Kids & Lifting Weights

“Is it okay for young kids to be lifting weights? Won’t it stunt their growth or damage the growth plates?”

The conventional thought for training moving kids less than 14 (or so) years of age is that you provide them with structured callisthenic type bodyweight exercises, variations on running, and fun activities like obstacle courses. There is value in keeping all formal exercise light and fun for this age group. Some of the best “training” for kids takes place while they ride a bike and play games of their own creation such as Wolf Attack Ball in the yard and Uncle Grandpa Soccer in the basement. Who am I to deny an obstacle course?

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        “Uncle Grandpa Soccer”

But for competitive kids who want to do more, and are able follow basic instruction, there is certainly more.

Resistance. “Weights.”

Why not provide the opportunity to handle some loading while there is guidance and oversight? Remember, unless the person is interested in competitive weightlifting (the far majority of us are not), the main reasons EVERYONE lifts weights are to 1. retain or add muscles and/or 2. improve function. Resistance exercise is one of the best ways to improve how our bodies interact with the environment. Kids under the age of 13 or 14 will not add much muscle mass from lifting weights. However, they absolutely can improve their strength and literally change how they interact with the environment.

But is it safe?

First acknowledge that “injury risk” is also known as “being a kid.”  Relative to nearly anything that doesn’t involve sitting at a desk or couch, resistance exercise is safe. Take my word for it or you can read the hundred page statements by the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

1. The youth injury rate for supervised resistance exercise is far less than that of traditional sports.

2. Kids are far more prone to accidental drops, hits, and horseplay (inside and outside of the gym) than to muscle strains and joint sprains typically associated with heavy weightlifting.

3. A child’s “training readiness” has far less to do with their chronological age and more to do with whether or not they WANT to be there and their ability to follow basic instruction. 

4. The idea of injuring growth plates from weight training is an outdated and fairly absurd. Running, jumping, throwing, falling off a chair, and being hit by a ball all provide far more impact forces on their joints and growth plates. 

5. Children are suffering from sports-related overuse injuries at an alarming rate. Why would we not encourage them to actively engage in activities (like resistance training) that do not reproduce the repetitive strain associated with any one sport, but provide a stimulus that makes them more resilient to those repetitive demands?

Resistance training is not “okay” for kids. It’s GOOD for them. And it’s relatively safer than the open-ended games that conventional wisdom recommends.

Besides that…

What kid has not walked into a weight room, stared down a rack of weights, and attempted to lift each item? Children are curious and WILL test themselves.

          Claire putting up 55 lbs

“Forty five pounds? So -THIS- is what 45 lbs feels like.”

The kids (and their parents) who sign up for training are not your average drag-your-feet-through-basic-PE kind of kids. They see their sports heroes lifting weights and talking about lifting weights. They hear a lot about growing up and getting strong and fast.  The children want to be there and follow instruction.

Please hear me out. We’re not talking about advance training techniques with massive resistance. Think of progressions (making the movement easier or more difficult depending on the status of the child) of push-ups, chin-ups, hip hinge deadlifts and step ups while holding resistance. Think of educating them regarding proper form and the context of realistic progress. For those still skeptical, here are a few specific examples of resistance exercises that can be productive and fun learning opportunities. Oh, and make them stronger, faster, and more resilient…

Deadlift progression for kids who WANT to “lift weights.” Proficiency at one step must be displayed in order to advance to the next step.

  1. Demonstrate proper hip hinge with zero or very light resistance – using the hips and knees and keeping a neutral spine.
  2. Hip hinge deadlift ~35 lbs X 5 reps (my 5 year old daughter can easily do this)
  3. Hip hinge deadlift ~35 lbs X 3 reps holding weight with one arm, left then right.
  4. Hip hinge deadlift ~55 lbs X 5 reps
  5. Single arm deadlift, ~ 55 lbs X 3 each side
  6. Barbell deadlift from pins (elevated from floor) with 95 lbs X 5 reps
  7. Barbell deadlift from pins with 135 lbs X 3 reps
  8. Barbell deadlift from floor 135 X 1 rep

Other resistance oriented benchmarks for kids:

Can they hold 10 to 20% of their bodyweight in front of the chest and perform a quality squat pattern with heels on the floor, spine neutral, and good control at the knee?
Can they perform a fair hip hinge pattern to lift 30 to 50% of their bodyweight off the ground while keeping their heels on the floor and spine neutral?
Can they carry 25 to 50% of their body weight for 40 yards?
Can they perform a few chin-ups or 30 second controlled hang?
Can they perform various jumps and hops and produce a controlled landing? While holding a light medicine ball?

