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?

IMG_6253 (1)
        “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 The idea of injuring growth plates from weight training is an outdated and fairly absurd.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?

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