A few weeks ago, I was sweating through a full-body circuit at the gym when a local mom showed up with her baby in a stroller. She’s a former rowing champion, and often likes to set her little one up next to the squat rack as she gets her workout in. It’s awesome.
The baby has incredible poise, which she definitely picked her mother. She never cries, she studies her mom intently, and sometimes, I swear, she’ll even clap for her. More than once, I’ve imagined how comfortable that kid’s going to be when it’s finally her time to hit the squat rack. Talk about an education … her jungle gym is a gym gym.
At the end of that session earlier this month, I got to thinking over my commute. When should Gym Baby and her fellow youths — from tag-playing toddlers to adolescents trying to make their junior-varsity football team — actually start lifting? For as long as I can remember, parents, coaches, and even pediatricians have trotted out the same four-word adage on strength training: “It stunts your growth.”
But what does that mean? Can children really stymie pubescent growth spurts by lifting weights? And even if that’s all bologna, are there still positives for early strength training? What age makes the most sense? What sorts of moves or practices should be prioritized?
To answer those questions, and quite a few more, I reached out to a panel of chiropractors, CrossFit trainers, physical therapists and even a former Lakers strength coach. Spoiler alert: that growth stunt line is nonsense. But that doesn’t mean all kids, even Gym Baby, should be throwing weights around before shipping off to college. Below, find 10 rules, revelations and what-to-knows on youth strength training.
1. Know the history
“The myth that children shouldn’t lift partly began in 1842, with a study that compared children who worked in coal mines to those in other occupations at the time. Findings suggested that children who worked in the coal mines were shorter in stature than children who worked in other trades. The public seized on this idea that the stature of the kids who worked in the mines was related to the heavy loads they were required to lift. These days, weightlifting concerns in children center around the growth plates at the end of developing bones. As the muscles, tendons and ligaments are stronger than the growth plates, there’s a common belief that fractures of the growth plates could occur. But growth plate fractures are related to falls and compression injuries — not weightlifting. Bodyweight exercises such as push-ups, pull-ups, crunches, lunges and bodyweight squats are safe to start at any age, and weightlifting can then be gradually incorporated.”—Dr. Gil Kentof, founder of Back, Neck, and Chronic Pain Relief
2. The government’s on board
“Physical fitness guidelines issued by the Department of Health and Human Services in November 2018 recommend that children between the ages of six and 17 get at least 60 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity per day, along with three muscle strengthening sessions per week. And for the first time ever, strength-training guidelines for children younger than six years old were included as well.”—Michelle Miller, CEO of MM FITNESS
3. It’s more common than most parents think
“It isn’t abnormal at all for kids around 13 to 14 years old to start lifting weights, and I’ve trained kids from ages nine to 12 in simple strength training like resistance bands, light free weights and body-weight exercises. Ages 15 to 17, meanwhile, is where they will experience the more traditional set of exercises like bench press and overhead squat. Just make sure to keep the weight light, the reps high and never take the chance of damaging growth plates by lifting too heavy. This is when you can drill in the importance of perfect technique over ego. It’s a tentpole lifting credo your young adult will utilize for the remainder of his/her life.”—Jamie Hickey, personal trainer, founder of Truism Fitness
4. Kids are “lifting” anyway
“Dr. Daniel G. Drury, a health sciences professor at Gettysburg College, says ‘physiologically, your muscles don’t know the difference between resistance provided by strength training or the resistance provided by vigorous work or play.’ Essentially: kids are ‘lifting’ every day. My son is seven years old and picks up everything from a full gallon of milk, weighing eight pounds, to his friends, who weigh as much as 40 pounds! Meanwhile, The New York Times estimated the average school age child’s backpack as anywhere between five and 30 pounds. The danger with these types of unstructured lifts is that they are often done improperly, compromising joints and backs that are still growing; the loads are uneven and often one-sided. Weight training with classic moves such as the plank, row, push-up or squat will help offset the impact that sitting in a classroom, playing video games or playing sports all have on the body.”—Miller
5. Start light
“Prioritize light, functional movements that help kids carry out their day-to-day activities or sports with greater ease, performance and less chance of injury. Just as in adults, strength training in children helps support strong bones and promote a healthy weight. Around seven or eight years old, kids (who show interest) should try doing 10 to 12 reps of basic exercises with light resistance bands. As they get older they can progress to light hand weights. It’s important that they first build a good sense of body awareness (proprioception) and prove they can follow instructions to stay safe. Routines that include hopping, jumping, skipping and other types of agility drills and movements can also help kids improve this sort of awareness.” —Rachel Fiske, NC, CPT-NASM, on the advisory board for Smart Healthy Living
6. And put a ban on maxing
“It isn’t necessary to have children work on max lifts (continuously adding weight to build to a one-rep max). Have them hold off on that until they’ve passed puberty, in order to prevent injury. Working with lighter weights for sets of 10 to 20 reps, with good form, is safe and sets a good foundation for a life of healthy lifting habits.”—Dr. Nicole Lombardo, physical therapist, CrossFit Level 1 Coach
7. Weightlifting also helps young waistlines
“Research has recently indicated that various forms of resistance training can have significant performance improvement benefits in muscular strength, running velocity, change of direction speed and general motor performance in youth. Resistance training can also improve overall body composition by reducing fat, improving insulin sensitivity in adolescents who are overweight and enhancing cardiac function in children who are obese. Just keep the weight light enough that the child can do two sets of 15 repetitions for each exercise and not reach the point of total muscle fatigue. This will keep the growth plates protected and allow children to benefit from strength training.”—Kentof
8. Consider starting ’em extra young
“An ideal time to start teaching the fundamentals of weight lifting is age two or three. I’ve found bean bags are a safe way to introduce light weight and prepare the body for holding more advanced pieces as they show progress. Attention spans will vary from child to child, so once a child begins to lose focus, just stop and try again another day. Even if the child only performs one exercise, it’s not really about breaking the body down for growth at this point — it’s about establishing an awareness for self care that strengthens the muscles. Somewhere around age five or six, a child is ready for heavier weight such as dumbbells or sand-balls. I recommend starting with two to five pounds. Just keep in mind, it’s very important that a child is able to follow directions. The activity is meant to help, not wind up hurting them.”—Miller
9. But remember — they’re kids
“Young children are not likely to take instruction in a focused way to be able to learn the movements safely and effectively. So, it would not be wise to have an eight-year-old doing a bench press. I wouldn’t have children training with weights until they reach an age where they really want to, and are old enough to appreciate a formal program or routine. My son is now 10 years old, but he has not quite yet reached the stage where he feels he wants to start a formal training routine. He’s still happy doing Krav Maga, jiu jitsu and basketball. When he feels ready, the first thing we’ll do is ensure that he’s able to master his own bodyweight. That’s the first thing you want any child to be able to do. These base, primal movements are essential for everyday life and healthy movement, and also have the most significant carryover in other sports or physical activities they may want to pursue.” —Nick Mitchell, Global CEO of Ultimate Performance
10. Hold out for a qualified trainer
“Kids should start lifting only once they have access to a qualified professional who can teach them proper training techniques. With so many certifying bodies and so little criteria for certification, it isn’t easy for parents to find a true professional. When I worked in the NBA, I would much rather the organization draft a rookie who had never lifted before than someone who had done poor, or too much, lifting. Once the nasty patterns are in there, it’s really hard to fix them. My personal recommendation is to hold off until college. It’s far too challenging to find a great trainer, and even harder if you don’t know what you’re looking for.”—Sean Light, CEO of 4A Health and former LA Lakers Strength Coach
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