I have been wanting to write this article for a long time, but I wanted to make sure I had a firm grasp on the information.
Thanks to the awesome folks at Dynamic Fitness and Strength for sponsoring this article and my time. This company was an obvious choice for me due to their commitment to education in the world of strength and conditioning.
I have been collecting data and combing through the research for five years now, and the answer posed by the title is quite clear:
“Weight lifting is not only safe, but very beneficial to youth athletes with one caveat, experienced coaching and well thought out programming.”
In this article I am going to break this down for you in two ways. First, I am going to lay out the science. Then I am going to give the commonsense approach. To coaches who love and follow science, the answer is unequivocal and obvious. However, due to rumors started years ago, some parents (and even some coaches) throughout the world believe weight training for prepubescent children is dangerous. They believe that weight training for youth can lead to growth plate injuries. Before I lay out the science showing this claim to be false, let me explain this type of injury a bit more thoroughly.
What is a growth plate injury?
The proper name for a growth plate is epiphyseal line or epiphyseal plate. We will simply abbreviate EP from here on out. The EPs are located toward the end of long bones, so think femur (or thigh bone). When children are young, EPs are discs of cartilage consisting of a softer substance than the rest of the bone. This allows the long bones to continue growing.
When a child reaches their genetically predetermined height, the EP’s harden up like the rest of the bone. This is normally determined by hormones – especially testosterone and estrogen. We refer to these as closed EPs. When an accident causes a break or strain at the epiphyseal plate, the plate may prematurely close or become denatured. This is the biggest fear for parents with young children in sports.
Here’s where it gets a bit interesting. A certain amount of mechanical stress in the form of compressive force is necessary for maximal growth. Compressive forces are forces in the form of squeezing things together. Proper mechanical stress aids the process of growing, but what actually causes growth plate (EP) injuries?
The thing that coaches, parents, and athletes need to understand is that bones and EP’s are strongest under compression (think mashing together) and weakest under shearing forces (think horizontal forces). Shearing forces happen when forces cause the bones to bend – as in planting the foot and changing direction or getting hit horizontally from any direction. Even worse is torsion, such as being hit horizontally from the side with the foot sticking in the ground but the leg spinning rotationally. Over and over the sports mentioned as high risk for growth plate injuries are competitive sports (such as football, basketball, running, dancing or gymnastics) and recreational sports (such as biking, sledding, skiing, or skateboarding). Nowhere in the research or in the basic medical articles is weight training ever mentioned. I will come back to this in the commonsense section.
To be clear, I am not saying to avoid any of the mentioned sporting activities either. I am simply stating there is inherent risk with everything in life. However, when it comes to weight training and/or the sport of weightlifting, there is less risk than other sports. Myers, et al., 2017 found that resistance training presented very little risk as long as a qualified coach was present and programming was appropriate to age. As a matter of fact, compared to other sports resistance training and/or weightlifting are way down the line when it comes to injuries per 1000 contact hours. Weightlifting as a sport experiences fewer than 1/3 the number of injuries seen in soccer (not to mention American football or rugby).
What are the benefits of Weightlifting?
Benefit 1: Increased Power
The prepubescent years are a time of neural development. The added load and movement experienced from weightlifting and/or weight training is directly proportional to increased neural activity. This can easily be seen with increased counter movement jumps versus non-counter movement jumps. Athletes participating in resistance training experienced significant increases in their counter movement jumps versus static starts. (Myers, et al., 2017).
The counter movement jump is correlated with improvements in the nervous system due to the stretch shortening cycle. The stretch shortening cycle is performed due to changes in length of the muscle spindles (nerves running parallel to muscle fibers) that create a reflex to contract explosively upon changes of length in the various muscles. The increased load and the complexity of movement has a direct impact on improving the nervous system. As a matter of fact, the next benefit shows that weight training has a direct improvement on the CNS as a whole including the brain.
Benefit 2: Improved Cognitive Performance
Continually studies throughout America and the world are showing improvements in cognition with exercise in general – including weight training, running, and even kayaking. A great book to read is Spark, by Dr. John Ratey, Harvard Professor, which is all about exercise’s positive effects on the brain.
