Over the past couple of decades there has been an explosion in awareness of the importance of physical exercise to the health of wellbeing of the population. As a result there has been an increase in the availability of exercise and weightlifting equipment, not only in gyms but also at home and in schools. There has also been a shift in society’s view of the ‘ideal body’, which has resulted in pressure to look good being applied at younger and younger ages than ever before. Along with increased participation in competitive sports by adolescents, this has resulted in more and more children being faced with the decision of whether or not to lift weights, and a need to know if children should lift weights, and if so at what age is it safe?
Traditionally aerobic exercise, through leisure and participation in sport, has been the focus when encouraging children to exercise, and when done in reasonable amounts there is no question as to if this is safe. Now resistance exercise has become so popular and accessible, parents are increasingly being faced with the decision of whether to allow their child to participate or not. Resistance exercise is not as straightforward as aerobic training, and although the children or schools may initially present the idea, it is often left to the parent to be the enabler as they will need to sign the waiver or purchase the required equipment. This can be a difficult decision as no parent wants make a decision that will bring harm to their children. The split in opinion, myths and misperceptions out there can make it difficult to know what is right, but luckily in recent times research has intervened and as a result we have facts instead of peoples opinions. So should children lift weights?
As I discussed in a previous article, resistance exercise has been shown to be extremely beneficial to the health of adults. So does the same apply to children? In short the answer is yes. There are several reasons why it would be beneficial for children to partake in resistance exercise. I guess this would be a good time to define exactly who I am referring to when I say children. For the purpose of this article, unless specified otherwise, I am referring to post-pubertal males and females (adolescents).
So why should children lift weights?
Resistance exercise results in increased strength and muscle mass in children. Pre-pubertal children also experience a gain in strength, but this is due to changes mediated by the neurological system and not by gain in muscle mass. The reason adolescents gain muscle mass compared to pre-pubertal children is the presence of male androgenic hormones. Obviously males have a lot more of these than females and this is why they gain muscles and women generally don’t. Increase in strength +/- size is beneficial for a few reasons. It gives the child a sense of achievement as they have worked hard towards the goal, as well as increasing their self-confidence and feelings of self worth.
The increase in strength can also transfer to specific sports, resulting in increased performance. The increase in muscle mass results in an increased metabolic rate which can help with bodyweight control, which is very important given the current rates of childhood obesity. In addition to these benefits are all the usual improvements in health seen with resistance exercise as I have explained previously.
But if children lift weights won’t it result in stunted growth???
This has probably been one of the biggest misperceptions when it comes to resistance exercise and has been responsible for many children being discouraged from weightlifting over the years. Let me start by saying this is in no way true. There is no evidence that resistance training effects linear growth (height). Genetic maximal potential remains unaltered. There is possibly an increased risk of a fracture through the epiphyseal (growth) plate in adolescent children, but this is not common and would be something sustained through poor technique and not resistance training per se. So where did this idea come from. Well it stems from a Japenese study done in 1964 on children exposed to excessive manual labour which revealed obstructed bone growth. The problem was that other important and very significant factors such as malnutrition weren’t taken into account which led to false interpretation of results. This highlights the importance of not believing every study you read!
So what are the risks if children lift weights?
As with any activity there are risks, and these become more important when it comes to children. The main risk when it comes to resistance training is with injury. The most common injuries reported with resistance training are sprains and strains (40-70% of injuries). Most of these are self-limiting and recover with a period of rest. There are occasionally more serious injuries (usually involving accidents) and this highlights the importance of safety and supervision. Studies have shown that most injuries occur on home equipment with unsafe behavior and unsupervised environments. It is also interesting to note that injury rates in settings with strict supervision and proper technique are lower than those seen during other sports or even in the school playground during recess.
So it is very important that when children lift weights they are gradually eased into resistance training, beginning by learning proper technique and safety procedures, before progressing to more advanced training. This will often mean starting with no weight at all and just practicing movements and training coordination. Supervision should be done by someone who is very familiar with resistance training and knows how to adapt exercises and equipment for use by children. Under no circumstances should a child just be given a set of weights and be allowed to ‘find their own way’.
How frequently should children lift weights?
The important thing in answering this question is the motive behind the commencement of resistance training. Strength gains have been reported on regimes of only one session per week but this is by no means optimal. As with most forms of exercise, frequency is more important than quantity. Two to three times will be fine for most children and will yield significant gains. Those wishing to train for aesthetics or larger gains in strength would probably benefit more from 3-4 sessions a week. A session can be anywhere from 30-90 minutes, but any more than this is probably of little use and may even be detrimental.
A point to note
One point to stress is the use of performance enhancing drugs (PEDs). Fortunately the scale of use of (PEDs) has become more apparent recently, with disgraced athletes such as Lance Armstrong admitting to taking them. The fact is however that PEDs have been rife in sport for decades, the public just wasn’t aware. Once children start going to mainstream gyms they will become exposed to the availability of PEDs as well as the results they produce. The fact is that PEDs are NOT SAFE for children and will negate many of the positive effects that can be gained from resistance exercise. They will affect growth and development during this sensitive period of life and the effects can be irreversible. As such it is important that children are educated about, as opposed to shielded from, PEDs, so they can make an educated decision when faced with them rather than being caught unaware.
So participation in resistance exercise, as with adults, can be extremely beneficial for children. There are many health and performance benefits that can be attained and lifting weights DOES NOT STUNT GROWTH! Children should be encouraged to partake in resistance exercise (as part of a more varied exercise program), but emphasis should be placed on gradual introduction, proper learning of technique, and above all safety.