Invincible Star Power for Acute Pain

lumbar3Most everyone knows what a star does for Super Mario Brothers characters (and their spin-offs). Touching the star provides a limited duration of invincibility. I’m certain that the programmer who originally thought of this concept back in the ’80s was inspired by a dose of prednisone.

[Prednisone is a synthetic corticosteroid drug that is particularly effective as an immunosuppressant drug. It is used to treat certain inflammatory diseases (such as moderate allergic reactions), some autoimmune diseases, and (at higher doses) some types of cancer. But it has significant adverse effects.]

I write this in my fourth day of prednisone. The severe lower back pain is slightly improved. But I’m definitely running on Invincible Star Power. This is the sound track of life:


“Dad can you get me a drink of .” 

A cold glass of milk slides to a perfect halt on the table in front of my daughter.

“What are we supposed to do after jumping on the box?”

A 12-year old receives a snappy retort for forgetting part two of a three-step exercise series.

Getting tired at 3:00 a.m. has afforded plenty of time to catch up on reading and organizing paperwork. There’s (currently) no daytime ramifications for the lack of sleep, other than  drive-by snappiness. Yesterday I ran into a wasp nest under the shade umbrella on our back deck. Three of them got to me. But they didn’t realize that they were dealing with a human under the influence of Invincible Star Power. I felt only a mild pinch with no redness or swelling. In honesty, I still freaked out and squealed like a little girl. It was minutes before I realized there was no pain, and understood why. This morning I went to the back yard and pulled a stem of poison Ivy up from the ground just to say that I could do it.

I threw it on the ground.


Heal thyself.

Three weeks ago, while helping move a heavy wooden cabinet backwards up a flight of stairs, I felt a significant shift and strain in the left lower back. That event came on the heels of a busy Saturday which began with heavy squats, progressed to cleaning floors, and finished with resurfacing our driveway with blacktop and a squeegee. I entered the furniture moving day fatigued but not hurting. The pain was initially mild, so I finished the job, which involved another hour of lifting and carrying fairly light but awkward pieces of furniture. I went home, sat down to eat dinner and read. Standing up brought a throbbing pain into my left hip.

I grimaced my way through workdays at the office and in the basement, light house work, and playing with the kids. I didn’t train, no lifting, running or jumping. [So what is life worth haha?] Despite taking it (relatively) easy for two weeks, the conditioned worsened. I sat whenever possible and walked with a forward lean. I began taking Ibuprofin but it was too late to stop the crescendo.  I literally flopped and flailed around the living room for two sleepless nights and worthless days.lumbar1

I self-diagnosed a lumbar disc herniation pressing on the L2 nerve root, with extension dysfunction. The pain followed the textbook definition of the L2 “dermatome.”

Sitting upright. Sitting reclined. Hips shifted left with legs up. Laying on floor feet up. Right side over ottoman. Left leg on pillow. All permutations of every position offered absolutely no relief. Finally, I discovered that sitting at the kitchen table with heavy pressure through my ribs and elbows effectively “lifted” the pain. Until I got up.

The prescription of prednisone cost $3. I began taking it and experienced a…third miserable night. But I noticed improvement by the next day. I’m typing this now, only two days later. I still cannot stand for long and my gait appears to be pitched against a stiff wind. But I went to work yesterday and fussed around the house today. I have to count this sitting and typing as therapeutic rest.

What happened and why?lumbar2

Would you say that I had poor flexibility or core weakness? Nah. Although I’m sure there is some gradually progressing imbalance responsible for this. Still, things can go wrong despite maintaining good body mechanics.

Would you say that I had a nutritional inadequacy? It’s possible because much of the time I still eat like a kid. But this is not the root of the current condition. Just to play it safe for the crowd who sees any and every malady through the lens of nutrition: I hereby self-diagnose a manganese deficiency with lyceine sensitivity. I have made the necessary dietary adjustments, the gluten, the GMOs, and the oils, both essential and coconut.

Okay not really. I’m about five steps away from being that desperate.

Would you say that a bone or lumbar disc needs to be cracked back in? This is not the case when nearly every small movement makes the pain worse. A forceful adjustment would have made this more miserable.

