Benefits & Safety
Although weight training was previously deemed unsafe and inappropriate for children, youth weight training is now recognized as a safe and effective method of conditioning for children (Faigenbaum et al.,1998). Youth weight training is universally accepted by qualified professional organizations such as the National Strength and Conditioning Association (1996), American College of Sports Medicine (1993), American Academy of Pediatrics (1990), and the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine (1988). In fact, regular participation in a broad-based training program that includes resistance training can significantly reduce sports related injuries in adolescents (Faigenbaum & Schram 2004).
The major benefits of a properly designed youth weight training program include:
- Increased muscular strength, power, and local muscular endurance
- Decreased injuries in sports and recreational activities
- Improved performance in sports and recreational activities
Resistance training is an effective additional means of developing athletic performance throughout planned youth sports training programs. There is no scientific evidence to support the view that resistance training, might hinder growth and maturation in young children, even when performed with high intensity. (Ratel 2010).
Properly designed weight training programs are safe for children because they are performed with specific movements and allow for an adaptive training response. Training loads can be precisely scaled to the ability of the child and each exercise can be performed within a predefined technic. Progressive resistances are used by increasing the load in small increments with adequate recovery, allowing for an adaptive training response. These adaptations occur even when exercises involve explosive motions designed to mimic the demands of athletic movements. Contrast this with the sporadic forces endured by the child's body during certain team sports. These rapid movements and random impacts inherent in such sports are relatively unpredictable, not scalable, and not incremental (Rippetoe and Kilgore 2006).
The child's and parent's fears and misconceptions regarding youth weight training should be addressed. See Misconceptions About Training Youth (PDF). A child should have the physical and psychological maturity level required to receive instruction and behave in a not disruptive and safe manner. Children should be expected to behave appropriately in a weight room and taught proper gym etiquette. If weight machines are used, they should be able to accommodate the smaller size of a child's body.
Key recommendations from Rippetoe and Kilgore (2006) include:
- Youth weight training programs should be supervised by well trained coaches or instructors with appropriate certification.
- A coaching-to-trainee ratio of 1:12 or less.
- A maximum training time of 15 hours per week from all physical activities.
- Exercise sessions should be fun.
Children who have not weight trained should begin with a supervised general strength conditioning program using suggested repetition ranges and appropriate training volumes and frequencies. Intensity (repetition ranges) and training volumes (number of sets and exercises) can be increased as the young athlete becomes more conditioned.
Rippetoe and Kilgore (2006) claim that there still remains a strong bias against high volume and high intensity Olympic-style weightlifting, which is commonly practiced in athletic sports and conditioning programs. They argue workouts designed for kids with only machines restrict the child to pre-determined movement pathways, effectively limiting the development of balance and coordination. They also point out that recommendations postponing high volume and high intensity training until full sexual maturity, as some pediatric organizations have suggested, would effectively eliminate the vast majority of high school athletes from weight rooms all over the world and essentially compromise the athletes' safety and performance in full-contact sports, which interestingly, are not recommended against despite having much greater rates of injury (Rippetoe and Kilgore 2006).
Indeed, many team sports have far greater injury rates than weightlifting (Hamill 1994). See Injury Rate Comparisons. Furthermore, Pierce, Byrd, and Stone (1999) concluded a structured weightlifting program (including Olympic-style weightlifts such as the clean & jerk, and snatch) can be safely performed by girls and boys, ages 7-16. Interestingly, Faigenbaum et al. (1998) showed that 8 to 12 year-olds that were supervised during maximal lifting resulted in no injuries, demonstrating that even maximum intensity training can be a safe for children when properly supervised.
As with all physical activity, injuries due to weight training will occur on occasion. However, the risk of injury to a child during weight training is relatively small compared to other activities. In fact, the benefits from a properly designed and supervised weight training program outweigh the risks.
Faigenbaum AD, Schram J (2004). Can resistance training reduce injuries in youth sports? Strength and Conditioning Journal. 26(3) 16-21.
Faigenbaum AD, Westcott WL, Long C, Loud RL, Delmonico M, and Micheli L (1998). Relationship Between Repetitions and Selected Percentage of the One Repetition Maximum in Healthy Children.
Fleck SJ, Kreamer WJ (2004). Designing Resistance Training Programs. Human Kinetics, 3, 287-302.
Fleck SJ, Kreamer WJ (2007). Optimizing Strength Training. Human Kinetics, 165-167.
Pierce K, Byrd R, Stone M (1999). Injuries in youth weightlifting. J Strength Cond Res. 13(4):430.
Ratel S (2011). High-intensity and resistance training and elite young athletes. Med Sport Sci. 56:84-96
Rippetoe M, Kilgore L (2006). Practical Programming for Strength Training. The Aasgaard Company, 253-256.