Is it safe for kids and teens to exercise with weights?

If you’re wondering whether it’s safe for your child to lift weights, the answer is yes – as long as it’s done properly.

 Children can – and should – participate in muscle and bone strengthening activities.

We all know that exercise is an important element of living a healthy lifestyle, and most parents believe that their children should do more of it.

However, many parents prefer their children participating in aerobic activities than strength exercises, according to a study. This is largely due to the perception that lifting weights is dangerous for children.

In this article, we explore the topic of weights and children – and answer some common questions you might have around weight lifting and children.

What is strength training?

People commonly associate strength training with lifting heavy weights in a gym, but it can be accomplished in a variety of ways, including by simply utilising your own body weight. Medicine balls, sandbags, elastic resistance bands, and weighted sleds can all be used in strength training.

Do weights pose a risk of injury?

There was virtually little data on injuries connected with youth strength training until recently. However, there were a few case reports detailing catastrophic injuries caused by the misuse of weight training equipment, as well as a few short studies indicating high injury rates in competitive adolescent weightlifting and powerlifting programmes.

In 1990, the American Academy of Pediatrics cautiously recommended against participation in strength training prior to reaching physical maturity. This report was actually referring to weightlifting, powerlifting, and bodybuilding, which involve the use of maximal loads and highly technical lifting movements that had never been recommended for young people. Regardless, the message that “weights are bad for young people” took hold and the public distrust of strength training lingered on.

We now know that supervised and age-appropriate strength training is a safe activity for children and adolescents, and a good way to improve muscular fitness, body composition, and psychological health. In fact, appropriately conducted strength training programmes have a much lower risk of injury than many popular youth sports like soccer, football, or basketball – activities that parents happily enrol their children in year after year. Ironically, participation in strength training can actually reduce the risk of children being injured when they play sports.

Will lifting weights stunts my child’s growth?

Strength training in youth won’t stunt growth, despite what many believe. You’ve probably heard at some point that strength training can stunt growth in children. This claim is based on an enduring belief that strength training causes damage to “growth plates”.

Growth plates (or epiphyseal plates) are the cartilaginous areas of growing tissue at the ends of long bones such as the femur and radius. These plates turn into hardened bone when young people reach physical maturity, but are softer during development and are therefore more susceptible to damage.

While scary to consider, growth plate injuries are actually quite common, accounting for around 15 to 30% of all bone injuries in children. Most injuries resolve completely with treatment, but on rare occasions, they can result in growth abnormalities. It’s not quite clear why strength training is considered more likely to damage growth plates than other physical activities, but this common misconception has withstood the test of time.

At least part of the reason seems to be due to a misinterpretation of why elite athletes in sports like weightlifting and gymnastics are consistently short. Long story short (pun intended), small athletes are better suited to these sports, in the same way that being tall is an advantage in basketball. Therefore, short athletes are more highly represented at the upper levels of competition, where we tend to notice them. This has nothing to do with high volumes of training or lifting heavy weights.

While strength training often gets the blame, the truth is that growth-plate injuries occur much more often during organised sports. Extensive research on the safety of youth strength training programmes has found no evidence to suggest they have adverse effects on growth, nor is there any evidence that strength training during the growing years impacts final adult height.

Do children and teens need strength training?

The World Health OrganisationAmerican Academy of Pediatrics, and the Australian government all agree that muscle-strengthening physical activities are important for the health and wellbeing of young people. In fact, government guidelines explicitly recommend that young people (aged five to 18 years) participate in muscle- and bone-strengthening activities at least three days a week. These recommendations are based on a large body of evidence demonstrating the unique benefits of strength training.

Prior research has found stronger kids have a healthier heart, lower body fat, stronger bones, and higher self-esteem. Importantly, the evidence seems to suggest the healthiest youngsters will be those who participate in a variety of activities, targeting not just the heart and lungs, but also the muscles, joints, and bones.

What weight exercises are best for children?

Maximal lifts before reaching physical maturity (usually around 16 years) are still not recommended. The focus during childhood and early adolescence should be on developing movement skills and building strength endurance (the ability for muscles to work repeatedly). This will provide the right foundation for improving maximal strength in later years, when individuals have the competence, confidence, and experience to perform the lifts safely.

Simple and effective body weight exercises that children can do include push-ups, squats, lunges, planks, bear crawls (crawling on hands and feet to work out the whole body), mountain climbers (in plank position, bring one knee at a time up to your chest to strengthen core) and the superman (lie flat on your stomach with arms extended overhead and lift arms and legs off the floor to strengthen lower back).    

Top tip: Exercises should be matched to the age and experience level of your child.