Kids can do strength work, but there are several caveats to this general rule in order to avoid injury. Problems arise when children lift too heavy, too soon, and without proper form; if you want your child to start lifting weights, enlist the help of a personal trainer or strength coach well-versed in the special needs of children lifters.
Young Children and Fitness
Fitness is an important part of overall health, and fitness in children is no exception. Organized sports and exercise for children begin at early ages and getting kids involved is important. Strength training - when done properly - can help children avoid injuries in their other activities.
Safe Starting Age
The recommendation by the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) is that children as young as 5 or 6 can begin performing uncomplicated resistance training exercises, but it's important to note this refers only to resistance training and not necessarily heavy lifting. The International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) suggests an appropriate age to begin very basic weight lifting is 5 to 12. ISSA further states age 13 to 20 is the appropriate time to start serious weight training with a qualified trainer. Follow these guidelines to determine if your child is ready.
- The child is interested, willing and motivated to perform the exercises.
- The child is able to perform the exercise in a safe, correct form.
- The child is capable of performing exercises which uses the body as resistance, such as sit-ups or push ups.
- The child is involved in a variety of physical activities.
- A physician or physical therapist approves the child to begin weight training.
Lifting at Age 10
At this age, it's unlikely a child will experience significant "gains" from weight lifting. The focus should be on fun movement and proper form. Children at this age should not be lifting heavy to failure but instead work toward consistency; lighter weights with higher reps are a much better choice than heavy weights, low reps at this age.
Lifting at Age 12
Boys who encounter puberty at this age will probably notice muscle growth from regular weight training sessions. Both boys and girls will notice increased strength and may experience higher self-esteem as a result of their weight training.
Lifting at Age 14
Children of this age may be ready to lift heavier weights, but only if they have already taken the time to learn proper form in order to avoid injury. It's important to supervise lifters at this age to ensure they don't push beyond their capabilities.
Olympic Lifting Ages
Olympic-style weight lifting involves heavy weights and complex movements. This type of lifting can be dangerous to anyone - regardless of age - if they do not train correctly. Team USA has two categories for children in this sport:
- Youth: 13-17 years old
- Junior: 15-20 years old
Finding a study that claims strength training is great for kids is not the same as saying "kids can lift heavy weights." Strength training can refer to body weight exercises or even light weights. Kids who lift too heavy (especially with improper form) put themselves at risk for injury.
Does Weight Training Stunt a Child's Growth?
The idea that weight training will stunt a child's growth is a myth that continues to dissuade parents from allowing their kids to lift, but a study from the American Academy of Pediatrics doesn't support this idea. With both NSCA and ISSA endorsing the idea of proper weight lifting for adolescents, parents should focus on finding a credible youth strength coach to help their child learn this activity and progress incrementally. A child's growth plates or cartilage shouldn't be affected as long as the training is done correctly and appropriately.
Weight Training for Children
Take care when starting children on weight training routines. An adult beginner and a child beginner will have two very different sets of goals, techniques and capabilities.
Before adding weight to a child's strength training routine, or increasing the weight already being lifted, make sure they can safely complete at least eight reps correctly with the given weight. Before moving up to the next level, a child should be able to complete eight to 15 reps easily and without strain - and with proper form.
Fitness, Not Bulk
If a pre-adolescent is beginning a weight training routine, the focus should be on fitness, not bulk. Pre-adolescents' muscles are not designed to grow large or bulk up, so expectations of what strength looks like should be adjusted accordingly.
Children should perform approximately six different exercises two to three times a week that work all major muscle groups. Adding additional workouts or weight training will not increase benefits and can lead to muscle strain.
When adding free weights or weight equipment to a child's exercise routine, make sure that proper supervision is given. To lift the weight safely, make sure that the child has been instructed on proper form with no weight or resistance before adding a safe amount of weight.
Mix It Up
While weight training is a great way to add to a child's fitness routine, it should not be the only component. Make sure to include plenty of aerobic exercise as well to strengthen the heart and lungs.
Weight Training for Increased Fitness
Lifting weights correctly can be a great first step toward a healthier future. Make sure a child is ready, both physically and mentally, for the challenge and can remain motivated to continue lifting safely. Add weights to a fitness routine and increase strength, health, flexibility and overall fitness for life.