If you had asked doctors and sports medicine specialists a few years ago whether kids under the age of puberty should lift weights or engage in other forms of strength training, you would have heard a chorus of "No... absolutely not!" They would have told you that children and younger adolescents should definitely not practice weight training, because it would "stunt their growth."
Modern specialists now know that this was a myth, much of inspired by a Japanese study during the 1970s that was taken out of context. In that study, researchers looked at child laborers and found that – along with other problems caused by forced labor, poor working conditions, and poor diet – they tended to be abnormally short. This was falsely extrapolated to mean that the cause of this was lifting heavy weights during their work, and became part of the myth that kids could actually be harmed by weight training.
Children can benefit from strength training
Modern research, including a review of such studies recently published in Pediatrics, exposes the myth and says exactly the opposite – that children can benefit greatly from properly designed and properly supervised weight lifting and other forms of strength training. The current position of the American Academy of Pediatrics is that "If appropriate training guidelines are followed, regular participation in a youth strength-training program has the potential to increase bone mineral density, improve motor performance skills, enhance sports performance, and better prepare young athletes for the demands of practice and competition."
According to sports medicine specialist Dr. Jordan D. Metzl, strength training is safe for kids and can begin as early as age 8, especially if they are involved in sports. The strength training can, in fact, help these young athletes to prevent sports injuries. He points out that over 30 million American kids participate in organized sports; sadly, 3 to 4 million of them become injured every year. One of the most common injuries is to the ligaments that support and stabilize the knee joint. Dr. Metzl says, "We want kids to play sports, but we also want to figure out how to make them safer," and cites a number of studies indicating that performing exercises that strengthen the muscles around the knee significantly reduces the number of knee injuries.
So should kids go to the gym and "pump iron" with their parents?
Definitely not, for many reasons. First, the rules and insurance regulations imposed by most gyms and exercise facilities would never permit it. Second, almost of the weights and machines in such facilities are designed for adults, and would be inappropriate for children and young adolescents.
What sports medicine experts recommend instead are gentle, closely-supervised resistance and strength training exercises that can be done at home using elastic bands, small dumbbells, or even the body's own weight. Strength training for kids is definitely not the same as "power lifting," which is often competitive and aims at building up not only strength but muscle mass. In children, muscles do not necessarily get bigger as a result of lifting weights; they just get stronger, and thus more resistant to injury.
The emphasis should be on using light weights that the child can easily lift for many repetitions or "reps." If the child can't lift the weight or pull the elastic band easily for 15 repetitions, then it's too heavy. Many of the exercises that Dr. Metzl recommends for children don't even involve weights or other apparatus; they can be performed just using the child's own weight to provide resistance.
Strength training can become a family affair
One of the benefits of this new approach to strength training is that families can exercise together. Parents can be there with their kids at home to make sure that they follow all the recommended guidelines, and that they never try to work with weights too heavy for them, or try to use machines that are designed for adults, and thus too large for them.
The bottom line seems to be that if your children are old enough to participate in some kind of organized athletics, then they are old enough to benefit from strength training. Properly taught and properly supervised, such training is not only safe for them, it can help to increase their muscle strength and endurance, can help them to improve their performance in those sports, and can help them to avoid injuries while playing them.