Weight training in children: Myths and facts

Posted on October 22, 2021 by James Slauterbeck, M.D.
James Slauterbeck, M.D.


Is it safe for my child to weight train?

Absolutely! A supervised strength training program is a safe and effective way for children to increase strength and performance. Many healthcare and fitness groups like the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Sports Medicine, the American Orthopedics Society of Sports Medicine and National Strength and Conditioning Association all support the safety and effectiveness of strength training in children. 

Why should my child weight train? 

There are many advantages to children weight training. Research shows that children who strength train have increased bone density, more developed physique, improved performance, achieved higher self-esteem and improved living habits that carry on through adulthood. Without a doubt, exercise and sports are an important part of maturation. It is recommended by the American Academy of Pediatrics that school age children are involved in 60 minutes of exercise each day and this can include weight training. 

How do I know my child is ready to start weight training?  

Several factors determine when a child is ready to weight train. A child’s physical, mental and social maturity all determine when a child should begin to strength train. A child can start a weight training program when able to listen to instructors, follow directions and pass a sports medical exam.  

Is it true that some children should not traditionally weight train? 

Yes, some children with chronic illness/medical conditions (certain heart conditions), specific heart murmurs, cancers, or Marfan’s syndrome (a syndrome defined by long fingers, unnaturally tall stature and heart abnormalities thought to be had by Abraham Lincoln) may prevent or limit one's strength training strategies. They still can weight train but should be supervised by a professional who understands their condition and by a physician that understands both the needs of the child and the ramifications of the illness. Often the amount of weight can be decreased and repetitions increased or other modifications need to be followed.  

What should the session include?  

Every training session should include at least a 10-minute warm-up and a 10-minute cool down period. It is important to recognize that recent studies do not support traditional static stretching (hurdlers stretch) before athletic events. Static stretching should be done at a different time because it has been shown to decrease muscle force production immediately after the stretch. Therefore, other dynamic aerobic activities that will induce sweating prior to lifting such as a light jog or a combination of push-ups, sit-ups and jumping jacks are now recommended. 

How far should my child push himself? 

In children who still are skeletally immature or are still expecting to grow several inches then the strength training program should be designed around lifting lighter weights, emphasizing higher numbers of repetitions, and keeping good form. A child must have demonstrated proper form before adding weights to the exercises. In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics has made the statement that lifting the greatest weight for a single repetition should not be performed by children. Furthermore, children should lift through a full range of joint motion and emphasize larger muscle groups (chest, legs or back rather than rotator cuff). As the training progresses the child can work smaller muscle groups. If a child experiences any joint pain or popping they should consult a doctor. Some muscle pain is perfectly normal after lifting.  

What should my child’s exercise program include?  

A child's program should include various exercise modalities that include using free weights, weight machines and rubber resistance tubing during training sessions. Some types of fixed weight machines create challenges for smaller sized children because the machines lever arms are made for larger adults. Free weights are appealing to the smaller athlete but younger children may not have the coordination to stabilize the weight during certain lifts. Lifting free weights can lead to injury in younger children because some children may lack the coordination to stabilize certain lifting motions. Resistance band training is a very safe way to strength train younger athletes as they develop better coordination. 

But someone told me… 

Some parents are afraid to have their children lift weights because of unfounded or controversial information.  

Can growth plate injuries occur because of lifting? 

Yes, it is true that growth plate injuries can occur with lifting weights. However, most injuries occur because of lifting heavy weights, executing lifts with poor form, and performing excessive numbers of repetitions. 

Can my son or daughter get stronger before puberty? 

Yes, scientific evidence has shown that children can improve strength by up to 50 percent after three months of a well-designed strength-training program. The strength improvement of younger children is secondary to neural adaptations (activation of muscles units, and improving muscle firing rate and pattern) and not from muscle hypertrophy (getting larger). As a child approaches maturity increases in the size of muscle occurs as a direct result of the sex hormone testosterone.  

Should my child wait to perform Olympic style lifting, including the clean and jerk and snatch, until after puberty?

Yes, this is generally correct. This style of lifting should not be allowed until after puberty and then only with proper supervision.  

All myths aside, strength training can be performed by children safely and the benefits far outweigh the risks. Strength training is a fantastic way to condition our youth and to build the health of young maturing boys and girls. 

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