Should children under the age of thirteen train with weights? It really depends on who you listen to, as the fitness community seem to be divided on this issue. Many say that pre-pubescent children should not engage in weight-training as it may cause pre-mature bone fusion (epiphyseal fusion), and, as a result, irreversibly stunt growth.
It is also thought that, hormonally, and structurally, children's physiologies are not suited the stresses of a weight program. Much of the above might be true, if children are subjected to the same high-intensity programs adults tend to engage in. However, the real issue is how one defines a weight program for the purposes of a child.
Of course, maximal weights carried to failure, and the addition of supersets and other high intensity strategies, would probably spell disaster for any child undergoing a weight-training regime.
"Heavy lifting can put too much strain on young muscles, tendons and growth plates, especially when proper technique is sacrificed in favor of lifting larger amounts of weight,"
...says Edward Laskowski, M.D., a physical medicine and rehabilitation specialist at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, Minnesota.
It would be much more sensible to, instead, focus on formulating a specific strength training program for the child, rather than focusing on anything even remotely connected to weight-lifting, bodybuilding or power-lifting. These specialized training systems can be used under correct observation once a child has reached puberty, and has developed a reasonable strength base - indeed, the focus should be on lighter weights and controlled movements, with a special emphasis on proper technique and safety.
Is Weight-Training Safe For Children?
According to both the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), prepubescent children can safely engage in resistance training, with certain limitations. These bodies have issued guidelines on childhood strength training.
Below Is A Summary Of The Salient Points:
- Children should be sufficiently mature that they can respond to coaching advice, and will behave appropriately (follow instructions and respect their fellow trainers).
- Weight-training should form only part of a child's exercise regime (sports, play and other movement related activities are also important).
- Children should avoid maximal or near-maximal lifts. ACSM specifically states that children should work with a resistance that will allow them to perform no fewer than eight repetitions (in other words, with children, emphasize lighter weights and higher reps).
- Children should be supervised at all times during their weight-training sessions.
- Special care must be taken to avoid overuse injuries, which growing children may be more predisposed to (keep the exercise routine varied to prevent continued stress on any particular part of the body).
- Proper form and technique must be maintained in all lifts. Given children are more susceptible to injury, as their muscular systems are underdeveloped, never risk cheating or sacrificing technique for weight/rep targets.
- Explosive lifts, such as the power clean, should be avoided. These can place a tremendous strain on vulnerable parts of the body, such as the spinal and neck regions, and, as such, are deemed dangerous for children.
How Young Is Too Young?
It is often thought that children who have reached the age of 13 will benefit most from weight-training, as it is at this age their nervous system and muscular development are at an appropriate stage for the rigorous training.
Pre-pubescent children will also experience some strength gains from weight-training, but these gains primarily stem from neurogenic adaptation (the recruitment of muscle fibres) rather than lean muscle mass, and it is therefore best to wait until they are able to gain sufficient muscle size, before maximizing training intensity.
Indeed, pre-pubescent children lack the androgens (natural steroid-hormones like testosterone and androsterone) which assist muscular growth - these hormones are often cited as the key to weight-training success. However, there is no reason for children to wait until their bodies begin to manufacture androgens.
In fact, It has been found that children under the age of 13 are able to train with weights, and realize the concomitant benefits, as long as they train safely.
Furthermore, pre-pubescent children will set the stage for a smoother transition into more intensive training in their post-pubescent years if they adopt correct training habits early.
A retrospective review of injuries associated with weight training in pre-pubescent children found that weight training is, in fact, safer than many other sports and activities (Hamill, 1994). Other researchers also support pre-pubescent weight-training.
They say the highly technical maneuvers and lifting techniques associated with its practice make it almost impossible to use too much weight too soon, as long as an emphasis is placed on the vital importance of qualified supervision, to limit risk of injury (Faigenbaum & Polakowski, 1999).
Benefits Of Weight-Training For Children
Strength-training, safely conducted, can offer many benefits to the younger trainer. It must be remembered that these sessions should be properly supervised, and the training context is non-competitive.
If These, And The Aforementioned ACSM & NSCA, Guidelines Are In Place, The Following Benefits Can Be Realized:
- Increased muscle strength and endurance.
- Sports performance improvement.
