Most parents at one time or another have probably heard that strength training at a younger age (preadolescent) is dangerous, so dangerous that it can cause injury and stunt growth. In fact, you might even believe this to be true and hesitate to allow your child to participate in strength training. The reality is this couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only is strength training effective for kids as young as 4th and 5th grade, it is far safer than most sports kids participate in.
Fact vs. Fallacy
Much of the confusion on the safety of youth strength training can be attributed to some flawed emergency room reporting data, that was incorrectly interpreted in the 1970’s. Although this data showed some kids were getting injured (in some cases fracturing growth plates of long bones, which can stunt growth), it didn’t report how they got injured. Nearly all of the significant injuries (especially those involving growth plate fractures) were a result of heavy spinal loaded lifts (deadlifts, overhead press, etc.) performed with poor technique, and under little to no qualified supervision. Although this incorrect data has been refuted many times over in research, some people still cling to the notion that strength training isn’t safe until a child is more fully developed.
All contemporary research shows that injury rates in properly supervised weight room environments are staggeringly low. Incidence of weight lifting based injury is about 0.0012 per 100 hours of participation. By way of comparison, injury rates in youth soccer are about 6 per 100 hours of participation. In short, the controlled environment of a weight room with proper supervision and proper prescription is FAR safer than the unpredictable sporting environments our kids participate in all the time.
Effectiveness & Purpose
Not only is youth strength training safe, but it is extremely effective. Research shows that it improves motor skills and sports skills in kids as young as 4th grade. Strength training helps to prevent sport- and play-based injury. It also improves confidence, aids in reducing body fat, and helps to build a foundation of fitness that can last a lifetime.
Nearly all the changes in a child’s body that lead to these benefits are neuromuscular in nature. Indeed, kids don’t have the adequate hormonal make-up yet to build muscle from strength training, so the mechanisms for the adaptation have to be different than they typically are for adults. These mechanisms at a young age are almost exclusively strengthening of the connections between the brain and the muscles, allowing them to do their jobs more efficiently, thereby increasing strength.
Take Home Message
Strength training for kids as young as 4th grade is safe and effective when properly supervised and prescribed. It’s not just for younger athletes either. Younger kids who don’t participate in sports can benefit as much, if not more, than kids who do. Granted, inactive kids or kids who don’t play sports don’t need the performance benefits, but they can benefit from the health, fitness, and weight management changes even more so than a young athlete (since the non-athletes typically aren’t engaged in other activity due to lack of skill, interest, or desire for competition). So now that you know the truth on youth strength training, use it to help build a foundation of health and fitness that will last a life time.