Wick, et. al., 2021 showed a conclusive positive effect on the attention spans of very young athletes four to six years old. Anyone who has ever worked out is aware that their cognitive function is improved with consistent training. Dr. Ratey explains this improvement is due to increased Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor, which is a growth factor that supports the maturation, survival, differentiation, maintenance, and growth of nerve cells in the brain. Basically, BDNF is steroids for brain cells.
Benefit 3: Improved General Strength
This one seems like a no brainer, but some people will still say that strength training doesn’t work at this age. Actually, strength gains as high as 74% were reported in a meta-analysis by Faigenbaum, et al., 2009. The best part is that those strength gains are maintained throughout their lives as long as they consistently train as little as once per week.
That means that the youth get a head start compared to other athletes, and they maintain this advantage throughout high school and beyond. Any weightlifting coach in America will tell you this point is obvious. Any athlete who has started with me on or before his or her 11th birthday experienced strength and movement gains unrecognized by their counter parts in school.
Benefit 4: Improved Cardiovascular Risk Profile
In a time where childhood obesity is at an all-time high, studies would suggest weight training can improve body fat percentage and significantly improved insulin sensitivity in adolescent males at risk of obesity. “Because the increase in insulin sensitively remained significant after adjustment for changes in total fat mass and total lean mass, it appeared that regular resistance training may have resulted in qualitative changes in skeletal muscle that contributed to enhanced insulin action.” (Faigenbaum, et al., 2009).
For most young children experiencing potential obesity, weight training sometimes ends up being a much more enjoyable form of activity. However, once they experience the enjoyment of weight training in the form of increased strength and muscular development, they tend to get hooked on exercising in general. This was definitely the case for me. At 11 years old I was definitely borderline obese, and then I started working out.
This next statement is completely anecdotal, but children born hybrid endomorph-ectomorph are more inclined to enjoy strength training. Once they are involved, their body types end up molding into mesomorphs. Once a child experiences the confidence that comes with increased strength and muscularity, they tend to continue that activity for life. However, maybe this is just the experience of my friends and me. It is surely a common trait experienced by a lot of strength athletes who go on to experience a lifetime of fitness.
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Benefit 5: Improved Bone Health and Connective Tissue
Not only is weight training safe, but it is actually way more than just safe. It is beneficial to bone growth and connective tissue. Faigenbaum, et al, 2009 said, “If age-specific resistance training guidelines are followed and if nutritional recommendations (e.g., adequate calcium) are adhered to, regular participation in a resistance training program can maximize bone mineral density during childhood and adolescence.” This along with a comprehensive plyometric and deceleration mechanics instruction during preseason training showed to significantly decrease injuries in males and females.
This is huge news in an age where knee injuries are at an all-time high – especially in young female athletes. However, there was a big difference in having a solid preseason program versus in-season. Preseason allows for recovery of muscles, ligaments, tendons, and other connective tissues – which is much needed for youth who are more and more experiencing year-round sports.
This leads me to a short but very direct rant. If an athlete is good enough to play collegiate or professional sports, then I promise they will do just that. Playing year-round with no time off is not going to make them better athletes. Sure, they will potentially get better at the sport a bit sooner. But the athlete who is taking care of their body will eventually catch up skill-wise – and they will be injury-free, faster, and stronger. Who do you believe a college coach is going to want?
I am not talking about making time for some in-season training. I am talking about taking some time to develop them with an experienced strength and athletic performance coach. This doesn’t mean that they can’t practice their sport. It just means they won’t be playing a game all the time and will decrease their chance of experiencing an injury.
Benefit 6: Motor Performance Skills and Sports Performance
Faigenbaum, et al., 2009 found, “Improvements in selected motor performance skills (e.g., long jump, vertical jump, sprint speed, and medicine ball toss) have been observed in children and adolescents after resistance training with weight machines, free weights, body weight strength exercises, and medicine balls. Gains in motor performance skills in youth have also been noted after regular participation in plyometric training programs. More recently, researchers have reported that the combination of resistance training and plyometric training may offer the most benefit for adolescent athletes.” To summarize, strength training combined with plyometrics (and in my experience, sprint training) is the key to optimal athletic performance.
