“Lifting weights will stunt a child’s growth!” There are many factors that can potentially stunt a child’s growth, the first of which is genetics. Others include insufficient sleep, certain medications, and processed sugars and carbohydrates (including soda). Weightlifting however, is not among them. Done correctly, weightlifting will contribute to a child’s proportional development and develop good posture. Additionally, lifting may even aid a child growth due to an even stimulation of hormones that are vital for growth and development.
But what about gymnastics, ballet, wrestling, and other sports that we associate with stunting growth? What these sports do have in common that causes growth issues is: malnutrition. It is hard to grow if you are starving. Kids need to eat a balanced diet in order to grow! Also when we do see gymnasts on TV, they are usually elite athletes. Taller gymnasts and athletes who vary radically from the prototypical gymnastic body type are usually filtered out through years of injury and competition. As far as sports actually having a direct effect on growth - they don’t.
“Lifting weights makes you inflexible!” Most strength programs stress dynamic flexibility before the session, dynamic strength during the session, and static stretching after the session. English translation: kids who strength train are way more flexible than kids who don’t. Why? Simply put, strength gains do not make muscles lose elasticity. In fact, a strong muscle is a flexible muscle. Lifting correctly encourages kids to move their joints through their full range of motion, increasing both strength and flexibility under tension. On the other hand, muscles that do not ever get used atrophy and tighten up. Finally, kids who strength train are stretching that much more than kids who don’t!
“Lifting weights will make you big, bulky, and awkward!” Strength training with weights is not Bodybuilding. Not only are these two often confused, they have nearly opposite goals! Think function vs. form. Strength training teaches kids to engage their central nervous system in order to move a weight or perform a movement in a goal-oriented way, a skill they will need throughout their whole life. Bodybuilding on the other hand, is an activity where the participant attempts to stress the muscles by any means that stimulate as much growth (hypertrophy) as possible. The goal here is to obtain a desired aesthetic result, usually some measure of size or shape. Kids should not be doing this.
Additionally, strength training is not Powerlifting. Nor is it Olympic Weightlifting. These two activities ask the participant to move a weight at maximum or near maximum efforts. Although there is nothing wrong or dangerous about these activities for kids conceptually, most kids are beginners at lifting and lack both the aerobic and strength base to participate in these sports. It takes years of careful planning and training to build up to being a power athlete. This is why we recommend that kids perform weight training with perfect form in sets of at least 15 repetitions, under the supervision of a professional.
“Lifting weights will crush a child’s growth plates!” Let me understand this: It’s alright for kids to play football and concuss each other, tear their ACL’s playing sports where coaches make them run and sprint endlessly, but performing 15 squats with a 35 lb barbell is injurious? Does that make any sense to anyone? I have the privilege of working with some excellent orthopedic surgeons who all agree: nearly all the ACL tears they repair every season can be prevented if kids were strengthening their muscles and joints instead of wearing them out, particularly the hamstrings.
“Kids should not lift anything that is heavier than their body weight!” If your son or daughter struggles to perform one pullup, then collapses on the floor exhausted, you’ve just witnessed a person performing a 1RM (ONE REPETITION MAX). As the name implies, it is a weight that a person can lift only once, followed by total fatigue. But wait. That was bodyweight! That doesn’t count, right? Wrong. It’s the same thing as that guy grunting on the bench press at your local gym. Your child just attempted a typical powerlifting repetition scheme. They tried to move a heavy weight (their own body) over a certain distance (bottom to top of the bar). If they can only do that once, they are powerlifting, simply put.
The point is that it is the amount of repetitions that a kid can lift with perfect form without rest that matters to ensure his or her safety and proper development. The reason for that is that different repetition/effort schemes coincide with different hormonal responses from the body. And some kids are stronger than others, plain and simple. If your eighty-five pound twelve-year-old can lift one-hundred pounds on a barbell for at least 15 times with perfect form and spinal alignment, that is healthy! If he or she struggles at number 3 and the knees collapse, it’s time to lower the weight and work on form.
Finally, the reason that only bodyweight exercises have been stressed for kids in the past is the absence of good coaching and qualified instruction. It is easier to instruct pullups than weighted squats. For example, a predictable consequence of failing at pullups is jumping down from the bar and stopping. A coach doesn’t even have to be in the same room for that activity. In contrast, failing at an advanced weighted exercise like a squat can be injurious if not supervised and taught correctly. Obviously when performing weighted exercises like squats, children should be supervised and form should be stressed. Under good supervision, squats and other compound movements can be extremely beneficial and teach kids motor patterns that they will need well into their old age.
At FRESH Personal Training we use an integrative approach to training all of our clients, including our youth athletes. We constantly evaluate the efficacy of our methods to make sure that they are in tune with modern approaches to training. Our understanding is that strength training in the forms of weightlifting and bodyweight exercises should absolutely be incorporated into a comprehensive youth program. Integrating these two modalities has produced excellent results in injury prevention and general physiological development.
Congeni MD, Joseph A. “Strength Training.” www.kidshealth.org, May 2009. Web., 14 November 2012. <http://kidshealth.org/teen/food_fitness/exercise/strength_training.html>
Michelle. “10 Things That Could Stunt Your Child’s Growth.” www.nannypro.com, April 2012. Web., 14 Nov 2012. <http://www.nannypro.com/blog/10-things-that-really-could-stunt-your-childs-growth/>
Allen, Suzanne. “A List of Exercises That Stunt Children’s Growth.” May 2012. Web., 14 Nov 2012. <http://www.livestrong.com/article/441421-a-list-of-exercises-that-stunt-childrens-growth/>
Stenson, Jacqueline.“Should Kids Pump Iron?” November, 2003. Web., 14 Nov 2012. <http://www.msnbc.msn.com/Default.aspx?id=3076614#.UIVaCq7ediE>