“The hardest thing to explain is the glaringly evident which everybody has decided not to see.”– Ayn Rand
Why do some myths seem to stick around even when there is overwhelming evidence to the contrary? The question: should kids lift weights? is one of those myths. These myths are as persistent as they are untrue. We’ve acted against them for two decades, in our coaching and our coaching instruction, but we still hear these myths today.
Myth 1: Lifting weights will stunt a kid’s growth
I look around my gym and I see kids of all sizes, and they all lift weights; some have been lifting for years. If the above statement were true I would expect to see kids of substandard height. In fact, what we see is a normal range in height. Unsurprisingly, the kids that are short have short parents.
Where did this myth come from?
Well, Kirby (1) draws on anthropometric data from the Children’s Employment Commission of 1842 comparing children who worked in coal mines to those in other occupations at the time. Findings suggest that the children who worked in the coal mines were shorter in stature than children who worked in other trades.
Despite criticism (see, e.g., ), the public seized on this idea: Coal-mining children’s shorter stature had to do with the heavy loads they were required to lift. BAM! SCIENCE!
By the way, I heard this exact same story deriving from a 1960s Japanese study (3).
Myth 2: Lifting weights will injure kids
This one has a more recent origin and appears to owe its persistence to a pervasive misunderstanding of findings and recommendations found across nearly a half-century of research and position statements. Early studies challenged the efficacy of resistance training interventions for preadolescents (see, e.g.,  and ). In 1983, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a position statement (6) that reinforced this and recommended against competitive weightlifting, powerlifting, and bodybuilding among preadolescents due to the risk of injury. Other research, e.g. (7), carried the banner first hoisted by the AAP, which in 1990 ( p. 802) continued to use prohibitive language for adolescents in weight training: “Unless good data becomes available that demonstrate safety, children and adolescents should avoid the practice of weightlifting, powerlifting, and bodybuilding, as well as the repetitive use of maximal amounts of weight in strength training programs…” The AAP reiterated this a decade later in its 2001 position statement (9). Thus, a decades-long negative perception of the value and safety of youth resistance and weight training took hold among experts and laymen alike, despite subsequent research showing otherwise. Despite the availability of good data.
Some of the misinformation on resistance training centers on growth plate injuries, which, when severe, can involve a fracture of the epiphyseal plate at the end of the bone where elongation occurs. In prepubescent children, this can have serious long-term consequences because of the significant potential for bone growth at that stage.
Growth plate fractures are the result of acute traumatic injury, not repetitive stress. Faigenbaum and Myer’s literature review (10) on resistance training found six studies reporting growth plate injuries involving weight training between 1976 and 1990. Most of the injuries were a result of poor technique, incorrect loads, or an absence of qualified supervision.
Wait. Wait…. These injuries occurred in unsupervised environments that allowed for poor technique and improper loads. Hmmmm….
Given these findings, it should come as no surprise that the frequency of growth plate fractures among teens while weight training are significantly lower than growth plate injuries in competitive sport (0.002-0.3/100 contact hours vs 0.80/100 contact hours). Some competitive sports are up to 400 times more likely to lead to a growth plate fracture than are weight training activities. The Brand X Method™ sees similarly low injury risk.
But still…should kids lift weights?
So the myths about youth strength training are false. But it’s a poor leap in logic to move from kids don’t get hurt lifting weights to kids should lift weights. Are there tangible benefits to having kids in a weight training program? What do experts say about kids and strength training?
Although some of the responsibility for the growth plate myth seems to fall on the shoulders of the American Academy of Pediatrics, by 1990 (8) they seemed to come to grudging acceptance and in 2001 (9) changed their stance on weight training’s efficacy.
The 2001 position paper states the benefits of resistance training:
“Studies have shown that strength training, when properly structured with regard to frequency, mode (the type of lifting), intensity, and duration of the program, can increase strength in preadolescents and adolescents. Gains in strength, muscle size, or power are lost after 6 weeks if resistance training is discontinued” ( p. 1470).
An updated AAP position paper in 2008 (11) expanded on the benefits of strength training for both preadolescents and adolescents, citing evidence that strength training has beneficial effect on several measurable health indices, such as cardiovascular fitness, body composition, bone mineral density, blood lipid profiles, and mental health, as well as evidence that strength training prehabilitation may help decrease injuries in adolescents. Interestingly, for those of us that have been advocating weight lifting for young ladies, the AAP cited research suggesting a possible reduction in sports-related anterior cruciate ligament injuries in adolescent girls when strength training was combined with specific plyometric exercises.
