Should my kid lift? Part 1: The science says yes

After writing several thousand words, and compiling an impressive list of resources from other coaches, I decided to make this a series. Rather than plow through everything to get to a section more relevant to you, this will break it down a bit easier. I geared this a tad more towards parents looking for help, rather than coaches, because someone who is not familiar with training principles or the science of strength and conditioning, is someone who will be more fearful and more exposed to common training myths and with less access to good coaches. But I intended this blogpost to be one I can easily link to when questions on this topic are brought up. The resources section (especially for coaches) will have some really great material that was sent over for coaches looking for routines, or programs etc

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Here  is the series:

Part 1: The science says yes

Part 2: Theoretical principles for training kids for fitness and sport

Part 3: Resources for parents and coaches

Let’s get started.

If you want the short answer here it is; yes your kid can lift weights.

Kids can start lifting weights anytime under supervision and with proper progression. Before I delve into specifics, let’s get some terms clear. If you are already familiar with these, skip over.

Quick schooling in terms

Weightlifting 

Weightlifting is a sport, that is comprised of two lifts with a barbell. The snatch and the clean and jerk. Weightlifting is an Olympic sport. Also often referred to as Olympic lifting or the Olympic lifts. The clean and jerk, and snatch or variations of them, are often used in strength and conditioning programs for sport or fitness.

 Powerlifting

Powerlifting is a sport that is comprised of three barbell lifts. The squat, bench press and deadlift. Powerlifting is not an Olympic sport. The power lifts (which can be considered a bit of a misnomer) or variations thereof, are usually included in strength and conditioning programs.

Movement categories

When people talk about squatting or benching or deadlifting in a fitness or sport context, it’s easy to jump to visions of powerlifting, the sport. Big loads, grinding reps, and “lift as heavy as possible” mentality, massive dudes screaming at your scrawny son to “just dooooo it”. So, it is helpful to understand that the words “squat”, “press”, “pull” are also categories for movements not just specific lifts that are done one way. A squat is not JUST a barbell bilateral back squat. So if a coach has a “squat” exercise in their program, it could mean one of the following (as an example):

– Bilateral (both legs) barbell squat

– Bilateral bodyweight squat

– Goblet squat (weight is a dumbbell held in the hands in front of the chest)

– Box squat

– Barbell box squat

– Split squat (unilateral, or single leg)

– Rear-foot elevated or Bulgarian split squat

– Pistol Squat

– Lateral squat

This list is not to overwhelm you. You don’t need to know what those exercises are. This is just to clarify that “squat” is a movement pattern category as well as a name for a lift. So doing a “squat” exercise, could have lots of different meanings.

The same goes for exercises that can be categorized as “push” or “pull” and is not restricted to referring only to a powerlift. You don’t need to worry about knowing all variations of exercise, but just understand that it can be used as a movement category, not just a specific name of a lift.

Strength training 

Any exercises where the body must overcome resistance. Resistance can be in the form of your own body weight, free weights (dumbbells, kettlebells, barbells), or other forces that act on the body as a result of interaction with the environment. Using resistance is for the purpose of increasing a person’s ability to exert or resist force. Free weights, the individual’s own body weight, machines, or other devices (e.g. elastic bands, medicine balls) provide resistance. Strength training is used as an adjunct to many sports and for general physical conditioning.

Bodybuilding

Bodybuilding is an aesthetic (based on symmetry of the muscles, size, posing, etc) sport that depends on weight training but does not involve lifting in competitions (it doesn’t matter how much weight is lifted). Bodybuilders use a variety of apparatus to develop large muscles, often isolating individual muscles, or small groups of muscles, with specific exercises. Bodybuilding training promotes the development of muscle size and shape, and body symmetry.

Keep reading here….

The principles for developing your body apply overall. They are the trunk of the tree. But it’s important to understand the branches (terms) for context. This will be talked about much more in the next post.

I am using the term “strength exercise” to refer to any exercise that is predominantly to increase a child’s physical strength, coordination or muscular ability. Parents can often get confused with terms. Strength exercise can be using body weight (pullups or pushups) or external load (dumbbells, barbells). Both are “weight”.

Weightlifting will specifically refer to learning the clean and jerk and snatch. Many of these categories overlap when talking about “lifting” in general. Unless your child is aiming to compete specifically in a strength sport, then many of the traditional strength exercises and their variations will be used to develop physical fitness qualities (strength, speed, agility), but the INTENT of the exercise will change. You can learn to clean and jerk, but not be “a weightlifter”.

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Intent will be something I talk more about in the next post as well.

