Is it Safe for Kids to Lift Weights?
Samuel Schimelpfenig, MD, FAAP, Avera Medical Group Pediatrics, Sports Medicine, gets plenty of questions from parents about lifting weights and kids. Here are his answers.
Is it true or myth that weights and younger kids are a bad pairing?
Not necessarily. It depends on how much weight and what kind of exercises the child is doing. Because children have open growth plates and are prone to overuse injuries with repetitive activities, several precautions need to be considered.
Regarding the weight, it should be low weight as the goal is to develop muscular strength and endurance, not muscle mass. “Less weight, more reps” is a good rule to follow. The child should be closely supervised to ensure they are performing the exercise correctly, and should be able to master the technique first with minimal weight before any more weight is added. Because there are many exercises for any muscle group, having some variety in the routine also is a good thing – this works the muscles in different ways leading to greater overall gains, helps prevent injury from repetitive activity, and helps prevent boredom.
Some other points to consider:
- Strength training does not necessarily need to be done with weights. Body weight exercises like sit-ups, push-ups, pull-ups, planks, squats, etc. all can be done without weights.
- Weight machines should be used with caution because they typically will not accommodate smaller body sizes and depending on the set-up might have too much weight or inability for smaller adjustments in weight.
Is there a best age for kids to start with weights?
Children can start using weights once they have the maturity to follow instruction. As above, they need to be able to pay attention and learn now to do the exercise correctly to prevent injury.
Are there certain exercises that kids should avoid – or ones they should gravitate toward?
Powerlifting should be avoided until later in adolescence when skeletal maturity is being reached. These exercises are generally different from strength building routines; they are more aggressive lifts, typically with more weight. With powerlifting, proper technique is essential to maximize the benefit and reduce the risk of injury.
Weight training often focuses on “max” weights – and number of reps. Is there a sweet spot for kids of various ages when combining these two factors? Should kids of a certain age avoid “max” exercises, such as bench press?
As I mentioned, the athlete needs to consider the goal of weight training. In children and pre-adolescents, the goal should be to develop muscular strength and endurance. Low weight and more reps is the key for this. Max weight lifts with fewer reps is a strategy to develop muscular mass and power but this would not be appropriate for a youngster with open growth plates.
Starting with barbells is a nice way to add some weight and variety to an exercise routine. The technique should be mastered first. Barbells are generally associated with a lower rate of injury when the technique is sound.
Squats and bench press are also great exercises, but the athlete needs close supervision for good technique, and for safety. Young athletes (or athletes at any age) should not lift alone, and there should always be safety devices in place (squats should be done in a squat cage, bench press should have a safety bar at chest level, etc.). Start with low weight until good technique is achieved and then slowly add weight until the reps cannot be maintained. Generally the bar weights around 50 pounds, so it will be older children/pre-adolescents who are typically able to start these exercises.
Some sports – especially football – are synonymous with weight training. Are there some sports that folks might overlook as benefiting from the use of resistance/weight training?
There are few sports that would not benefit from a strength/conditioning routine. The key is doing exercises that will benefit that sport or activity, as all sports place different demands on the musculoskeletal system. Working with an athletic trainer or sports medicine specialist can help guide an exercise regimen. And even for the non-athlete but active individual, the benefits of strength/conditioning exercises on general health and well-being are huge.