Also in 2008, the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology position paper came to the same conclusions. (12)
In fact, the United Kingdom Strength and Conditioning Association (13), its American counterpart, the NSCA (14), and the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association (15) all support and approve of youth resistance training.
By 2014, enough research supported the idea that resistance training for kids was not only safe but an effective part of a youth fitness program, that an international position paper (16) was published and endorsed jointly by leading organizations from the fields of sports medicine, exercise science, and pediatrics. ( p. 1)
“Research has indicated that various forms of resistance training can elicit significant performance improvements in muscular strength, power production, running velocity, change-of-direction speed and general motor performance in youth. From a health perspective, evidence indicates that resistance training can make positive alterations in overall body composition, reduce body fat, improve insulin-sensitivity in adolescents who are overweight and enhance cardiac function in children who are obese. Importantly, it has also been demonstrated that regular participation in an appropriately designed exercise program inclusive of resistance training, can enhance the bone-mineral density and improve skeletal health and likely reduce sports-related injury risk in young athletes.” ( p. 2)
In fact, we have come so far that researchers are now saying strength training is a must for sports-minded kids. But it’s clear that there is still a need for a bridge from research to application. Avery D. Faigenbaum, a leading researcher in the area of youth strength and conditioning, who has published over 240 peer-reviewed articles and been the lead or co-author on many position papers including some listed above, recently published a commentary with James P. MacDonald and G. Gregory Haff titled, “Are young athletes strong enough for sport? DREAM On.” (17)
What we have seen is a dramatic shift in attitude from the 1980s to the present day. Moving from myth to fact and from proscription to advocacy. More and more we are seeing coaches and parents understand and support strength training for kids. This is truly great news.
But wait! There are some caveats
There are some caveats, and they are critical to the efficacy and safety of youth training.
All of the position papers, while supporting resistance training for kids and acknowledging its importance to their general health and well-being, make recommendations on implementation. Here are the recommendations from the international consensus statement:
“A compelling body of scientific evidence supports participation in appropriately designed youth resistance training programmes that are supervised and instructed by qualified professionals…. In summarising this manuscript, it is proposed that
1. The use of resistance training by children and adolescents is supported on the proviso that qualified professionals design and supervise training programmes that are consistent with the needs, goals and abilities of younger populations.
2. Parents, teachers, coaches and healthcare providers should recognise the potential health and fitness-related benefits of resistance exercise for all children and adolescents. Youth who do not participate in activities that enhance muscle strength and motor skills early in life may be at increased risk for negative health outcomes later in life.
3. Appropriately designed resistance training programmes may reduce sports-related injuries, and should be viewed as an essential component of preparatory training programmes for aspiring young athletes.
4. Regular participation in a variety of physical activities that include resistance training during childhood and adolescence can support and encourage participation in physical activity as an ongoing lifestyle choice later in life.
5. Resistance training prescription should be based according to training age, motor skill competency, technical proficiency and existing strength levels. Qualified professionals should also consider the biological age and psychosocial maturity level of the child or adolescent.
6. The focus of youth resistance training should be on developing the technical skill and competency to perform a variety of resistance training exercises at the appropriate intensity and volume, while providing youth with an opportunity to participate in programmes that are safe, effective and enjoyable.” ( p. 8)
Two points are stressed in the above recommendations:
- Coaches working with kids should be properly trained to work with youth.
- The program used should be specifically designed for kids.
We are seeing a shift in public opinion. People are beginning to understand that the experts are saying strength training is good for kids. But the experts are saying more than that—and this is significant—they are saying that strength training has massive benefits, wait for it….when it is a program specifically designed for kids and coached by people specifically trained to work with kids. Those two caveats are important and often forgotten in the discussion regarding weight training and kids.
“Kids shouldn’t lift weights… badly.”—Jeff Martin, Brand X
What do I mean by this? Well, first the trainer needs to be specifically trained to work with kids. That means that if you are taking your child (defined as anyone from the age of 3 to 17) to a trainer, the experts say the trainer needs specific instruction on how to train your child safely. That specific instruction centers on the principle that kids are not adults. As well as the understanding that within this special population there are subpopulations with their own distinct developmental markers that must be acknowledged in order to deliver an effective and safe training program.
Working with kids is different than adults. Why? Because when we talk about a developing human we are actually talking about humans that are developing. The program should be designed around the biopsychosocial development of the child. Biological development governs what children can express and thus what training should look like. Psychological development governs what a child can understand and how training is presented. Sociological development governs what a child needs from his or her peers.
