Dr. Randy Stinson, DPT
I often get asked by parents, “When is my kid old enough to start lifting weights?” Usually this question is in relation to improving sports performance, but youth can benefit from strength training in many areas other than just sports participation. Here are four basic rules:
1: Know the Difference.
2: Do not lift anything heavier than your own body weight.
3: Form is more important than weight or reps.
4: Work All Muscle Groups.
Which leads to the ultimate question, Do I let my kids participate?
A BIG DIFFERENCE
Before I get into the how’s and why of safe strength training for kids, I need to define two very important, but misunderstood terms.
Body building/weight lifting/power-lifting: Typically, competition-based weight lifting where the focus is on pushing the human body to its limits.
Strength training: A much broader term that refers to improving strength and muscle function through the use of resistance, not competitive, and can be performed without weights.
The primary difference between these two types of strength training, is the purpose behind why it is being done. The competition aspect pushes participants to the extremes of weights and although this can be done safely with proper training and monitoring, adolescents and younger children should not participate in this
Weights Too Heavy?
The most common concern parents have about letting their teenager start heading to the weight room is, “Will it stunt their growth?” The short answer to that question is, not if done properly.
Although accidents can happen, most injuries from strength training are caused by one of two things, bad form or from lifting excess weight.
During adolescence children are especially susceptible to injury due to the changes their bodies are going through as they transition to adulthood.
An adolescent who still has open growth plates can injure those growth plates by lifting heavy weights which usually causes them to close early, this does stunt growth. The picture below illustrates fractures that effect the growth plate, type 5 (crush injury of the growth plate) is what heavy weight lifting during adolescence can cause.
This risk can be mitigated by limiting the amount of weight an adolescent lift, but that means proper training and supervision. The other risks of lifting excess weight include joint injuries, strains or tears of ligaments, tendons, and muscles, or simple over use.
The other common cause of injury with strength training, is improper form. This is caused by lack of training, fatigue, or excess weight. This is also mitigated through proper training and supervision.
A youth being introduced to strength training needs to be taught proper form by someone who themselves knows proper form. The emphasis in any type of strength training needs to always be put on proper form over number of repetitions or amount of weight moved. Once a person is too fatigued to perform an exercise with proper form the risk of injury increases drastically and far out weighs the benefit of performing one more rep.
Due to their very nature, adolescent boys, also known as knuckle heads, are in particular need of education and supervision with strength training. There are certain mistakes that adolescent boys commonly make with strength training that need to be monitored for and corrected. When groups of boys are exercising together it will almost always start to turn in to a competition, this isn’t necessarily bad, but it needs to be monitored to ensure that they do not start lifting weights that are too heavy or compromising form once they are fatigued to get one more rep. Teaching boys correct form, so they know how to monitor each other and don’t count reps with bad form can help keep this from getting out of hand.
BALANCE YOUR WORKOUT
Another common mistake adolescent boys make, is to limit the muscle groups they work on to the ones that area easily seen and the ones they believe will attract girls, primarily biceps and pecs. By focusing too much on limited muscle groups the boys not only risk over use injury, but they develop muscle imbalances which cause injury and postural faults. Much like shown in the picture below.
SHOULD I LET MY KIDS STRENGTH TRAIN?
With all the concerns people have of kids getting injured during strength training, why would we want children to be involved in it? There are very important benefits that growing children gain from strength training.
We frequently hear about our nation’s problems with childhood obesity and how we are seeing what used to considered adult illness spreading to younger and younger people.
Although nutrition plays a very important role in the problem of childhood obesity, the decline in necessary physical activity that is a natural consequence of our increasingly automated society is a very important factor that cannot be over looked, and youth need to be involved in activities that build muscle.
Strength training in youth, when done properly, has been shown to reduce frequency of injury both in and out of sports, improve health, self-image, agility, and coordination, teach self-discipline, and aid in teaching the concept of working hard to obtain desired goals. These benefits carry over into adulthood when good habits of health and fitness are developed in youth.
The benefits of strength training are not for boys only, girls benefit and need strength training as much as boys, but don’t worry a girl’s natural biology and hormones will not allow her to bulk up and become manly. That can only be done in a female with testosterone supplementation.
Strength training is something that I recommend for everyone both young and old, it is an important part of a healthy life. Learning proper principles in youth only prolongs health in later years. Please if you have any questions feel free to come in and ask. We would rather teach correct principles and keep your children active and healthy than have to help them come back from an injury.