grow.
There have been a few reports of children having broken their growth plates, however according to the paper the AAP quotes on One-Rep-Maxes, these injuries have not occurred during safe, well-supervised strength training. The authors write:
This issue needs further investigation and assessment, as most of the forces children are exposed to in sports and recreational activities are likely to be greater, both in terms of exposure time and extent, than in competently supervised and properly conducted maximal strength tests.
In other words, lifting a heavy weight is no more difficult on a child’s body than what children do anyway.
When can children start strength training?
There is no specific age to start weight training, and the AAP recommends that training be tailored to a child’s maturity and experience. For example, once a child is old enough to exercise, they are old enough to do weight training. The AAP gives the example of one-legged hopping as a strength exercise that is doable and appropriate for most 5 year olds. On the other hand, a 14 year old who has been inactive is starting from scratch.
Body weight exercises (like these hops) will come first, with weighted exercises later when the child is ready. But that’s because the child has a sense of how to exercise and how to use good technique, not because there is a minimum age for a particular exercise.
How to make sure kids do weight training safely
According to the AAP paper, the components of a safe strength training program for children are similar to those for adults:
- One to two rest days per week
- Enough calories and hydration to support the job they are doing
- Guidance and support from people who are qualified to work with children in sports (i.e. good trainers and teachers)
The AAP recommends speaking with a pediatrician before starting any strength training program if the child has high blood pressure or an uncontrolled seizure disorder. Children who have certain heart problems or have been treated with certain chemotherapy drugs may also need to change their exercise.
The AAP also emphasizes that children should take the time to learn good technique using relatively light weights – for example, sets of 8 to 12 repetitions at 60% of their maximum repetition. Once you’ve mastered a particular exercise well, heavier, less repetitive sets may be appropriate. The sessions should last 20 to 30 minutes and take place two to three times a week.
All of this should look familiar to you if you are weight training yourself. I train my 11 year old in our home gym and our program looks a lot like what the AAP describes. (The 8 year old and 5 year old don’t exercise regularly, but I mentor and encourage them when they show interest.)
I’ve found that half the planning is getting a child interested and having fun. If my child hates an exercise or is not comfortable with it, we can find another exercise that works similar muscles. For example, he does goblet squats instead of barbell back squats, but he also loves doing regular barbell bench presses. I see him on every set and watch his technique to make sure he’s not only safe but also lifting effectively. I want him to get stronger, but most of all, I want him to be comfortable in the gym and know that exercise is fun and worthwhile. This is a lesson that will stay with him throughout his life.