Strength training could be a wonderful thing for individuals of all ages. For the elderly, it can help with bone density and fight the battle against muscle degradation. For others, it is used to boost fat loss and maintain some lean muscle mass. And for the young, the benefits of a strength and conditioning program are endless. Unfortunately, there is a certain stigma surrounding weight training for the youth athlete. For most of the naysayers, here are the main arguments they typically give:
Lifting weights will stunt their growth
This is one of those things that an adult told me growing up. An uninformed one, but an adult nonetheless. As a young kid, you think that because that person is a grown up they must know what they are talking about. Unfortunately, this could not be further from the truth. The facts are that there is zero, I repeat, ZERO, evidence in the scientific literature that resistance training has any negative impact on growth plates. None. Anecdotally, I have yet to hear of this kind of damage happening to anyone, ever. I don't know where this theory came from but it needs to be squashed ASAP!
It will wreck their joints
This one happens to be true. BUT, a ton of things can ruin a kids joints. Playing baseball can harm the shoulder or elbow joint. Participating in gymnastics can hurt knees, ankles, shoulders, wrists, etc. The same could be said for football. The important thing is that strength training has to be done the right way. This could be said for anybody but it is especially true for adolescents. It is important that they are doing the right programming with proper supervision and coaching. When this is done, muscles will gain strength. And stronger muscles will help protect the joint. So instead of harming the joint, it will help protect the joint from some of the jarring things that occur in sports.
It isn't safe to be lifting too much weight
It is not safe to lift a weight that you can't handle...for anybody of any age. When your child participates in a strength training program, they need to be taught and have quality supervision. The progression needs to be slow and steady. For some young athletes, they will not improve a great deal in strength because of their lack of maturity. But once they do fully mature, they already have had the necessary instruction to participate in a strength program. The one area that they will improve is in their efficiency of movement, or motor learning. While performing a repetition, there is a signal sent from the brain to the body to perform the task. The first time you perform the task, your brain might be saying "what the hell is going on here". But over time, with more repetition and practice, the signal your brain send becomes less cloudy and the weight is moved in a more efficient manner. You will see improvements in motor learning prior to strength gains. That is why it is important to become efficient with the movement BEFORE the young athletes hits puberty. When the youngster finally does mature, he/she will not have to spend time learning. They will be able to begin moving heavier weights with quality form.
Not only is it perfectly safe to lift weights if you are a young athlete, but NOT strength training is far worse and could increase the risk for future injury. Even if improved sport performance isn't the goal, and you're a youngster just trying to get into better shape I would fathom to guess that improving strength, appearance, confidence, cardiovascular health, and decreasing stress and depression would all be valuable gains for any adolescent.
Chris Fluck, CSCS
Chris is a Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist and member of the National Strength & Conditioning Association. He has recently served as a high school football and wrestling coach. Chris loves swinging kettlebells around, watching football and reading books!