There is substantial interest and lingering concern from parents, coaches, and the medical community about the safety and appropriateness of strength training for children. Are these concerns based on solid research or are they misconceptions which need to be put to rest?
What is Resistance Training?
Before discussing the evidence, clear definitions of the terms children and resistance (or strength) training are helpful. Resistance training is a specialized form of conditioning whereby an individual is working against a wide range of resistive loads to enhance health, fitness, and performance. Forms of resistance training include the use of body weight, weight machines, free weights (barbells and dumbbells), elastic bands and medicine balls. Resistance training should be distinguished from terms such as weightlifting and bodybuilding. The term children refers to girls and boys (generally up to the age of 11 and 13 years, respectively) prior to puberty and have not developed secondary sex characteristics.
Injury Rates in Children
With qualified supervision, the risk of injury from resistance training for children is very low. Faigenbaum and Myer (2010) summarized over 30 studies conducted on youth resistance training and found reports of only three injuries when properly supervised. The three injuries reported were short-term non-serious injuries such as muscle strains and low back pain. In fact, the estimated risk for injury from youth resistance training has been estimated to be 0.05 to 0.17 for every 100 hours of training. These injuries rates are far lower than those for children engaging in sports such as soccer, football, baseball, gymnastics, lacrosse, and running. Youth injury rates from resistance training are also believed to be no different than those of adults.
Growth Plate Injuries
The most often cited concern associated with youth resistance training is the potential for injury to the growth plate and “stunted growth”. There have been a few retrospective case reports describing injuries to the growth plates in children. However, most of these injuries were caused by improper lifting technique, poorly chosen loads, or a lack of qualified adult supervision. For example, in one case report a 13-year-old boy sustained elbow growth plate fractures when he lost control of a 65-pound barbell he attempted to press overhead exercising alone at home.
Injury to growth plates has not been reported in any prospective youth resistance training study that provided professional supervision and instruction. There is also no evidence that resistance training can negatively impact growth in height during childhood. The risk of growth plate injury is likely greater when children perform jumping and landing activities during competitive sports or even free play.
Many of the forces that youth are exposed to in sports and recreation (e.g., soccer, basketball, football, and running) are greater both in duration and magnitude than properly performed resistance training. However, problems can, and often do arise, when children are introduced to resistance training with inappropriate instruction or supervision. With the increasing volume and intensity of youth sports, it is more important than ever that children are properly instructed, supervised, and progressed by qualified personnel. Therefore, parents and coaches should seek out qualified professionals who are knowledgeable and up to date with the most current evidence about youth resistance training. When appropriately performed, youth resistance training is safe and extremely beneficial for improving health, fitness, and performance.
- Faigenbaum, A., Kraemer, W., Blimkie, C., Jeffreys, I., Micheli, L., Nitka, M., & Rowland, T. (2009). Youth resistance training: Updated position statement paper from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 23(5), S60–S79.
- Faigenbaum, A. D., & Myer, G. D. (2010). Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 44, 56–63. http://doi.org/10.1136/bjsm.2009.068098
- Lloyd, R. S., Faigenbaum, A. D., Stone, M. H., Oliver, J. L., Jeffreys, I., Moody, J. A., … Myer, G. D. (2014). Position statement on youth resistance training: The 2014 international consensus. British Journal of Sports Medicine, 48, 498–505. http://doi.org/10.1136/bjsports-2013-092952