- Better cardio respiratory function.
- Helps to protect the child's muscles and joints from injury associated with other activities.
- Stronger bones.
- A desirable body composition.
- Lowered blood cholesterol levels.
- An exercise habit which lasts a lifetime.
- The concept of goal setting.
- The child may develop an interest in their health.
- Self confidence.
- Good nutritional habits.
A Suggested Routine
The following routine is designed for a child between the age of seven and 13. Sessions can be scheduled for after school, or on weekends. Ensure the child has eaten well throughout the day so they have requisite energy to train.
Suggested foods are bananas and other fruits, sandwiches, meat and vegetables, milk drinks, and muesli bars. A good breakfast is essential. Oatmeal with chopped bananas and milk works well for my seven-year-old son. A good nights sleep (10-12 hours) is also very important for the growing, training, child.
Note: With all exercises increase weight gradually as strength increases. However, always begin sure to begin the session with a very light warm-up set. Also, each session should begin with a thorough warm-up: star jumps (below) and joint rotations followed by a series of stretches should do the trick. 10-minutes should be a sufficient time period for warming-up.
- Push-Ups: 3 sets of 15-20 with bodyweight.
- Side Laterals: 3 sets with a weight that can be easily lifted for 20-30 reps (a couple of full 425 gram cans of fruit might be a good idea to begin with).
- Shoulder Press: 3 sets of 20-25 with about 1 kg in each hand.
- Squats: 3 sets of 20-25 with body-weight (hands at side).
- Lunges: 3 sets of 15-20 with body-weight (hands crossed at chest level).
- Crunches: 3 sets of 15-25.
- Bent-Over Rows: 3 sets of 15-20 with one 1kg weight in each hand.
- Chin-ups: 3 sets of as many as possible with bodyweight: be sure to hold child's legs to stabilise them throughout the movement.
- Dumbbell Curls: 3 sets of 15-20 with one 1kg weight in each hand.
Note: this routine can be done in almost any environment. If one does not have a weight set, full tins of food can be used as a substitute.
Given my passion for weight-training, and my belief that it is of benefit to children, I have developed a program for my 7-year-old son, Curtis. Curtis (who is pictured throughout this article) looks forward to the challenge of each session (Curtis uses the suggested routine featured in this article), and enjoys every moment (enjoyment of training is a huge factor when children are concerned).
Below Are Some Of The Strategies We Use To Keep The Sessions Fun & Productive:
- Set Little Goals: training targets are important for children. Keep a diary to track success and discuss results before each session to help motivate your child. Children can have short attention spans so it is best to keep goals very simple and focus on one or two per session. For example, last week I had Curtis complete an additional press-up, and made a particular point of mentioning to him he had gotten stronger. He now wants to complete one more next time.
- Use A Reward System: rewards can be used sporadically to help motivate and enthuse ones child. A book or toy at the end of the training month might help to keep the child's motivational fires burning.
- Get Involved: if one has a home gym they can train alongside their child (this works best for me). If not, they should nevertheless demonstrate good exercise form by, at the very least, completing the occasional set themselves.
- Incorporate Session Into Another Activity: if ones child is not motivated to train, a smaller session can be scheduled into a "more fun" activity such as tag or almost any sport. This other activity may even serve as a warm-up for the training ahead.
- Commend A Great Effort: always commend your child for a job well done. Ensure they know that weight-training is healthy for them, and try to present it as being something they can do always.
Upon reviewing the evidence, and seeing first hand what weight-training can do for a child, I would recommend a safe and sensible program for pre-pubescent children. A weight-training routine will immensely benefit ones child in many ways. Increased self-confidence, stronger bones and increased muscle strength and endurance are key benefits to be realized.
Indeed, a greatest gift a parent can give to their child is the gift of health.
- Hamill, B., P.(1994). Relative safety of weightlifting and weight training. Journal of Strength Conditioning Research. 8(1), 53-57.
- Faigenbaum, A,. D. Kraemer, W., J. & Cahill, B.(1996). Youth resistance training: position statement paper and literature review. Strength Conditioning.18(6), 62-76.
- Faigenbaum, A,. D. Polakowski, C.(1999). Olympic-style weightlifting, kid style. Journal of Strength Conditioning Research. 21(3), 73-76.