The short answer is “Yes!” It is both safe and effective for kids (we are referring to adolescence as young as 7) to embark on a strength training program.
Although some people may have a preconceived idea that strength training is unsafe for children, when reviewing current research there is a relatively low risk of injury in children and adolescents who follow age-appropriate resistance training guidelines, which include supervision and instruction.
There seems to be two-phenomenon occurring with today’s youth. On one end there is a higher level of obese and de-conditioned children, who may be subjecting themselves to tremendous amount of screen time per week (TV, You Tube, Gaming). On the other end of the spectrum, we have children who are specializing in one sport much earlier on in their lives, due to the increased competiveness of youth sports. Children on both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between can experience the benefits of getting involved in strength training.
In one study, twice-weekly strength training in boys and girls between the ages of 7 and 12 years produced significant strength gains. They found that children gained strength through neural adaptations, not necessarily muscle hypertrophy (growth). Strength training in children likely improves the number and coordination of activated motor neurons, as well as the firing rate and pattern. In other words, it wasn’t necessarily muscle size that created strength gains but improvements in mind-body connection, motor skills, and ability to fire more muscle fibers. Basically, it created a more efficient central nervous system when it comes to movement patterns.
Circulating hormones in youth will change pre and post puberty years. When children begin to have more hormones available, studies show these teens are able to make more gains due to a better capacity to grow muscle.
An additional benefit of strength training is to decrease risk of injury in children athletics. This has become such a universal idea that in some middle schools, eighth graders are working with strength coaches in the off season. Some examples of preventable injuries include neck training to help prevent concussions, shoulder and scapular strength and stability for young pitchers, and plyometric training to help reduce the risk of ACL tears. (Click here for more on neck training and concussions).
Below are the scientifically proven benefits:
1) Increase Strength
2) Improve Body Composition
3) Improve Self-Efficacy (Confidence in abilities)
4) Improve Motor Skills/ Body Awareness
5) Injury Prevention
There are a few things to consider prior to letting your teen/pre-teen hit the gym:
1) Emotional Maturity level – Are they mature enough to follow directions and pay attention to their surroundings? The weight room is a place where there should be supervision for kids. They can be taught at an early age how to approach with caution and reverence.
2) Proper Coaching – Too often in a commercial gym, we see a Dad working out with his son doing a high school football workout from the 70’s. This is definitely not the correct modality for a child. It may be best to get a professional to help set the foundation with cuing and correcting until proper technique becomes engrained. Similarly to training adults, we do not want to be loading improper technique.
3) Equipment –Commercial gym machines are anatomically designed for adults, which is why children may benefit from using equipment like bands, stability balls and free weights. This will better help develop body awareness, flexibility, proprioception and balance.
4) Growth Plates – The issue with growth plates is they can be three to five times weaker than surrounding connective tissue and it may be more susceptible to tear under forces than other ligaments and tendons. Studies show that with proper progressions, technique and weight selection, there is no detrimental effect on growth plates of children. Many reported injuries during strength training studies were caused by improper lifting techniques, using weight that is too heavy or lack of qualified adult supervision. These are similar issues adults who lift too heavy with improper form would experience. Another thing to consider, When you consider is the amount of forces and loading that are placed on a child during an athletic event or practice. These forces that occur naturally can be more serious than loads that they would face in the fitness center. Elementary school children can create forces up to 3.5 to 5 times there own bodyweight while jumping in gym class. What can also be more detrimental to growth and posture in kids is carrying heavy backpacks for prolonged period of times – proper strength training can help counteract these effects.
If your young pre-teen or teen is interested in weight training, and has the emotional maturity level to do so, let them. However, it is definitely worth setting them up in a supervised environment with someone able to reinforce proper technique and help them gain confidence in a gym setting. Children who develop these habits early on will carry them into adulthood.