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Child strength & conditioning, is it safe?

Updated: Dec 16, 2022

As a trainer, when facing this question, I tend to reply with another question: is it beneficial?

When surfing the internet and literature looking for good and reliable information and studies about the matter I found it interesting that back in the 1970s, researchers in Japan studied child laborers and discovered that, among their many struggles, they tended to be abnormally short. Physical labor, the researchers concluded, with its hours of lifting and moving heavy weights, had stunted the children’s growth. Somewhat improbably, from that scientific finding and other similar reports, as well as from anecdotes and a bit of drama, many people came to believe “that children and adolescents should not” practice weight training. And that idea still remains in the popular imagination. As a recent newspaper on the topic of children and resistance training pointed out, many parents, coaches, and pediatricians remain convinced that weight training by children will “result in short stature, epiphyseal plate ( or growth plate ) damage, lack of strength increase due to a lack of testosterone and a variety of safety issues.” Funny enough though, they are happy to send their children to play football, rugby, or basketball during scholar time without any concerns or what it is another common choice, stay in the safety of the sofa playing videogames.

What is, in the short, medium, and longer terms more beneficial for them?

Well, let's keep talking about the strength and weight use of our children and teens.

As we were saying above, many of us believe, that kids won’t get stronger by lifting weights and will probably hurt themselves. But a major new review just published in Pediatrics, together with a growing body of other scientific reports, suggests that weight training can be not only safe for young people, but it can also be beneficial, even essential.

In the Pediatrics review, researchers with the Institute of Training Science and Sports Informatics in Cologne, Germany, analyzed 60 years’ worth of studies on children and weightlifting. The studies covered boys and girls from age 6 to 18. The researchers found that, almost without exception, children and adolescents benefited from weight training. They grew stronger. Older children, particularly teenagers, tended to add more strength than younger ones, as would be expected, but the difference was not enormous. Overall, strength gains were “linear,” the researchers found. They didn’t spike wildly after puberty for boys or girls, even though boys at that age are awash in testosterone, the sex hormone known to increase muscle mass in adults. That was something of a surprise. On the other hand, a reliable if the predictable factor was consistency. Young people of any age who participated in resistance training at least twice a week for a month or more showed greater strength gains than those who worked out only once a week or for shorter periods.

Overall, the researchers concluded, “regardless of maturational age, children generally seem to be capable of increasing muscular strength.”

That finding, which busts one of the most pervasive myths about resistance training for young people — that they won’t actually get stronger — is in accord with the results and opinions of most researchers who have studied the subject. “We’ve worked with kindergartners, having them just use balloons and dowels” as strength training tools, “and found that they developed strength increases,” said Dr. Faigenbaum, a widely acknowledged expert on the topic of youth strength training. (His most recent book is in fact titled “Youth Strength Training.”)

But interestingly, young people do not generally add muscular power in quite the same way as adults. They rarely pack in bulk. Adults, particularly men but also women, typically add muscle mass when they start weight training, a process known as muscular hypertrophy (or, less technically, getting buff). Youths do not add as much or sometimes any obvious muscle mass as a result of strength training, which is one of the reasons many people thought they did not grow stronger. Their strength gains seem generally to involve “neurological” changes, Dr. Faigenbaum said. Their nervous systems and muscles start interacting more efficiently. A few small studies have shown that children develop a significant increase in motor-unit activation within their muscles after weight training. A motor unit consists of a single neuron and all of the muscle cells that it controls. When more motor units fire, a muscle contracts more efficiently. So, in essence, strength training in children seems to liberate the innate strength of the muscle, to activate the power that has been in abeyance unused.

If your child is interested in starting a weightlifting program, there are many things to keep in mind, including the following.

Take it slow

Conquering the heavier weights does not happen overnight. When you’re young, it’s important to take it slow and build up gradually. This means starting with lighter weights and higher reps and focusing on the execution of the movement rather than on the number on the dumbbell.

It’s not about how big you are

Children should not be lifting weights intending to drastically increase muscle size, in fact, the majority of the benefit that a child will get from weightlifting will be neuromuscular. When a child can lift heavier weight due to strength training it is usually due to increased muscular performance rather than an increase in the muscle size, hence training programs need to be designed with this in mind.

Proper supervision is key

If your adolescent or teen is interested in participating in a strength training program, make sure they are supervised by a certified personal trainer or coach, who has training in how to design a weightlifting program for kids. It would be great a good deal of communication with parents to be aware of routines, exercises, and goals. If you have any concerns about your child’s participation in a weightlifting program, talk with their pediatrician or doctor before they start lifting weights.

Age is just a number “and I love this idea”

Determining when a child or teen is ready to start a weightlifting program should be performed on an individualized basis, not just by age. Safety with weightlifting is all about maturity and proper supervision. It’s also about being able to follow rules and instructions in order to learn good movement patterns and proper form. Once again the role of the coach and parents is fundamental

Start with the basics and make it fun

As long as weightlifting is done safely, with supervision, and is enjoyable for the individual, there is no wrong age to start resistance training. That being said, I do recommend starting with bodyweight exercises. Modified pushups, body weight squats, sit-ups, and planks are all excellent forms of resistance training that are safe and do not require weights. Besides all of them can be performed among other coordination drills which will make any session far more enjoyable.

Whether your kids are playing tennis, football, rugby, or dancing, a good program will, without doubt, help them to achieve better results, protection against injury, and better knowledge of their body.

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