Although almost 41, I usually don’t feel or act like it. With all things, there is a cost. Spines, hips, and knees degenerate, and I’m keenly aware that mine are no exception. I still work and play fairly hard. Sometimes you simply must take the good with the bad, and endure the consequences of your choices, be they torn hip and lower back cartilage.

I’m fairly confident to be back on track in a few weeks or even months. At 41, there’s no sure way of telling what “full recovery” will look like. I may have permanent scars that prevent returning to a satisfactorily awesome level of function. Whatever the case, I’m barely out of the acute phase of pain. Hopefully next week I will be able to begin some gentle range of motion and training progressions. That’s when the real “lesson in rehab and sports performance” will take place.

I can already hear the Invincible Star Power Music begin to fade. So for now I’ll shoot for a lesson in patience and compassion for those in acute lower back pain.

At least have a laugh…

Muscle Memory: Real or Bro-Science?

Everyone from medical experts to casual sports fans have heard the term muscle memory. It’s often brought up in the context of a trained athlete or fitness enthusiast having time off from physical activity due to an injury, scheduled rest, or off-season. Everyone understands that an athlete (or former athlete) who is currently out of shape will recover his or her physical abilities much faster than a relatively untrained person.

“He has the muscle memory to make a quick come-back.”


We assume that high performers recover from injuries so quickly and completely because they have nearly constant and free access to physicians, rehab specialists, nutritionists, trainers, and all the latest equipment.  These are all good. But honestly, the primary reason why the elites recover so well has less do to with the providers around them and much more to do with the athlete. It is the accumulated years of brain development that truly makes for fast physical recovery.

So in this sense, muscle memory is absolutely…REAL.

memoryBut how do muscles remember? Go ahead and speak to a muscle directly. Whisper to a calf or play Morse code on a bicep. Better yet, stick electrodes into or on top of a muscle and speak to it through electrical stimulation.  Ask a muscle to do anything more than contract (shorten its length), and it will only sit there all jacked, staring blankly at you.

Motor memory is muscle memory’s slightly less cool but more technically correct cousin. The key player in motor memory is, of course, the brain and the manner in which it utilizes the nervous system.

And yet, the brain can’t do a darn thing for itself. But it’s great at shooting orders!

What exactly does the brain “remember?”

1. Desire. First of all, trained people often want to regain their physical abilities. They have experienced what life feels like as a physically able, solid force of a person and have great motivation to avoid the alternative. Even recreational athletes usually have much more desire than the typical person to do whatever it takes to regain their physical abilities to the greatest extent possible.

2. Previously trained brains have learned to be smart about discomfort. They willingly push into misery, even embrace it, because they realize the triple pay off. They know that “no pain, no gain” is a half truth, and can easily discriminate between physical damage and beneficial discomfort.

3. The brain remembers the circuitry of skilled movement. Riding a bike is, well, like riding a bike. The neurological motor plans of lifting, running, jumping, throwing, etc, last much longer than the actual physical ability to perform them. Deconditioned athletes reap the rewards of having worked through thousands or tens of thousands of well executed repetitions in the past. The body may be soft and weak, but the brain did not forget.

4. On the more technical side, through consistent and regular training, the brain learns how to signal the muscles more efficiently. Through rate coding (bundling nerve signals in the most efficient manner), motor unit synchronization (getting various muscles and parts of muscles on the same page and working together), and reciprocal inhibition (getting opposing muscles to relax and contribute through improved stabilization), the brain literally knows how to get more out of whatever strength and flexibility that the body currently possesses.

Warning: The reasons why former athletes and fit people recover quicker are the exact same mechanisms by which they can easily over-do it and make themselves VERY sore when returning to training after time off. The brain can “tell” the body to do far more than the muscles and joints are ready for. Delayed Onset Muscle Soreness is also very real! 

5. The nucleus is said to be the “Brains” of each cell in our body. When a muscle is exercised, nuclei are added, and they’re not lost when you we stop exercise and the muscles atrophy. Some scientists think this is an additional reason why previously trained people do bounce back more rapidly than untrained folks. So after all, in this regard,  previously trained muscles do have better memory.

In summary, muscle memory is not Bro-Science. It’s mostly a brain skill, earned through years in the training trenches, that’s not easily erased by a little time off. Go out and get you some!

Bonus: Muscle memory can be “built” quicker and forged to a greater extent by becoming powerful and efficient in a few basic free weight exercises, as opposed to using machines for strength or changing your program every other week. Muscle confusion is sooo 2007, so work those functional movement patterns. carrying