Should Kids Lift Weights?

An ‘Old Wive’s Tale’ is a widely held traditional belief that is now thought to be unscientific or incorrect. Old Wives Tales are often blindly believed without ever questioning how the original opinion was conceived and born. In the exercise world, one of the biggest Old Wives Tales is the common notion that children and teenagers shouldn’t lift weights as it’s dangerous. This can even go so far as parents telling kids in the gym not to even pick up a dumbbell as it might ‘stunt their growth.’

In the physiotherapy world we try and abide by the rule of ‘evidence based practice’. When we have a strong theory or opinion about something, we have to be willing to put it under the microscope to validate or deny it’s accuracy. If we never do this, we never learn from our thought processes, and we continue to believe our Old Wives Tales and unproven theories.

What does weight training mean?

When we talk about weight training, we are more so referring to just general resistance training. Resistance training can include an abundance of strengthening exercises; ranging from pushups and squats, to more advanced techniques with weighted movements. It's all about specifically tailoring the appropriate exercise and level of exercise with a child's experience and function.

Why is it thought to be ‘dangerous’?

Adolescents and children are at a point in time when their bone structure is not completely formed. They still have something called 'growth plates', where the end of the bone is more cartilage than bone. The common speculation has been that this cartilage is weaker than the surrounding muscles and connective tissue (which is true) and is likely to be injured during weightlifting. Damage to this growth plate would then potentially cause disruption in further bone growth, ‘stunting’ the growth potential.

The theory of damage to growth plates was born in the 1970’s, where some poorly designed research was administered on some unfortunate adolescents. The participants were undertaking programs without supervision, with poor technique and with maximal loads (Gumbs et. al 1982). This is by no means a representation of supervised, structured and well coached programs, that don’t involve lifting maximal loads.

Since this time, there hasn’t been a single study or piece of research that has reported an injury to a growth plate when proper supervision and technique coaching has been implemented (Feigenbaum & Myer, 2010), (Malina, 2006), (Falk & Eliakim, 2003).

When we get out the microscope on the statistics, there is an extremely low risk of injury to children who participate in weight training, with the injury incidence being much lower than more traditional sports, such as football, soccer and basketball (Pierce et al. 2008).

When there is the occasional injury in the weight room, it is always attributable to one factor; poor adult supervision. This makes sense; when there is no qualified supervisor, technique suffers, and increased weight is added with enthusiasm, rather than sense.

So what are the benefits?

The biggest irony of all, is that resistance and weight training is actually beneficial and protective rather than injurious. When young athletes are participating in resistance training, they have a lower risk of injury (Cahill & Griffith, 1978), and are less likely to sustain an injury in their chosen sport, while also recovering quicker than teammates who don’t undertake weight training (Hejna et. al 1982).

From a physiological level, weight training also improves bone mass and bone mineral density in youth athletes (Stone et al. 2014). Research has shown that a large amount of our bone mass is developed before 26 years of age, demonstrating the importance of stimulating this bone growth and strength through weight training in the adolescent years. Youth weightlifters have also displayed higher than average bone density than other athletes (Conroy et al. 1993).

Therefore, weight training has vast advantages for the adolescent; ranging from improved muscle strength, improved bone strength, decreased chance of injuries and improvement in movement patterns.

Before rushing every adolescent straight to the gym, it is still important to consider these factors prior to undertaking a weight training program;

  • Will the program be supervised and implemented by a qualified professional?

  • Will the program emphasize lifting technique and correct movement patterns and not the amount of weight lifted?

  • Does the professional know how to monitor the training program and vary the intensity of lifting in order to avoid overtraining?

  • Is the program specific and individualised enough to the athlete’s sport or function?

It’s time now to spread that word that weight training is not only not detrimental for youth athlete’s, it is actually incredibly beneficial.

Cahill. B. R., & Griffith, E.H. (1978). Effect of preseason conditioning on the incidence and severity of high school football knee injuries. Am J Sports Med. 6:180-184

Conroy, B.P., Kraemer, W.J., Maresh, C. M, et al. (1993). Bone mineral density in elite junior olympic weightlifters. Medicine and Science In Sports and Exercise. 1103-1109

Gumbs, V., Segal, D., Halligan, J., & Lower, G. (1982). Bilateral distal radius and ulnar fractures in adolescent weightlifters. American Journal of Sports Medicine, 10, 375-379

Falk, B. & Eliakim, A. (2003). Resistance training, skeletal muscle and growth, Paediatric Endocrinology Reviews, 1: 120-127.

Faigenbaum, A.D., & Myer, G.D. (2010). Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects. Br J Sports Med, 44(1), 56-63.

Falk, B. & Eliakim, A. (2003). Resistance training, skeletal muscle and growth, Paediatric Endocrinology Reviews, 1: 120-127.

Faigenbaum, A., McFarland, J., Johnson, L., Kang, J. et al. (2007). Preliminary evaluation of an after-school resistance training program, 104, 407-415.

Faigenbaum, A.D., & Myer, G.D. (2010). Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects. Br J Sports Med, 44(1), 56-63.

Hejna, W., Rosenberg, A., Buturusis, D., & Krieger, A. (1982). The prevention of sports injuries in high school students through strength training. Natl Strength Cond Assoc J. 4, 28-31

Malina, R. (2006). Weight training in youth growth, maturation and safety: an evidence based review. Clinical Journal of Sports Medicine, 16. 478-487.

Pierce, K., Brewer, C., Ramsey, M. et al. (2008). Youth resistance training. Profess Strength Cond, 10, 9-23

Stone, M.H., Pierce, K.C., Ramsey, M.W., Stone, M.E., & Mizuguchi (2014). Strength and conditioning for young athletes, science and application. Routeledge 12(3), 169-184

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