“How old should my child be to lift weights? I don’t want them to stunt their growth”.
Urban legends of stunted growth, fractured growth plates, and prematurely inflated physiques have made parents, and society for that matter, squeamish when it comes to involving pre-pubescent kids in a resistance training program.
Tall tales and myths aside, the best answer to “How old?” is “It depends.”
There is no scientific evidence to suggest that there is a perfect chronological age to start weight training. “Freshman year” seems to be the widely accepted safe zone to begin training. This is not unfounded, as this is usually the age in which kids are smack dab in the middle of puberty, so muscle, strength, and performance gains from resistance training can be optimized.
However, peer reviewed research has yet to report any negative health consequences from resistance training prior to puberty, assuming proper movement is introduced and enforced concurrently with appropriate progressive increases in training load.
Despite what myths have been created around the subject, the current data suggests youth weight training injuries are primarily due to equipment accidents (weight falling on them, tripping in the weight room, etc.) or overzealous coaching rendering improper program introduction and progression.
Proper resistance training in youth has been demonstrated to improve fitness, favorably affect bone density, improve movement ability, and decrease the likelihood of athletic injury for children as young as five.
Before visions of 5- year- olds hoisting heavy barbells above their head keep you up at night, let’s discuss what “resistance training”
actually is. Young kids muscular systems are always responding to some sort of external load. Gravity? External load. Backpack? External load. Heavy book? External load.
When we start adding and manipulating these external loads intentionally, then we are resistance training.
While most would be OK with the idea of “resistance training” with kids, when we start using the word “weight training”, blood pressures rise.
Consider a child jumping up stairs. Gravity is holding them to the earth but they have to come up with enough muscular force to move their entire body weight off of the ground against this force. If the child weighs 60 pounds, they are performing a squat at a greater force than 60 pounds if they leave they ground.
Then, gravity accelerates them to the ground, so they have to now deal with slowing down a fast moving 60 pounds when their feet hit the earth again so their entire body doesn’t come crashing to the ground.
Again, they have to create a force to resist gravity that is more than their body weight.
While most would be perfectly fine having kids do this, as soon as a child performs a bodyweight squat holding a five pound dumbbell, it somehow becomes tabu.
Again, realize that “weight training” is merely identifying certain movement patterns, improving them, and progressively making them more challenging with increments of load. In actuality, adding a pre-determined weight (a dumbell, kettlebell, medicine ball, etc.) is a very defined and carefully controlled way to increase load.
“But will resistance training bulk my child up?” Aside from cases involving extremely rare genetic anomalies and/or anabolic hormone ingestion, strength training does very little, if anything, to increase a child’s bodyweight. Gains in strength prior to puberty are primarily a result of increased neuromuscular coordination. Without the significant increases in anabolic hormone that accompany puberty, resistance training has very little, if any, effect on the amount of lean muscle mass a pre-pubescent child has.
Here are 5 questions to ask yourself to determine if your child is ready to benefit from resistance
- Can they perform movements like squats, lunges, push-ups, pull ups (horizontal and/or vertical) with bodyweight? If not, adding additional load (speed, resistance, etc.) to a dysfunctional movement pattern makes little sense.
- Do they have the intrinsic focus, attention span and desire to learn the proper way to resistance train? Supportive parents and great coaching with an uninterested child is still a poor match.
- Do they have the auditory, visual, and body awareness to accept and process coaching cues?
- Is the person in charge of their program experienced and knowledgeable with the intricacies of youth physical and cognitive development?
If the answer is “no” to any of the above, your child will receive little benefit from a weight training program. As a matter of fact, their risk of injury will be significantly elevated.
In this case, just keep your child active with things they enjoy. Kids don’t have to “train” to be active. When they express an interest and all other boxes are checked, a proper resistance training program is a safe and effective way to improve fitness and performance!