Is lifting ok for kids?
This week’s blog revolves around a recent discussion/debate I had with a friend about kid’s strength training. We were discussing something he had seen online in which a young girl, around the age of 8 or 9, was practising a barbell snatch. This girl was clearly a talented weightlifter, even at such an early age and was probably lifting around 8-10kg, at around I guess, 20-25kg bodyweight (The load probably looked heavier to some, as they might not know that weightlifting bars can start at 5kg and bumper plates as light as 1kg).
He believed that the child was too young to be lifting weight and that they may cause themselves long term damage. Now this isn’t the first time I have had this conversation and it definitely won’t be the last so therefore, I was fairly well prepared for what was coming next…..he continued “I read somewhere that if kids lift weights it will stunt their growth”. As I tend to do often do when I hear this comment, I laughed. I then asked where he had read this, he couldn’t remember exactly but knew he had heard that ‘heavy’ lifting affected the growth (epiphyseal) plates.
This is a common misconception with zero evidence (that’s right none, nada, zip, zilch) to back it up however, it possibly originates from the misinterpretation of why gymnasts and Olympic weightlifters are generally short. Now there is a pretty straightforward reason for this in that these athletes are more suited to these sports, due to the mechanical advantages of having shorter limbs, in the same way that basketball players are normally tall (does basketball make you tall? If so, I should start playing, every day!).
It amazes me how this myth has stuck around for so long and yet the body of evidence supporting strength training has somehow been overlooked. In fact, the benefits of strength training for children far outweigh any possible injury risks. In fact, one of the benefits of strength training is that it has been shown to help decrease the risk of potential injury, especially those of the overuse variety associated with early sport specialisation. However, most parents will allow their children to play a ton of sport (with a proven high risk of injury), yet wont entertain their child lifting weights, which interestingly, have been shown time and again to be safe with a low risk of injury and a bundle of potential benefits (show me a high level athlete that doesn’t lift weights, I’ll wait…). Then when their child gets regular pain in their knee (Osgood-Schlatter’s) or heel (Sever’s) and they go to see the physio what does the physio say (at least what should a good physio say)? To rest from their sport and strengthen the muscles/joints. This is a backwards approach to an ongoing problem.
I believe that a major flaw and where subsequently problems arise, is that people either forget and/or do not really understand the concept of athletic development, and how ‘strength training’ can express specific adaptations at different periods relative to age, training age and maturation. For example, if we consider again the young girl learning the barbell snatch, but instead of calling it strength training, we called it skill training or technical training (just like when other young kids attend football or rugby practice). Would this help move our bias and our state of mind?
In football and rugby practice the kids will jump, sprint, kick, turn, which are all great, but just like learning the barbell snatch, they all require force production + the specific skills relative to that environment and task. If I started to say to kids stop playing and moving around, as you will hurt yourself from the relative forces from sprinting and jumping, would I really be helping the kid in their development?
Furthermore, and this is a biggy! If we start to appreciate that strength training is fun and just another mode of play that young people can get involve in to learn and to develop athletic skills, and the earlier they start (NSCA state that a kid can start playing with resistance when they are old enough to follow instructions, not just chronological age) the more prepared they will be for playing sport, general health and a long-active life. Why would I not give this opportunity for every child? Just like teaching kids how to read, if we start that learning early in their development, and they become proficient, we’ve given that child a great start to explore the world and opened up fantastic opportunities.
A great example of how strength training aids in athletic development and general robustness, was reported in a study where college athletes demonstrated strength and skill levels of 2.2 BW for males and 1.6 BW for females. Yes, that’s right, 2.2x bodyweight in a youth athlete! How long does it take to get to a stage where you can lift more than 2 x your bodyweight on your back? It takes most athletes a long while to get to those kinds of levels therefore would it not make sense to learn how to lift, at a younger age? Lifting is a skill and therefore requires consistent practice to improve.
“But the athlete won’t get the benefits of strength training as they haven’t hit puberty yet”. Whilst this statement makes some sense, with studies showing a much larger increase in absolute strength levels in adolescents compared to children, mastering the fundamental lifts takes time. Therefore, the earlier an athlete can start lifting the higher their level of skill development. Furthermore, building this skill level at an early age will provide the athlete with a great base on which to improve further, once that ‘natural performance enhancing drug’, aka puberty, arrives.
So, with a huge amount of evidence promoting strength training for youth, why are there still so many barriers put in the way? Perhaps partly to blame are the commercial gyms and health clubs that still follow the narrative that weight training is for children of 16 years and over, or the outdated, biased sport coaches that believe that the child will get the requisite strength, power, speed etc. from simply playing the sport and running through a few hoops, ladders and hurdles...
Even a number of Premier League academies still don’t allow their kids to lift, with their wonderful, shiny gyms just for the over 14’s as the sport results takes precedence, not the individual’s development. With the millions spent on developing players would it not be sensible to follow years of scientific research rather than continue with a dogmatic approach?
I am not for one moment suggesting that strength training or any gym-based activity is more important than the athlete’s sport. What I am suggesting is that there should be a synergetic relationship between the sport coach, s&c coach and the athlete’s parents, ensuring that the athlete’s overall development is at the centre of every decision, as per an athlete centred approach.
Is lifting important for an athlete’s development, the evidence suggests yes and the earlier the better. Is it the be all and end all, certainly not, it is just one part of the puzzle that contributes to their ongoing development. Sleep well, train consistently, eat high quality food and recover sensibly.
Oh..... and lift.