There is a great debate that has waged on in the fitness world for a long time now: is it safe for children to lift weights? It has been a hot topic that has generated a lot of different opinions, from old school doctors and personal trainers, to moms and dads worried for their children’s safety. These people are all entitled to their opinions, don’t get me wrong, but many of their claims have no validity at all. I’m here to tell you that no more arguing and debating is necessary. Before any more myths and old wives tales are thrown out there, let’s all sit down and take a look at the scientific evidence that is available to us about youth strength training. As they say, the proof is in the pudding.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) is the worldwide authority on, you guessed it, strength and conditioning! They put out the latest literature, research findings, breakthrough techniques, and the most up-to-date conditioning practices and injury prevention methods in the wide world of strength and conditioning. In 2009, they released their most up-to-date position statement on youth resistance training. Before I get into the details of their statement, here is an excerpt from the position stand that sums up its purpose:
The purpose of the present report is to update and clarify the 1996 recommendations on 4 major areas of importance. These topics include (a) the potential risks and concerns associated with youth resistance training, (b) the potential health and fitness benefits of youth resistance training, (c) the types and amount of resistance training needed by healthy children and adolescents, and (d) program design considerations for optimizing long-term training adaptations. The NSCA based this position statement paper on a comprehensive analysis of the pertinent scientific evidence regarding the anatomical, physiological, and psychosocial effects of youth resistance training. An expert panel of exercise scientists, physicians, and health/physical education teachers with clinical, practical, and research expertise regarding issues related to pediatric exercise science, sports medicine, and resistance training contributed to this statement. The NSCA Research Committee reviewed this report before the formal endorsement by the NSCA.
Here is an overview of the current position held by the NSCA on youth resistance training:
1. A properly designed and supervised resistance training
program is relatively safe for youth.
2. A properly designed and supervised resistance training
program can enhance the muscular strength and power of
3. A properly designed and supervised resistance training
program can improve the cardiovascular risk profile of
4. A properly designed and supervised resistance training
program can improve motor skill performance and may
contribute to enhanced sports performance of youth.
5. A properly designed and supervised resistance training
program can increase a young athlete’s resistance to sports related
6. A properly designed and supervised resistance training
program can help improve the psychosocial well-being
7. A properly designed and supervised resistance training
program can help promote and develop exercise habits
during childhood and adolescence.
As you can see, the benefits of youth resistance training programs can be substantial, even on a psychosocial level! So what about the people who claim that kids will get injured strength training? Well, let’s take a look at the data. Only three published studies have reported injuries in youth caused by resistance training. These were a shoulder strain that resolved within 1 week of rest, a shoulder strain that resulted in 1 missed training session, and a nonspecific anterior thigh pain that resolved with 5 minutes of rest. As with any sport, resistance training carries a certain degree of inherent risk. However, if you compare strength training injuries to injuries associated with “classic” sports that youth participate in, the numbers don’t lie:
In a prospective study that evaluated the incidence of sports-related injuries in school aged youth over a 1-year period, resistance training resulted in 0.7% of 1576 injuries whereas football, basketball, and soccer resulted in approximately 19, 15, and 2%, respectively, of all injuries. When the data were evaluated in terms of injury to participant ratio in school team sports, football (28%), wrestling (16.4%), and gymnastics (13%) were at the top of the list. In general, injuries related to resistance training in high school athletes appear to involve the aggressive progression of training loads or improper exercise technique.
These are pretty significant findings! There are way more injuries related to football and basketball then to resistance training. The only real instances were due to improper technique (this is another issue that we will discuss another day. I have just about had it with high school coaches who think they know a lick about strength training technique!) The position stand even goes so far as to say that Olympic style weightlifting can be very safe for youth:
In support of these observations, others have evaluated the incidence of injury in young weightlifters and concluded that competitive weightlifting can be a relatively safe sport for children and adolescents provided that age-appropriate training guidelines are followed and qualified coaching is available.
One main area of concern that has many moms and dads questioning the safety and efficacy of their kids strength training is the potential for training-induced damage to the growth cartilage. I am here to debunk this myth once and for all. The bottom line is that there is no scientific evidence that supports this line of thinking. In no way, shape, or form will your child’s growth be stunted if they lift weights. In fact, the potential for this type of injury is even less in preadolescent children because of the fact that their growth cartilage may actually be stronger and more well adept at resisting sheering type forces.
So as you can see, the body of evidence is overwhelming. It is perfectly safe for children and adolescents to strength train. CrossFit is very unique in that it has a kids program that has produced CrossFit studs such as the Martin brothers (who all began training at a very young age). Our very own Jason “OG” Highbarger started training Brandon Cottle in the 6th grade. He eventually grew to 6’4″ and dominated basketball at his high school and eventually in college. As a kid, Samual Khan was doing CrossFit with Jason, Greg Amundson, and Blake Glassman back at the old CFHQ. He grew to 6’4″ as well and ended up getting 3rd in his age group in the world at the 500m row. The list goes on and on of kids who at a young age began resistance training and are now amazing athletes (and, most importantly, all injury free!).
The position statement sums it up best: Despite outdated concerns regarding the safety or effectiveness of youth resistance training, scientific evidence and clinical impressions indicate that youth resistance training has the potential to offer observable health and fitness value to children and adolescents.
So parents, get your kids lifting! After all, it’s never too early (or too late for that matter) to start…
Strict Press 1RM
Power Clean (95/65)
Finisher: Half Tabata Plate Situps (45/25)