Benefits and dangers of children lifting weights

 

Some experts warn that weight training at a young age can damage a child’s growth plates. And that concern has merit. “The dangers to growth plates—found at the end of long bones—are real,” says Michael Meija, C.S.C.S., Men’s Health fitness adviser and owner of B.A.S.E. Sports Conditioning, an organization that specializes in youth athletic training.

However, Mejia is quick to point out that these injuries are almost always the result of using too much weight with improper technique. Plus, he adds that smart strength training is absolutely acceptable—as long as the right exercises are chosen and that the youth has an appropriate level of base strength and mobility)

Exposure to a variety of sports and fitness-based games—such as tag and tug of war—is the best approach for younger kids,” says Mejia. “But as they reach that middle and high school age, you can start implementing more of a structured approach to strength training.”

But proceed with caution: “Even when kids are ready for weights, the loading is often times imbalanced and that leads to problems down the road.” One common problem: “People put too much focus on popular exercises like the bench press, and start piling on weight even before a kid can do 10 good pushups, this is a recipe for injury .Before a kid ever touches a weight, make sure she can perform basic body-weight exercises with perfect form.

There is a long-running debate on the topic of when kids should take up strength training—specifically, weightlifting. Articles and opinions have varied on the subject, and for a long time the general consensus was “it’s not safe for kids to lift weights.” However, more recent research is starting to show that that’s not the case. In fact, a growing body of scientific reports and other evidence has shown that weightlifting can be both safe AND beneficial to young athletes.

Why did/does weightlifting for kids get a bad rap?
For years, the general consensus, both in the scientific community and amongst the general population, has been that weightlifting is bad for kids. Many believe(d) that weight training was dangerous and would damage kids’ growth plates and stunt their growth.

So what exactly are are growth plates, and why are they a cause for concern? Also known as the epiphyseal plate or physis, a growth plate is an area of developing tissue found towards the ends of long bones in children and teens.,growth plates are weaker than the tendons and ligaments that connect bones to one another, making them susceptible to damage and other complications. If a growth plate does get shattered or crushed through a severe impact to a joint (or other injury that disrupts blood flow to the end of the bone), it increases the likelihood that there will be some abnormal growth in the affected limb.”

Based on this information, people were concerned that if kids began weightlifting they would cause trauma to their joints through the strain of lifting heavy weights, resulting in damaged growth plates.

Since this was the kind of thing you could expect to hear from the medical and fitness communities, it’s no wonder people believed (& continue to believe)… the dangers of early-age weightlifting.

Thankfully, more up-to-date research is starting to prove the opposite.

New research has major impact
You can now go online and find multiple scholarly reviews and journalistic articles that rave about the benefits of weightlifting for children—if performed under the right conditions. For example, Avery Faigenbaum, a pediatric exercise scientist and professor at the College of New Jersey in Ewing, N.J, has written numerous scientific studies on the subject. In one such study, published in Clinical Sports Medicine in 2000, Faigenbaum writes the following:

“If appropriate training guidelines are followed, regular participation in a youth strength-training program has the potential to increase bone mineral density, improve motor performance skills, enhance sports performance, and better prepare young athletes for the demands of practice and competition.”

The studies covered boys and girls from age 6 to 18. The researchers found that almost every child grew stronger from weight training, and even though older kids added more strength than younger ones, the difference wasn’t that great. This is a curious find, when you consider that boys going through puberty have high levels of testosterone—a hormone that increases muscle mass in adults. What was a greater determinant of whether a child developed significant strength gains was how often they trained. As a result, the researchers concluded,“regardless of maturational age, children generally seem to be capable of increasing muscular strength.”

Kids vs. Adults
But what’s interesting is that though kids can get stronger through weight training, they don’t display it in the same way as adults. When adults start weightlifting they begin to add muscle mass through a process called muscular hypertrophy. Youths don’t tend to pack on bulk the same way, which is one reason why people presumed that kids wouldn’t get any stronger from weightlifting. However, the increase in strength appears to be the result of neuromuscular activation, especially in the case of pre-pubescent children. What this essentially means is that children who weight train develop a significant increase in motor-unit activation within their muscles. A motor unit is made up of a single neuron, and groups of motor units work together to coordinate the contractions of a single muscle. When more motor units fire, a muscle contracts more efficiently. So, in other words, strength training for children helps to create a more powerful connection between their nervous system and their muscles.

Implementing weightlifting for kids
Even with all the benefits that weightlifting can have on a child’s development, there is still caution as to what weights kids can handle at different ages. It’s not simply a case of using a scaled version of the weight training program that adults undergo. For example, CrossFit Kids has a policy of utilizing “body weight exercises and free weights to build strength, improve muscle tone and enhance performance. We do not endorse max effort lifts for kids. We believe in using the smallest stimulus possible to achieve the training effect desired, whether young or old. Due to their still developing neuromuscular systems, kids receive a training effect from sub maximal efforts.”

This recommendation would appear to be in line with the age groups that the International Weightlifting Federation (IWF) has for its activities:

AGE GROUP ELIGIBLE AGE
Youth 13 – 17
Junior 15 – 20
Senior 15 <
Master 35 <

A variety of injuries have been linked to weight training during childhood, including herniated disks, bone fractures, muscle tears, cartilage injury and growth plate damage. The low back is the most common area for injury. These injuries were all somehow associated with strength-training equipment. However, keep in mind that this data does not account for the type of training .

What to Avoid

Lifting weights can be an exciting experience for kids and may even boost self-esteem, particularly in children who aren’t into other sports. However, most experts agree that children should not pursue weight training as an end in itself. The American Academy of Pediatrics advises children who haven’t passed through puberty to avoid disciplines like bodybuilding, power lifting and explosive Olympic lifts. As noted in the book “Pediatric Sports Medicine for Primary Care,” “Increasing strength is clearly only one aspect of performance, and it should not be the primary focus of the training regimen.”

Overtraining

Like any sport, lifting weights excessively can cause overtraining syndrome. Symptoms of overtraining include decreased performance at school, fatigue, joint and muscle pain, personality changes, and sleep and appetite changes. To prevent overtraining, encourage your child to take at least three rest days during the week and always include a warm-up and cool-down in his workouts. Limiting your child’s training to two or three nonconsecutive days of the week can go a long way in preventing overtraining. According to the American Academy of Pediatrics, training more than four days a week does not appear to have any benefit for young athletes.

Misconceptions

Although there certainly are risks associated with strength training during childhood, a resistance training program can be beneficial for kids. Nevertheless, there are still some common misconceptions about lifting weights during youth. For example, strength training was once thought to stunt growth. However, research has consistently demonstrated that a well-planned program does not interfere with growth and even helps children develop healthy bones, ligaments and joint integrity. Likewise, although injuries can happen, but this are  are preventable and caused by excessive loads, improper form and lack of supervision.

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