Is it safe for kids to lift weights? I’ve heard a few different theories on this topic and over the years, and have decided to research the matter myself and also learn through my own training.
The first theory I’ve heard is that only body weight is safe for kids to train until they hit teenage years or even older. It made sense the first time I heard it, but after some thought, I started to challenge this theory.
Let’s look at the bench press vs. push-ups. According to a June 2017 article, “How Much Weight Do You Actually Push Up During a Push-Up?” published on caloriebee.com by Christopher Wanamaker, he estimates that when you do a flat ground push-up, you are “pushing-up” about 56% of your body weight. This means if I tell this 70-pound kid to do pushups he is pushing up approximately 39.2 pounds, which is actually fairly heavy considering this kid is probably around 8 to 10 years old.
If I were to put an average kid under 40-pound dumbbells and ask him to do a bench press, it would likely crush him and hurt a shoulder, or at the very least he would not be able to do a full repetition. This is also why you see many kids do half pushups with less than proper form, because they simply can’t handle all that body weight. I’m assuming this theory is related to another false notion that lifting heavy weight is dangerous. The truth is, lifting heavy weight improperly is dangerous. If I were to give this kid 15- to 20-pound dumbbells and ask him to do a bench press with a full range of motion, this would not only be safer but also teach him to do a repetition with a full range of motion as opposed to this youngster learning to do half pushups. Also, if the kiddo is using free weights than he may yield more stabilizer muscle gains.
I’ve heard another statement that after some research turned out to be a myth as well, but at first listen sounded legitimate and very concerning: “Heavy or moderate weight training will damage the growth plates or stunt growth.” There is no evidence to support this, assuming there is a proper program. I also think that youngsters should have a trainer or experienced adult to help them with proper form. If they lift improperly, they could sustain a serious injury. In fact, if kids adhere to a well periodized program and instruction by a professional, strength programs can decrease risk for injury, especially in sports. Also, it should be noted that if the child plays a sport, they are likely at higher risk for injury doing that than by proper weight training. Sports require jumping, sprinting and turning on a dime that could be far more compromising to bones and joints than weightlifting.
As many myths as there are out there, I also do believe there are some serious concerns that one should address before training kids. What I’ve witnessed in my own training is that a novice youth will lack stability more so than a novice adult. A child’s brain and body simply hasn’t gone under enough strain to learn how to steadily push heavy weight without cheating on their form. Thus, it is essential that a stability phase is implemented with a higher number of reps so that the child can build a physical foundation but also program their brain to learn proper motor functions. In short, I am programming their brains to tell the body to move in proper form more than trying to build bigger muscles, though the latter will happen simultaneously.
Is the child playing sports as well? If so, what is the sport and how often are they playing? This is important to avoid overtraining. You child’s age and experience will play a part in what amount of weekly exercise would be considered overtraining or overreaching, but a good coach and trainer should be able to help identify that.
What is the child’s goal through sports specific training? If the goal is to help aid them playing basketball, then the majority of the exercise volume should be spent playing basketball, not doing power cleans in the gym. The law of specificity says that in order to improve at something physically … You have to do it! So, make sure that you are not spending too much time learning to do power cleans and miss the opportunity to improve at the given sport they love to play.
Nate Wilson is a certified personal trainer through NASM and is the owner of Elite Fitness LLC. He is certified for Fitness Nutrition and is a Behavior Change Specialist. Contact Nate at 640-0668 or Natewilson0223@gmail.com.