Kids & Weights: What is Safe?

by Will Stewart D.C., C.S.C.S.

We all want our kids to be physically active, but is it safe for kids to exercise the same ways that adults do? “Children and young teens should not participate in resistance training or lift weights. It will damage their bones and stunt their growth.”  You’ve probably heard this from a family member or friend at some point. But wait. Is it fact or fallacy? Is there research to support the claim that children involved in these activities remain four feet tall with chronic joint pain? Currently, there are very few sources to support or dispel this idea. Fortunately, more research is being conducted, and by the end of this article, I hope you have enough information to draw your own conclusions.

First, what is resistance training? You might initially think of young Arnold Schwarzenegger-like children surrounded by iron bars and dumbbells. But really, resistance training can be described as any method of physical conditioning that involves the progressive use of a wide range of weights, different movement speeds and a variety of methods, including weight machines, free weights (dumbbells and barbells), elastic bands, medicine balls and more. So, there is a lot more than just weight lifting involved. And your kids and young teens already do most of these activities on their own when they are playing and goofing off. Watch a child on a playground. They sprint, jump, land and will do it repeatedly for hours if allowed. Did you know that the impact of this play can be as high as five to seven times the child’s body weight?

Take a look at the current stance of the National Strength and Conditioning Association on this subject.

  • A properly designed and supervised resistance-training program is relatively safe for youth.
  • A properly designed and supervised resistance-training program can enhance the muscular strength and power of youth.
  • A properly designed and supervised resistance-training program can improve the cardiovascular risk profile of youth.
  • A properly designed and supervised resistance-training program can improve motor skill performance and may contribute to enhanced sports performance of youth.
  • A properly designed and supervised resistance-training program can increase a young athlete’s resistance to sports related injuries.
  • A properly designed and supervised resistance-training program can help improve the psychological wellbeing of youth.
  • A properly designed and supervised resistance-training program can help promote and develop exercise habits during childhood and adolescence.

Notice a theme with those statements? A properly designed and supervised resistance-training program is safe. The risk increases when children or teens are left to do resistance training on their own and/or follow a magazine or video routine that is not age appropriate. The set and rep schemes outlined in most of the popular fitness media are primarily aimed at people that already have exercise experience and are in the later stages of physical development. Even then, the amount of work prescribed can be physically overwhelming to anyone other than professional bodybuilders.

Children and young teens are also at increased risk when they exercise without qualified supervision. Serious or fatal accidents can occur if they use equipment without being monitored. Also, if children are trying to use weight levels that are not age appropriate, there is an increased risk of injury. Finally, if the child has not received proper instruction on how to correctly do most exercise movements, injury can occur. (But this is also true for adults!)

Recent research done by A. D. Faigenbaum and G. D. Myer revealed a relatively low risk of injury in children and adolescents who follow age-appropriate resistance training guidelines, including qualified supervision and instruction. The studies found the rate of injury to be either very low or nonexistent. Their research supports the stance of the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Another study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that in comparison to other sports and activities, resistance training and weightlifting were markedly safer.

We all want our kids to be safe, but it seems pretty clear that a well-designed, age-appropriate program supervised by a trained, qualified professional is, by in large, safe and can prove beneficial. We all want our kids to be healthy and strong, too. If our kids are into sports, we may want them to be faster. Some of us harbor dreams of our child being the next Bo Jackson, Michael Jordan, Mia Hamm or Serena Williams. Growing up, I envisioned myself as the next Larry Bird. Never heard of me and my basketball prowess? Well, maybe if I had followed a well-planned exercise program with a qualified instructor, you would have.

Sources: Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy, and injury prevention effects: A. D. Faigenbaum, G. D. Myer. Br J Sports Med. 2010 January: 44(1) 56-63 Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper From the National Strength and Conditioning Association: Avery D. Faigenbaum, William J. Kraemer, Cameron J. R. Blimkie, Ian Jefferys, Lyle J. Micheli, Mike Nitka, and Thomas W. Roland. The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, Supplement to Volume 23, Number 5, August 2009, S60-79