Many gasp at the thought of a child lifting a weight. “They’re going to get hurt!” and “I don’t want their growth to be stunted” are very common thoughts and concerns that come to parents mind, which is completely understandable – no parent wants to see their child get hurt or negatively impact their growth - but these concerns are the very opposite of what parents and coaches should have. There is a lot of evidence to show that many common concerns about children and resistance training (strength, weightlifting, weight training, etc.) are actually myths or are completely overexaggerated. In fact, resistance training has been shown to have many benefits for the child’s health, development, growth, and well-being, that can carry through into later life as well!
What Exactly is a Child?
Biologically, a child is a pre-adolescent. This means they haven’t reached puberty and is generally up to the age of 9-11 for females and 10-13 years old for males (1).
Safer Than Most Sports
There’s something about a child holding a dumbbell or barbell that freaks people out. But is holding a weight more dangerous than kids just playing in the schoolyard or participating in sports? Studies investigating injury rates from various sports have shown that resistance training actually has a far lower injury rate compared to many common sports played by kids, including soccer/football, rugby, basketball, running, and gymnastics. In fact, basic weight training is number 21 on the list! (2)
Of course, all activities carry some inherent risk of injury, however, of all the injuries recorded from weight training in an epidemiology study, 65.5% were caused by weights being dropped (3) – something both children and adults are susceptible to. For those aged between 8 and 13 years old, 77% of injuries were classified as “accidental” (e.g., dropping weight, tripping over equipment, improper use, etc.) (4). Accidental injuries can easily be mitigated with adequate instruction and supervision.
Lastly, the forces experienced by the body from weight training are far less than those experienced by many everyday activities children undertake. For example, forces of up to 7x bodyweight have been recorded from jumping and landing (5,6) - that’s far greater than the forces experienced during resistance training! But don’t get the wrong idea; there is nothing wrong with jumping – it just stresses the body's structure more. In fact, the forces jumping impose can actually be beneficial to bone strength and resistance training can help provide the strength needed to safely withstand those forces.
Jumping & landing can result in impact forces up to 7x bodyweight - far more than what resistance training produces!
Stunting Growth is a Myth
There are many myths and misconceptions surrounding weight training and children, but of the greatest is likely that it stunts growth. Fortunately, no studies have shown any greater damage to the growth plates from weight training compared to other sports, nor have any studies shown any negative impact on the normal growth and development of children and adolescents through growth spurts (7).
I hear you though; why are so many elite-level weightlifters shorter in stature? Surely that must be a result of lifting those heavy weights, right? Nope. Quite simply, shorter statures make for better weightlifters – not the other way round! A weightlifter with a shorter stature doesn’t have to lift a bar as high to get underneath it, meaning they don’t have to produce as much power as a taller lifter. Shorter limbs also have a greater mechanical advantage, which means the muscles don’t have to produce as much force to lift a weight.
No studies have shown any evidence of resistance training stunting growth.
Benefits of Resistance Training
Resistance training tends to get a bad rap in most cultures but it has been shown there are, in fact, huge benefits associated with resistance training for children. Studies have shown resistance training can:
- Improve bone mass, density and strength (8-10)
- Reduce the risk of recreational and sports-related injuries, especially for females and ACL injuries (11,12)
- Improve body composition (i.e., reduce fat mass and increase lean body mass) (13-15)
- Improve cardiac and metabolic health markers (16,17)
- Improve motor skill, strength, power, running speed, agility, and sports performance (11,12)
- Improve psychosocial factors, including well-being, mood, self-appraisal, and self-concept (i.e., who they believe they are) (18,19)
- Help develop positive habits and attitudes toward exercise and increase the likelihood of the child remaining active in later life (20,21)
##How Young is Too Young? Resistance training can be beneficial at any age, however, the general consensus in sports medicine is that a safe age to start resistance training is around 6 years old (22-25). It is important to note that the biological age of a child can differ from their chronicle age significantly and, therefore, it is important to base their training ability off of their maturation and physical development as opposed to their age. It is also important to ensure the child is at a level of maturity where they can follow instructions. A general rule of thumb is that if they are old enough to participate in sports activities (generally around 7-8 years old), they are ready to participate in some type of resistance training (19).
Qualified Instruction & Supervision is Key
Just like any activity involving children, there are special considerations to take into account when training children with resistance. Of the most important is having a suitably qualified coach program, instruct, and supervise the child at all times. There are important differences in guidelines for training children compared to adolescents and adults. Exercises, intensity, volume, rest periods, and training frequency must be appropriately introduced, progressed, and monitored to help minimise the risk of injury and burnout, and to help maximise the child’s enjoyment in training.
Despite what many cultures portray about children and resistance training, it is a very safe activity with no studies showing any sign of negative impacts on their health, growth and development. In fact, resistance training can significantly improve their health, fitness, performance, and well-being, and help to keep them active for life. Resistance training can be commenced at any age with a suitably qualified coach, provided the child is instructed and supervised and is mature enough to follow instructions. There is no reason why resistance training cannot be a staple in life from a young age and it should, in fact, be encouraged.