All you have to do is visit my gym sometime and take a look at my weightlifters – both boys and girls. They will all be able to jump out of the roof, sprint, and perform gymnastics like handstand walks, muscle-ups, and standing back flips. It really doesn’t take a lot of this flashy nonsense we see all too often on Instagram and Twitter. Solid athletic performance will consist of the following:
- Strength training in the form of relative strength, which is a way of saying improving the way an athlete can manage his or her own body weight.
- Strength training is the form of absolute strength, which is more related to resistance training. I suggest sticking to the basics of squatting, hinging, pulling, and pushing, which can be performed with barbells, kettlebells, and dumbbells. I am of course partial to the equipment made my Dynamic Strength and Fitness, which is a company that has hired a team of former athletes and coaches to create equipment for athletes and coaches.
- A focus on all planes is necessary – including transverse, frontal, and sagittal (side to side, front and back, and rotational).
- Bilateral and unilateral strength work.
- Horizontal and vertical jumping with attention to landing mechanics.
- Sprinting, both linear and side to side with attention to deceleration.
- Core stability with carries, both unilaterally and overhead.
- Sled pushes and drags.
Benefit 7: Psychosocial Health and Well-Being
In a time when kids are getting bullied online and at school, this benefit is needed more than ever. Research has shown an improvement in psychosocial health and confidence in children. Dr. Ratey talks about this trait in Spark. Exercise and strength training have both been linked to an increase in BDNF and dopamine. Dopamine is the neurotransmitter involved with motivation, reward, memory, attention, and even regulating body movements. It’s not a secret that children are moving less and staring at a screen more and more. It’s time to get them moving again.
Faigenbaum, et al., 2009 said, “Of interest, clinicians have noted that the socialization and mental discipline exhibited by children who resistance trained were similar to those exhibited by team sport participants (187), and children’s attitudes toward physical education, physical fitness, and lifelong exercise reportedly improved after a conditioning program that included resistance training (249,250). If appropriate resistance training guidelines are followed and if children and adolescents are encouraged to embrace self-improvement and feel good about their performances, the positive psychosocial effects of resistance training programs may indeed be comparable with other sports and recreational activities.”
All of these benefits can be experienced without the sometimes-negative benefits associated with overzealous coaching and excessive pressure that comes with team sports. Weight training is something that can be measured with the individual.
I love coaching at Lenoir-Rhyne University. I coach some incredible future Olympians, and I coach some athletes brand new to the sport (like Trip and Ami – I will leave their last names out of the article to protect their anonymity). It has been a pleasure to watch them improve in their abilities to perform the movements of the snatch and clean and jerk. I have watched both of them improve their confidence not only in the sport, but in life.
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Life Benefits from the Sport of Weightlifting
- Goal Setting: the entire sport is based around one’s own ability, and plans are made to improve. Goals are made to improve technique, velocity, stability, mobility, and yes, strength levels.
- Perseverance: any weightlifter of any age will tell you that perseverance is mandatory in the sport of weightlifting. There are always obstacles to overcome, which makes overcoming those hills so enjoyable.
- Hard Work: nothing gets accomplished in the world of strength without hard work. That’s why I believe so many of my athletes go on to do such amazing things – like being on the cover of Forbes Magazine, starring in hit movies on Netflix, becoming best-selling authors, and growing high powered businesses of their own.
- Complete Ownership: after they’re done training with me, this is the number one trait I want my athletes to leave with. Until someone takes complete ownership of the good and bad things in their life, there will be no progress made. Team sports allow athletes to blame others, but in strength sports you either lift more weight than your competitor or not. You can’t blame anyone. This trait empowers athletes to take on anything in life.
- Commitment: you can’t imagine how much commitment is required in weightlifting. You come in to the gym day in and day out, week in and week out for years at a time, and sometimes months go by without any progress. Then commitment takes over, things are figured out, and the plateau is overcome. Does this sound familiar? It’s so relatable to life.
What Age is Appropriate to Start?
