Kids and Strength Training: Is It Safe?

Parents ask me all the time, “When is it safe for my child to start weight lifting?”  This question has become even more common in the last 5 years as competition in youth sports is skyrocketing.  Where I work in Los Gatos and San Jose California more and more adolescents are specializing in one sport year-round, attending private skills camps, and playing on competition level teams hoping to get noticed and placed on the fast track to professional sports.  This need for performance has placed a greater interest on strength and conditioning as a way to improve speed, power, and sport skill. 

Motivated parents, who understandably want the best for their children, seek out strength training programs but ultimately arrive with questions and concerns.  These are the common concerns I here over and over at my clinic Competitive EDGE Physical Therapy in San Jose.

  1. At what age can my child start weight training?
  2. Will weight training stunt my child’s growth?
  3. Will weight training injury my child’s growth plates?
  4. How Do I know my child is ready to weight train?
  5. How many days per week should my child work out?

These are justified concerns and there has been conflicting information put out in mass market media over the last 20 years.  My goal is to provide the latest information from the American College of Sports Medicine and the National Strength and Conditioning Association on strength training in the young athlete.

At what age can my child start weight training?

Strength training has been a proven and effective training tool for building muscle, enhancing speed, and improving power in adults.  What about in children and teens?

Previously, it was thought that children could not benefit from resistance training due to the lack of hormonal response.  It was thought that strength will progress at a set rate based on typical growth and no faster since the hormonal products to build muscle were not being produced.  Recent studies over the last 5-10 years have proved otherwise.  A vast body of research now shows that children and adolescents can significantly increase their strength, beyond typical growth, through adequate resistance training with enough intensity, volume, and duration.

What age is too young?

Believe it or not kids as young as 6 years old have shown gains in muscle strength from performing a regular resistance training program!  These programs consisted of single-set exercises performed over a 20 week to 2-year period.  These kids used weight machines, medicine balls, barbells, and body weight exercises to produce gains.  Granted these machines were geared towards young kids as many children do not fit on adult machines.  So children of almost any age can perform strengthening exercises, produce gains, and improve their health and fitness.

Is weight training safe for kids?

The two concerns most often stated about weight training in children is growth plate injuries and stunted growth.  As of 2016, there is no evidence of growth plate injuries in children who are participating in an “appropriately prescribed weight training program with proper instruction.”  If stunted growth was a well-documented issue, then there would be peer reviewed research warning professionals of the risks.  I have yet to ready any such warning.

So, yes your young tall basketball star can lift weights without hurting their changes of growing as tall as possible.

Although growth plate injuries are largely a myth, it is important to note that strength training in children is safe only when certain criteria are met.  Just allowing your child to lift on their own without any training does greatly increase the risk of injury.

Here are some guidelines to ensure safety with strength training in young athletes.

  1. Go through a weight training class or one-on-one education to learn proper weight room safety
  2. Start with body weight exercises first and build up slowly with supervision of a strength coach
  3. Exercise 2-3 days per week maximum with additional time focused on cardiovascular training and sport play
  4. Don’t make lifting about competition as this tends to make children want to “win” by lifting more than they are able
  5. Strength train for 6 months-1 year before adding in complex lifts such as cleans or presses.  Additionally, overhead lifts and maximal lifts are the hardest to perform correctly and should be trained by a professional
  6. Have your child evaluated before starting a strength program to determine “weak links” that should be corrected

Chronological age versus Biological Age

Knowing when your child is ready to weight train is based on multiple factors.  Children differ considerably in their maturity and growth rate and this needs to be taken into account when determining a strengthening program.

Chronological age refers to their actual age in numbers.  Although there are some biological correlations associated chronological age they are not set in stone.  For instance, one 14-year old male might have facial hair and a deep voice (signs of testosterone production resulting in better muscle building potential) while another has yet to develop the same characteristics.  These two individuals need to have different training programs that are structured to their biological age.  A high weight, high intensity, plyometric program might be perfect for the mature 14-year old and a recipe for increased injury risk in the less mature 14-year old. 

It is important therefore to evaluate each young athlete for their unique abilities and biological characteristics.  This may be why some parents get nervous about their child weight training on a “team schedule” since not everyone on the team is the same. 

How many days per week should young athletes train?

Most adults get benefit from strength training in as little as 2 days per week.  They can maximize their gains by increasing their training to 4-5 days per week.  For young athletes; however, 2-3 days provides the greatest chance of growth balanced with sport practice and cardiovascular training. 

In order to make the most of 2-3 workouts per week it is essential to utilize multi-joint exercises such as squats and presses as this stimulates the most muscle tissue.  Exercises like bicep curls and crunches are great for looks but lack the amount of muscle usage necessary to stimulate growth.

Similarly, young athletes should not be looking to “bulk up” but instead be chasing after true strength.  They should focus on “functional strength” exercises such as pull ups, push-ups, squats, lunges, deadlifts, and presses.

What are the benefits of strength training in young athletes?

  1. Improved muscle endurance
  2. Improved strength
  3. Improved coordination
  4. Increased bone density
  5. Improved sport performance
  6. Reduced injury risk
  7. Improved self-confidence
  8. Improved sleep and overall health

Proper Program Design

We now know that strength training is essential for young athletes.  We now know it is safe for kids to perform strengthening exercises without risk of injury or affected growth.  We also know it is essential that education on proper lifting technique occurs before the start of a strengthening program.

Typically, young athletes will learn how to lift from their parents, gym teacher, or sports coach.  If these individuals are well trained in the most current strength and conditioning research and biomechanics, then the risk of injury is low.   Most often, the education is done in a group setting in school or with a team and individualized assessment is not performed.  Additionally, parents, myself included, tend to be less objective with their own children and may allow a child to lift with incorrect form. If you want your child to learn the best and safest ways to strength train for fitness, sport, and performance than they should train with an athletic trainer or physical therapist.  These two professionals are the experts in strength and conditioning training and education.

At Competitive EDGE Physical Therapy in San Jose, I work with young athletes coaching them in proper lifting technique.  As a strength and conditioning specialist I have created a testing and training program geared towards the new athlete and competitive athlete alike.  Our program is built upon developing a sound foundation in proper biomechanical movement before adding weight. 

You have to build the foundation before you build the house. 

Our strength training program has benefited athletes looking to improve their strength, power, speed, and sport performance.  If you would like to inquire about the details of our strength training programs we offer in San Jose, please email me directly. Kevin@compedgept.com 

You can also speak to me by phone 408-784-7167

I hope after reading this post you and your children get active and pursue a program dedicated to improving health, fitness, and sports performance. 

Move to improve!

Written by:
Kevin Vandi
Physical therapist in San Jose-Los Gatos-Almaden-Campbell