- Dowshen, S. (2015, June). Understanding Puberty. KidsHealth. https://kidshealth.org/en/parents/understanding-puberty.html
- Hamill, B. P. (1994). Relative Safety of Weightlifting and Weight Training. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 8(1), 53–57. https://doi.org/10.1519/00124278-199402000-00008
- Kerr, Z. Y., Collins, C. L., & Dawn Comstock, R. (2010). Epidemiology of Weight Training-Related Injuries Presenting to United States Emergency Departments, 1990 to 2007. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 38(4), 765–771. https://doi.org/10.1177/0363546509351560
- Myer, G. D., Quatman, C. E., Khoury, J., Wall, E. J., & Hewett, T. E. (2009). Youth Versus Adult “Weightlifting” Injuries Presenting to United States Emergency Rooms: Accidental Versus Nonaccidental Injury Mechanisms. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(7), 2054–2060. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e3181b86712
- DUFEK, J. A. N. E. T. S., & BATES, B. A. R. R. Y. T. (1990). The evaluation and prediction of impact forces during landings. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 22(3), 370???377. https://doi.org/10.1249/00005768-199006000-00014
- McNitt-Gray, J. L., Hester, D. M. E., Mathiyakom, W., & Munkasy, B. A. (2001). Mechanical demand and multijoint control during landing depend on orientation of the body segments relative to the reaction force. Journal of Biomechanics, 34(11), 1471–1482. https://doi.org/10.1016/s0021-9290(01)00110-5
- Falk B, Eliakim A. Resistance training, skeletal muscle and growth. Pediatr Endocrinol Rev. 2003 Dec;1(2):120-7. PMID: 16437017.
- Vicente-Rodriquez, G. How does exercise affect bone development during growth? Sports Med 36: 561–569, 2006.
- Virvidakis, K, Georgiu, E, Korkotsidis, A, Ntalles, K, and Proukakis, C. Bone mineral content of junior competitive weightlifters. Int J Sports Med 11: 244–246, 1990.
- Volek, J, Gomez, A, Scheett, T, Sharman, M, French, D, Rubin, M, Ratamess, N, McGuigan, M, and Kraemer, W. Increasing fluid milk intake favorably affects bone mineral density responses to resistance training in adolescent boys. J Am Diet Assoc 103: 1353– 1356, 2003.
- Zwolski, C., Quatman-Yates, C., & Paterno, M. V. (2017). Resistance Training in Youth: Laying the Foundation for Injury Prevention and Physical Literacy. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 9(5), 436–443. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738117704153
- Myer, G., Faigenbaum, A., Chu, D., Falkel, J., Ford, K., Best, T., & Hewett, T. (2011). Integrative Training for Children and Adolescents: Techniques and Practices for Reducing Sports-Related Injuries and Enhancing Athletic Performance. The Physician and Sportsmedicine, 39(1), 74–84. https://doi.org/10.3810/psm.2011.02.1864
- Balsalobre-Fernández, C., & Tejero-González, C. (2015). Effects of Resistance Training on body fat in obese people. Systematic review. Revista Internacional de Medicina y Ciencias de La Actividad Fisica y Del Deporte, 15(58), 371–386.
- Schwingshandl, J., Sudi, K., Eibl, B., Wallner, S. and Borkenstein, M. Effect of individualised training programme during weight reduction on body composition: a randomised trial. Archives of Disease in Childhood, 81: 426-428. 1999.
- Watts, K., Beye, P., Siafarikas, A., Davis, E., Jones, T., O’Driscoll, G. and Green, D. Exercise training normalizes vascular dysfunction and improves central adiposity in obese adolescents. Journal of the American College of Cardiology, 43: 1823–1827. 2004.
- Naylor, L.H., Watts, K., Sharpe, J.A., Jones, T.W., Davis, E.A., Thompson, A., George, K., Ramsay, J.M., O’Driscoll, G. and Green, D.J. Resistance training and diastolic myocardial tissue velocities in obese children. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 40: 2027-2032. 2008.
- Shaibi, G., Cruz, M., Ball, G., Weigensberg, M., Salem, G., Crespo, N. and Goran, M. Effects of resistance training on insulin sensitivity in overweight Latino adolescent males. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 38: 1208–1215. 2006
- Holloway, J, Beuter, A, and Duda, J. Self-efficacy and training in adolescent girls. J Appl Soc Psychol 18: 699–719, 1988.
- Yu, C, Sung, R, Hau, K, Lam, P, Nelson, E, and So, R. The effect of diet and strength training on obese children’s physical self concept. J Sports Med Phys Fitness 48: 76–82, 2008.
- Westcott, W. A new look at youth fitness. Am Fitness Q 11: 16–19, 1992.
- Westcott, W, Tolken, J, and Wessner, B. School-based conditioning programs for physically unfit children. Strength Cond J 17: 5–9, 1995.
- Faigenbaum, A. D., Kraemer, W. J., Blimkie, C. J. R., Jeffreys, I., Micheli, L. J., Nitka, M., & Rowland, T. W. (2009). Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper From the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23, S60–S79. https://doi.org/10.1519/jsc.0b013e31819df407
- Lloyd, R. S., Faigenbaum, A. D., Stone, M. H., Oliver, J. L., Jeffreys, I., Moody, J. A., Brewer, C., Pierce, K. C., McCambridge, T. M., Howard, R., Herrington, L., Hainline, B., Micheli, L. J., Jaques, R., Kraemer, W. J., McBride, M. G., Best, T. M., Chu, D. A., Alvar, B. A., & Myer, G. D. (2013). Position statement on youth resistance training: the 2014 International Consensus. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48(7), 498–505. https://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2013-092952
- Faigenbaum, A. D., & McFarland, J. E. (2016). RESISTANCE TRAINING FOR KIDS. ACSMʼs Health & Fitness Journal, 20(5), 16–22. https://doi.org/10.1249/fit.0000000000000236
- Lloyd, R.S., Faigenbaum, A.D., Myer, G.D., Stone, M., Oliver, J., Jeffreys, I., Moody, J., Brewer, C. and Pierce, K. (2012) 'UKSCA position statement: Youth resistance training', UKSCA.