Oh yes, the question of the hour. I will be glad to tell you with explanation. “Although there is no minimum age requirement at which children can begin resistance training, all participants must be mentally and physically ready to comply with coaching instructions and undergo the stress of a training program. In general, if a child is ready for participation in sport activities (generally age 7 or 8), then he or she is ready for some type of resistance training.”(11) As long as they can pay attention to instruction, then they are ready to begin – just like any other sport. By the way, Dr. Faigenbaum is one of the world’s most renowned researchers in the area of youth and resistance training. If you don’t agree, take it up with him.
This brings me to my final point. I am calling this the commonsense point.
You can go out to the soccer field or youth football field most any Saturday of Sunday, and watch parents screaming for the children. I’m all for that! However, if you post a video of a child lifting a 2.5kg barbell, 100% of the time you will have someone comment about the dangers of growth plates or some other made-up injury.
I already posted the truth about resistance training and injuries, but let’s look at this logically. If an athlete puts a 2.5kg barbell on their back and performs a squat, they are experiencing 25 Newtons of vertical force. If they collide with another athlete weighing an average of 25kg (55lb), they will experience a horizontal force of around 125 Newtons (assuming one of them is standing still). If they are running at each other, then you have a massive collision. Are you getting the point? If an athlete jumps and lands, you are looking at multiplying their bodyweight x 9.81m/s².
To summarize, it makes no logical sense – and the data simply proves what should be obvious. I hope this helps in making your decisions. The research is below. If you have any questions, feel free to contact me at Travis.Mash@LR.edu. I am obviously passionate about this one, so I would love to discuss – as long as it’s a logical databased discussion or a scientifically commonsense one.
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- Myers, A. M., Beam, N. W., & Fakhoury, J. D. (2017). Resistance training for children and adolescents. Translational pediatrics, 6(3), 137–143. https://doi.org/10.21037/tp.2017.04.01
- Growth plate injuries. National Institute of Arthritis and Musculoskeletal and Skin Diseases. http://www.niams.nih.gov/Health_Info/Growth_Plate_Injuries. Accessed March 29, 2016.
- Ornon G, Fritschy D, Ziltener J, et al Professional ice hockey injuries: 4 years prospective studyBritish Journal of Sports Medicine 2011;45:366.
- Ekstrand, J., Gillquist, J., Möller, M., Oberg, B., & Liljedahl, S.-O. (1983). Incidence of soccer injuries and their relation to training and team success. The American Journal of Sports Medicine, 11(2), 63–67. https://doi.org/10.1177/036354658301100203
- Dahab, K. S., & McCambridge, T. M. (2009). Strength training in children and adolescents: raising the bar for young athletes? Sports health, 1(3), 223–226. https://doi.org/10.1177/1941738109334215
- Wick, Kristin1,2; Kriemler, Susi3; Granacher, Urs2 Effects of a Strength-Dominated Exercise Program on Physical Fitness and Cognitive Performance in Preschool Children, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: April 2021 – Volume 35 – Issue 4 – p 983-990 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003942
- Lesinski, M., Herz, M., Schmelcher, A. et al. Effects of Resistance Training on Physical Fitness in Healthy Children and Adolescents: An Umbrella Review. Sports Med 50, 1901–1928 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1007/s40279-020-01327-3
- Malina RM. Weight training in youth-growth, maturation, and safety: an evidence-based review. Clin J Sport Med. 2006 Nov;16(6):478-87. doi: 10.1097/01.jsm.0000248843.31874.be. PMID: 17119361.
- Faigenbaum, Avery D1; Kraemer, William J2; Blimkie, Cameron J R3; Jeffreys, Ian4; Micheli, Lyle J5; Nitka, Mike6; Rowland, Thomas W7 Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper From the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: August 2009 – Volume 23 – Issue – p S60-S79 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31819df407
- Ratey, J. J., & Hagerman, E. (2008). Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain. New York: Little, Brown.
- Faigenbaum, Avery D.1; Myer, Gregory D.2,3,4 Pediatric Resistance Training, Current Sports Medicine Reports: May 2010 – Volume 9 – Issue 3 – p 161-168 doi: 10.1249/JSR.0b013e3181de1214