Weight Training: Risk of Injury

Strength training must be approached with caution and respect. Weights cannot be taken lightly (no pun intended). Old wives’ tales used to suggest that strength training would “stunt your growth.” This could easily happen if there is a major accident that injures the growth plate because it is the weakest area of the bone. Beyond speculation, though, there have been sufficient reports of major injuries to withhold kids from training with weights. Unfortunately, some of those injuries have been deaths. Most of the serious injuries have come from situations with home gym equipment when there was no supervision and the kids were playing around or challenging one another. This problem may not apply to youth teams, but even so, this type of dangerous situation simply must not happen. Youngsters should be taught from the beginning that playing with such equipment is a big no-no, like playing with sharp knives or guns. Not only can they put an eye out, but someone can get seriously hurt. Most of the reported injuries involve unsupervised situations or youth attempting to do a max lift before they are physically developed or have the right instruction.

Injuries have included herniated disks in the back, muscle strains and tears, bone fractures, growth plate injuries, and cartilage damage. If lifting weights is going to be pursued seriously, that type of training should be pursued in the right way and correctly along the developmental pathway. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that explosive types of lifts or heavy Olympic-style lifting should be delayed until the skeleton matures after the growth spurt.

In general, training with weights has been found to help increase strength in children without negative effects on things such as bone growth or blood pressure. Outside the realm of unsupervised home gym equipment, proper strength training has been shown to allow an increase in strength with fewer injuries than occur during recess at school. This does not mean that there is no risk. Risk is always present and potentially high, but risk can be reduced significantly if strength training is done appropriately. For young age groups before puberty, this means doing light weights with more repetitions.

It also means strengthening sports-specific moves and actions to better equip the child in those positions. Overall flexibility should be emphasized as well because a little momentum for maintaining flexibility is needed before youngsters start to tighten up with the rapid growth of puberty.

Weight Training: Age and Development

The importance of age would appear to even the most casual observer to be a no-brainer. Alas, you do not see some of the patients in my medical practice. You would be amazed how many parents are frothing at the mouth to have their kids lifting weights at very young ages or when they have just started a new sport. Whoa! Hang on a bit.

To add a little reality to the scenario of prepubertal iron pumping, let’s look at the reality of science and research. This isn’t Dumbbells for Dummies here. I’m talking scientific research, and there has actually been a lot of scientific interest in this subject. Inquiring minds want to know if it’s OK for young Johnny or Janie to be reaching for those weights.

Many years ago, people abandoned the notion of youth lifting weights altogether. The thought was that children were not able to get stronger or bigger because they did not have enough testosterone in their bodies until after puberty. We have learned a lot since then and now know that girls and boys can actually gain strength before they are even close to puberty. The real question is not how that happens, but is it necessary or even worth it? I will discuss with you how it happens and things to consider when deciding if it is necessary or appropriate.

Age is a big factor. To carry out strength training effectively, athletes must have correct form and be able to move the weight in a safe and efficient manner. Balance, control, posture, and coordination start to mature to adult levels by around 7 to 8 years of age. In the majority of cases, it would not be appropriate (or safe) to allow weight training before age 7. It still seems to be common sense that strength training even at that age is questionable for any long-term benefit. Other developmental factors play a role here, too. Milestones such as attention span, ability to stay focused, and maturity to accept and understand instruction all apply. If the child has not reached a level of development to satisfy those criteria, spend the time and energy doing something else and let him lift the garbage instead of weights.

Weight Training: Availability of Equipment and Adequate Supervision

These 2 external factors play a significant role in the safety of strength training for kids. If the equipment is not readily available, is not the right kind of equipment, or is in an unsupervised setting, participation in that location should be reconsidered. Most gym equipment is made for adult-sized bodies, so it is too big for kids; the arm and leg lengths are too long, and the weight plates increase a large amount at a time. Fortunately, machines that are built in sizes for children do exist in some places, but are certainly not widespread. In that case, free weights can often be used more safely and effectively because they are readily available and portable, can replicate many different sports-specific moves and positions, and can start out very small and only increase by a small amount of weight at a time. Of course, good, mature posture and balance control are absolutely necessary before starting to use free weights.

In addition, low-weight, higher-repetition exercises need to be done correctly. Proper form and technique must be strictly guided and supervised by a trained certified professional or coach who has knowledge about strength training for children. This is of enormous importance. Supervision is not an older high school student who just passes through the gym every now and then during his free period. Supervision means a knowledgeable adult who has devoted time to help teach proper form and observe the child to prevent injury. Because of the high risk of dangerous injury, lifting heavy weights with bad technique and bad supervision is only asking for disaster. Even when done properly with appropriate supervision, an injury can happen, but the many scientific studies investigating strength training in 8- to 11-year-olds show that injury rates have been virtually nonexistent when training is done correctly with strict supervision. Are you getting the picture here? The word supervision was used 5 times in just 1 paragraph. It must be important.

Let me say it again. Regardless of development or sports expertise, strength training for young people must be carried out with correct technique and strict supervision. One word, 4 syllables—sounds like supervision.

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