Let’s Bust Some Myths
Lifting weights is a terrific way to introduce kids to an active and healthy way of life. Kids need to be fit and strong, just like everyone else. But even though lifting weights is safe and beneficial for children, you’re not going to approach it the same way you would for an adult. And–let’s get this out of the way right now–you’re NOT going to stunt their growth.
Should kids lift weights? Yes. If you keep a few special considerations in mind, weight lifting for kids will be a fun, positive activity, and it will establish training for strength and health as a lifelong habit.
A Guide for Training Kids
First and foremost, weight lifting for kids should be fun. Kids have so many demands on their attention, and you can’t get them to focus on things unless they enjoy doing them. So every time you work with kids under the bar your primary goal is to make it a good experience. Make it fun.
To keep things fun, you have to set appropriate expectations. This is our second consideration.
Kids cannot really train, in the technical sense. Before puberty, kids will not adapt to the progressive overload stress of training like adults. Kids who are not at least Tanner Stage IV cannot take advantage of the stress-recovery-adaptation process. This means almost all children under 12, and some as old as 16 or 17 years.
But that’s okay, because kids are getting stronger just by growing. We can aid their development with strength training even if we can’t progress them like we would an adult.
Our third consideration is exercise selection. Just like any other lifter, kids will benefit from practicing the squat, press, bench press, and deadlift. Because, even though they don’t respond to loading the same way as adults, these are big, compound movements, basic human movement patterns that require balance and control. Refining and strengthening these movements makes everyone healthier, fitter, and more athletic.
Our fourth consideration is to control the eccentric portion of the lift. One of the big benefits of training children is teaching them conscious control of their bodies. Kids tend to have trouble controlling the eccentric or downward part of most lifts. Things that you and I don’t have to think about, require conscious effort on their part and are often unfamiliar.
For example, when teaching a kid to squat, you have to pay special attention to the descent, making sure she controls the movement, holding her back flat and tight in normal anatomical extension. Coach her not to fall, flop, or or dive-bomb into the bottom. Often you have to slow kids WAY down, making them squat artificially slow, and paying attention to their balance and keeping their backs flat. Just this step takes a lot of communication and a LOT of patience. If you can make it fun for BOTH of you, that kid will keep coming back, and both your lives will be better and richer for it.
So we’re going to make things fun, we’re going to use the same exercises we use for everybody else but without a classic linear progression, and we’re going to focus on the eccentric.
The Benefits of Lifting Weights for Kids
The pay-off for all of this is huge. When we teach kids to lift weights, we don’t just teach them conscious control over their bodies that will translate well to their play and sports. We also teach them the value of lifting for life-long health and fitness.
But won’t lifting weights stunt growth kids’ growth?
There is a pervasive myth that putting children under a loaded bar will damage their growth plates. The growth plates are areas of growing tissue near the ends of the long bones that determine the future length and shape of mature bones. Like bones, growth plates can fracture.
Also like bones, growth plate fractures are usually the result of an impact, from falling, accidents, or from high impact sports like soccer, football, or skateboard, things most children do every single day.
But for some reason, lifting weights has gotten this bad rap, as if the compression forces from the weights will actually squish the children down and signal their bodies to stop growing. The biomedical literature makes it clear that properly-conducted strength training has no adverse effects whatsoever on growth and development. Quite the opposite. Just like any other living tissues, bones adapt to loading. They adapt to compression by, specifically, by getting stronger and denser.
So when you get a kid under the bar, make it fun, use the grown-up exercises at kid-size weights, and focus on control and form, you’re doing that kid nothing but good, and setting her up for a strong, healthy, vigorous life.