The science is in unanimous support of children lifting weights and training for strength

Even if you don’t feel like you have the skills to read scientific papers properly it’s not hard or difficult to find professional and respected opinions on this topic.

For once, they all say the same thing; the myth that resistance or weight training for children is harmful, bad or can negatively affect growth is not true.

It is a baseless claim. The tenacity of myths is evident in the fact that it is still repeated often enough for parents to wonder and worry even though the acceptance of the benefits of youth training by sport organizations is basically universal, and the research has supported it for awhile. The original myths about weight training stunting growth or harming growth were based on loose correlations (someone basically made a guess about what could have been responsible, in this case it was hard physical labor and children who were shorter than average). The fear of injury or harm to the musculoskeletal system (muscles and bones and their development) has also proved baseless, taking into account the common sense caveat that kids need supervision and instruction during physical activities. That’s your “duh” moment.

Not only is weight and resistance training fine, good, ok, great, beneficial etc, but in this day and age it is approaching essential! Especially for our children who are growing up in a society where electronics, sedentary jobs/lives and obesity are the norm. Daily physical activity and exertion is no longer a normal part of living. We have to strive to get it. We actually have to work at moving more. Unfortunately this applies more and more to children as well. Electronics, less P.E. etc are all contributing to the erosion of what used to be taken for granted; kids being active.

Below is a fairly thorough list of the literature on the topic, as well as some published articles that are well-referenced.

List of relevant articles and research papers

Articles:

Strength Training in Children and Adolescents – Sports Health Journal

Strength Training for Young Athletes – PDF from International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF)

The Benefits of Weight Training for Kids – NY Times

Research papers:

National Strength and Conditioning Association official position on weight training/resistance training for children

“Not only is regular physical activity essential for normal growth and development, but also a physically active lifestyle during the pediatric years may help to reduce the risk of developing some chronic diseases later in life (). In addition to aerobic activities such as swimming and bicycling, research increasingly indicates that resistance training can offer unique benefits for children and adolescents when appropriately prescribed and supervised (). The qualified acceptance of youth resistance training by medical, fitness, and sport organizations is becoming universal ().Nowadays, comprehensive school-based programs are specifically designed to enhance health-related components of physical fitness, which include muscular strength ().”

Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology official position

“In addition to the well-documented increases in muscular strength and endurance, RT (resistance training) has been used to improve function in pediatric patients with cystic fibrosis and cerebral palsy, as well as pediatric burn victims….here is no minimum age for RT for children. However, the training and instruction must be appropriate for children and adolescents, involving a proper warm-up, cool-down, and appropriate choice of exercises.”

American Academy of Pediatrics: Strength Training by Children and Adolescents, Policy Statement

“Multiple studies have shown that strength training, with proper technique and strict supervision, can increase strength in preadolescents and adolescents.7,8 Frequency, mode (type of resistance), intensity, and duration all contribute to a properly structured program. Increases in strength occur with virtually all modes of strength training of at least 8 weeks’ duration and can occur with training as little as once a week, although training twice a week may be more beneficial.7–12 Appropriately supervised programs emphasizing strengthening of the core (focusing on the trunk muscles, eg, the abdominal, low back, and gluteal muscles) are also appropriate for children and theoretically benefit sports-specific skill acquisition and postural control.”

Effects of strength training on motor performance skills in children and adolescents: a meta-analysis

“These results emphasize that resistance training provides an effective way for enhancing motor performance in children and adolescents.”

Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects

“Regular participation in a multifaceted resistance training programme that begins during the preseason and includes instruction on movement biomechanics may reduce the risk of sports-related injuries in young athletes.”

High-intensity and resistance training and elite young athletes

“Although in the past resistance and high-intensity exercise training among young children was the subject of numerous controversies, it is now well-documented that this training mode is a safe and effective means of developing maximal strength, maximal power output and athletic performance in youth, provided that exercises are performed with appropriate supervision and precautions.”

Strength training for children and adolescents: benefits and risks

“Current literature does not seem to have any particular aversion against the practice of strength training by children and adolescents, provided that some safety rules are followed, like medical clearance, proper instruction from a qualified professional and progressive overload. At the same time, several studies provide consistent findings supporting the benefits of repeated, intense physical efforts in young subjects. Improved motor skills and body composition, in terms of increased fat free mass, reduced fat mass and enhanced bone health, have been extensively documented, especially if sport practice began early, when the subjects were pubescent. It can be therefore concluded that strength training is a relatively safe and healthy practice for children and adolescents.”

For more specifics on the history of where the myths of injury or harm to growth originated, download:

NSCA’s Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper

 

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