When it comes to strength training, be it hitting the gym or following along at home with free weights or body weight, should you let your kids get involved? Starting strength training at a young age is a contentious topic – is it safe? Is my child at risk of injury or stunted growth? We are here to dispel the myths and discuss just how safe (and beneficial!) a strength training regime can be for children and young adults.
Before we dispel the myths, kids who participate in any sport are more susceptible to injury, particularly if they feel they are gung-ho and unstoppable.
However, let’s face it, all sports have the potential for injury. Yet it is such an important part of growing up. Involvement in sport helps young people to maintain good physical and mental health, social engagement, and improve motor skills, to name just a few of the great benefits of exercise. If we didn’t let our kids engage in anything if there was the slightest risk involved, they would need to get very used to staying inside wrapped in bubble wrap. Risk is a part of life and necessary for growth.
Growing up, Strong.
So, what about strength training? When done correctly, strength training with appropriate supervision and guidance can help kids develop movement patterns that may help to prevent injury in their other sports or daily activities. A well-designed strength training program that implements progressive overload (a technique which implements the gradual increase of resistance or repetitions to maintain effort) can help children improve their muscle strength and endurance by up to 50% after just 8 weeks (Sports Health, 2008).
No legitimate scientific study suggests that strength training might stunt your child’s growth. Indeed, rather than damage growing bones, strength training can actually help to protect your child’s joints by increasing bone mineral density (Med Sci Sports Exerc., 1993).
We also can consider the development of ligament and tendon resilience that also comes with strength training, something that isn’t considered in many mainstream sports which has huge benefits to the individuals long term physical wellbeing. All of these physiological advantages translates to healthier bodies out on the field, the court, or the pool, and in everyday life.
The risks involved with lifting weights stems from lifting incorrectly (usually without appropriate supervision) or lifting too heavy, too soon or lifting too frequently. Strength training can help your child build adequate awareness of their body and learn how to move correctly in order to facilitate strength gains in the gym. However, kids are traditionally eager to jump right in to lifting weights without building a solid foundation first. This is why an individualised approach to strength training, with an adequate level of supervision from a qualified coach, is so important.
“age is just a number…”
During a child’s development phases, it is important to supplement their ability to develop a healthy and resilient nervous system through adequate strength training. At those early stages of development, a child’s body can benefit from adequate dosages of strength training to supplement nervous system adaptation for proper physical maturity. So even though hypertrophy isn’t necessarily the goal for younger children, it doesn’t mean they should overdo it either. The nervous system needs the same if not more recovery time to properly develop.
This means that children can still gain strength and increase their muscle performance through correct movement under resistance, without the “bulking up” commonly associated with muscle hypertrophy. Age is just a number, and if your child shows an interest in introducing strength training into their lives, then it is a good time to consider looking into it. The best approach is to introduce full body resistance training at low frequency initially.
As long as your child can follow instruction from a qualified coach, they can begin to learn the appropriate movement patterns required to begin to build up their strength and make gains. Perhaps the largest benefit of strength training is the increased confidence that can result from your child seeing the improvements they can make, along with the enhanced bodily awareness. It’s important to emphasise the playful aspect of strength training, and teaching your child to learn to love what they can do with their body in a safe way. Keep training light and fun, especially in the beginning. Start slow and build up the basics under the supervision of a qualified coach, who has experience in designing strength training programs for kids. Proper form and technique should come before any weight is introduced (this goes for us big kids, too!).