First, a trainer or coach who wants to work with kids needs to have specific training, such as that offered in The Brand X Method™ Professional Youth Coach Certification. The PYCC provides the coach with an understanding of the developmental stages a child goes through and the appropriate tools and principles needed to work with kids.
Second, the program must be designed specifically for kids. The experts are saying that a youth program shouldn’t just differ by degree but by kind too from an adult training program. Clearly a developing child has different needs than an adult.
Believing that trainers and coaches don’t need specialized knowledge and education to run a youth strength program, and believing a scaled down adult program is appropriate for kids is… well, by now, you should know what I think.
Doing what is best for kids
Here are some of the recommendations from the American Academy of Pediatrics ( p. 839) regarding the design of a strength training program:
- Aerobic conditioning should be coupled with resistance training if general health benefits are the goal.
- Strength-training programs should include a 10- to 15-minute warm-up and cool-down.
- Athletes should have an adequate intake of fluids and proper nutrition because both are vital in the maintenance of muscle energy stores, recovery, and performance.
- Specific strength-training exercises should be learned initially with no load (no resistance). Once the exercise technique has been mastered, incremental loads can be added using either body weight or other forms of resistance. Strength training should involve 2 to 3 sets of higher repetitions (8 to 15) 2 to 3 times per week and be at least 8 weeks in duration.
- A general strengthening program should address all major muscle groups, including the core, and exercise through the complete range of motion. More sports-specific areas may be addressed subsequently.
- Any sign of illness or injury from strength training should be evaluated fully before allowing the resumption of the exercise program.
- Instructors or personal trainers should have certification reflecting specific qualifications in pediatric strength training.
- Proper technique and strict supervision by a qualified instructor are critical safety components in any strength-training program involving preadolescents and adolescents.
We are guided by the ideal What Is Best for Kids. Because of this, we have developed a strength training program that is designed specifically for kids and addresses all of the recommendations above and more.
Our strength program follows our Base • Build • Boost model for teaching movement.
• Base – Kids acquire basic movement knowledge with our focus on the six primal movement patterns (hinge, squat, push, pull, lunge, and core) and physical skills (e.g., jumping, hanging, rolling, throwing).
• Build – In this stage, youth learn to apply movement patterns to external objects and experiment with linking physical skills together.
• Boost – Youth are now ready to move heavier loads and experiment with more complex, combined, or linked physical skills. Most importantly, this group is able to take the lessons learned in the gym and apply them unconsciously and seamlessly to other physical endeavors.
Our strength program has four groups:
- Barbell Prep
- Junior Varsity
The Barbell Prep and Rookie groups form the BASE. Here bracing is taught, and movement patterns are corrected and standardized. Proper setup for each lift is taught as well as standardizing an individual setup routine. The importance of focusing through the entire set should be taught here. In each class a high number of reps are used and movement quality is stressed and cued.
Once a child has proven that she can set up to lift the same way each time, move consistently well, and focus through an entire set, she is ready to explore weight and move to the Junior Varsity group. In the JV group we BUILD on what was learned in the BASE group. The kids in the JV group move very well. Now they have to learn to move very well with load. One of the key learning points is that, in this group, perfect movement during training is expected and required to move up in weight.
When kids have learned to move well with load, been challenged by increasing load to maintain movement integrity, and have succeeded, it is time to move on to the Varsity group. Here is our BOOST phase where kids who have built a solid base can begin to work toward enviable strength gains.
The importance of designing a program specifically for kids that progresses slowly from standardizing movement to promoting strength gains cannot be overstated.
Is strength training safe for kids? The experts say yes! But it is a qualified yes. Look for coaches who are specifically trained to work with kids. Ask them to tell you how their program has been specifically designed for kids.
Properly implemented and sustained, a youth strength program such as ours will optimize youth athletic development and build generations of formidable humans.
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(2) Humphries J. Short stature among coal-mining children: a comment. Economic History Review 50(3): 531-537, 1997.
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(13) Lloyd R.S. et al. UKSCA position statement: youth resistance training. UK Strength and Conditioning Association 26: 26-39, Summer 2012.
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(15) Australian Strength and Conditioning Association. Resistance training for children and youth: a position stand from the Australian Strength and Conditioning Association (ASCA). 2007 (updated 2017). Available at https://www.strengthandconditioning.org/news/692-child-and-youth-resistance-training-position-stand. Accessed 1 September 2019.
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