Dear parents and coaches,
A compelling body of scientific evidence supports participation in appropriately designed youth resistance training programs that are supervised and instructed by qualified individuals.
The position statements of major sports medicine organizations
I see and hear it all the time: “Is it ok for my (healthy) son or daughter or my team to lift weights?” or “I heard that kids shouldn’t lift weights before they’re done growing.”
I’ve even been told by a parent that their family physician told them that their healthy kid should not lift weights—and this kid was a freshman in high school! Apparently, the doctor did not receive the update from one of the several scientific or medical organizations that have published position statements on the benefits of well-designed and supervised strength training programs for youth.
Where does this view come from? There are a few fallacies that parents and coaches often subscribe. I’ve addressed these comments and questions countless times, and have developed a downloadable PDF handout that is a helpful resource for coaches to share with parents, or for parents to share with other parents (and sometimes coaches). I’ve also included key research papers in the Additional Resources section below.
Fallacy 1: Kids get hurt from lifting weights.
Do kids get hurt from lifting weights?
Yes, yes they do.
Exact injury statistics are difficult to ascertain, but in general, the risk of injury from strength training is lower than that of playing sports. And, in contrast, appropriately designed and supervised strength training can actually reduce the risk of injury during sports participation!
When injuries do occur, they are often due to inappropriate training techniques, excessive loading, poorly designed equipment, ready access to the equipment, or a lack of qualified adult supervision. Appropriately designed and supervised programs are therefore essential.
Fallacy 2: Lifting weights will stunt their growth.
And related, I have heard “Kids should wait until they’re 16 years old, or stop growing before they start lifting weights.”
This concern relates to the issue above, injuries, and more specifically growth plate injuries. This old wives’ tale also relates to an early study of young, malnourished Japanese boys who worked on the loading docks. Note: malnourished! There is clear evidence that malnourishment is a major contributor to stunted growth.
Fallacy 3: Resistance training is ineffective at improving muscular strength prior to puberty.
This fallacy also comes from a dated study. Unfortunately, the first study is typically the one that is remembered, and it takes 25+ years (or more) to combat it as “conventional wisdom.” Here’s the statement from 1978:
“It seems that strength development is closely related to sexual maturation. Therefore, specific strength training can only be effective in the post-pubescent age.”
Fallacy 4: Lifting weights means “pumping iron.”
I think many of the concerns about lifting weights or strength training could be relieved if parents and coaches understood that youth strength training, or more appropriately, resistance exercise, was not solely about getting underneath a heavy barbell. For some of these adults, their memory or image of strength training is Arnold Schwarzenegger in the 1977 docudrama Pumping Iron!
Resistance training includes movement against any resistance, including body weight (squat, push-ups, pull-ups), resistance bands, machines, dumbbells, kettlebells, and barbells. For the younger, inexperienced athlete (and actually all athletes), technique should be emphasized over load.
The Current State of the Science on Youth Strength Training
Old wives’ tales and fallacies aside, let’s consider the current state of the science on this topic. After reviewing all of the published research, it is clear that muscular strength increases following a well-designed and well-conducted strength training program in both children and adolescents. It is true that adolescents show greater absolute gains when compared to children (i.e., <12 years of age). An absolute gain means that the improvement in an exercise (e.g., leg press) of an adolescent might be 50 lb compared to a 40-lb increase for a child. However, the relative increases—that is percent (%) change from baseline—in strength appear to be similar in childhood and adolescence. Gains in maximum strength have ranged from approximately 10% to 70% depending on several factors, including the volume, intensity, frequency, duration, and training experience of the athlete, as well as the quality of supervision as reported by the National Strength and Conditioning Association. In general, strength gains of roughly 30% are typically observed in untrained youth following participation in an introductory resistance training program for about 8-20 weeks.
Beyond improvements in muscular strength, there are also positive benefits of strength training for motor skill performance (running and jumping), self-confidence, body composition, and cardiovascular health. It is worth stating (again)—strength training reduces the risk of injury! Remember, the best ability is not strength or power but AVAILABILITY! If the youth athlete is injured, they are not available to play or participate in their sport, and in life.
…If Properly Designed and Supervised
There’s a common theme here…if properly designed and supervised. But what does that mean?
Designing resistance training programs can consume entire textbooks. In fact, that’s the title of the classic book by Kramer and Fleck, who outline the acute (single session and short-term), and chronic (long-term) program variables that can influence muscular adaptions to resistance training.
Some key considerations are…
What order should the exercises be performed?
How many sets and reps are needed?
How often should we lift?
When should the exercises, sets, and reps be changed, and by how much?
The list goes on…!
These ‘program design variables’ have been tested, and are the basis of Volt programming, and any sound, well-designed strength training program.
Overall Athletic Development and Fitness
Although the focus within this article has been strength training, it is important to note that the development of muscular strength is solely one component of a comprehensive program for athletic development and physical fitness of a young person.
We cannot spend all of our time in the weight room. Strength needs to be applied to movement. Exposing youngsters to activities that include running, jumping, skipping, hopping, dodging, cutting, shuffling, changing directions, and zigging and zagging are equally important to athletic performance and meeting the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans—60 minutes (1 hour) or more of daily moderate-to-vigorous physical activity. And muscle-and-bone-strengthening activities should be part of the 60 minutes on at least 3 days per week—thus, strength training is not just for youth athletes.
As my friend and colleague Rick Howard says, “You can’t go wrong getting strong.”
With that said, let’s end with this great quote from Frederick Douglas:
The key scientific position papers and review papers are below for those wanting to really dig in or have as Exhibit A when being confronted about the evidence.
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Learn more about Dr. Eisenmann | @Joe_Eisenmann