Should Children Weight-lift?

The terms "weight lifting" and "resistance training" both refer to the use of dumbbells, barbells, weight machines, cable systems, rubber tubing or body weight as part of a training program to improve physical strength. The benefits of strength training in adults are well-recognized. However, the general public is less clear about these activities when involving children and young teenagers. In the last couple of decades, there has been much research and improved knowledge on the subject. This has been driven by several factors. With the growth in organized youth sports, there has been a parallel growth in interest of training regimens for children to help improve sports performance. Alternately, with the epidemic of childhood inactivity and obesity in our country, there has been increased interest in studying and encouraging physical fitness activities.

At the same time, there are many concerns and misunderstandings regarding strength training for young people. Young boys are sometimes trying to become more "muscular", while young girls might wish to avoid that very same thing. While coaches have worried about whether weight lifting would reduce flexibility and interfere with performance, there has also been concern about injuries and interference with normal growth.

It turns out the benefits far outweigh the risks for youth strength training. Consequently, several health organizations have come out in support of the issue. This includes the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Academy of Pediatrics, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Benefits identified include strength gains, performance enhancement, endurance, injury prevention, improved confidence, and body weight control. However, there's usually very little change in muscle mass in girls or in prepubescent boys. The strength gains occur through other mechanisms. However, with improper programs, injuries can and do occur. Some of these injuries include overuse injuries, growth plate injuries, muscle strains, etc.

Elements of a safe, effective resistance training program for children and young adolescents include the following:

  1. Proper adult supervision. This is best done by professionals with appropriate credentialing. They will ensure proper warm up and cool down, safe lifting techniques, "spotting" where needed, muscle balance, etc.
  2. Appropriate equipment. Children often do not fit properly on adult weight machines. Some exercises may have to be modified or free weights can be substituted in place of machines.
  3. Lighter resistance with increased repetitions. Typically, a weight that can be lifted for 12 to 15 repetitions in a row is reasonable. This can be repeated for three sets, perhaps two times a week for younger kids but more for young teenagers. There should be no attempts to do a maximum weight lift until the upper teenage years, and with proper preparation.
  4. The experts will likely have your child concentrate on the larger and "core" muscles, and then possibly perform movements that recruit several muscle groups to enhance coordination.
  5. This has to be fun. The younger kids in particular will not adopt regimented training programs.

Therefore, "weight lifting" in children can be very beneficial with little risk, if properly supervised. For more information, go to the web sites of the organizations noted above and or contact your local certified fitness professionals.

David Shenton, MD