30 Sep Should kids lift weights?
Should kids lift weights? Given that it can improve health, boost function, and stave off injury, YES. But it needs to be done properly, of course.
I first started lifting weights when I was 16. My footy coach told me that I needed to get a bit ‘stronger over the ball‘. My dad had an old weights set sitting in the shed, so I put to and two together and decided that it was time to lift some weights.
But here’s the funny thing.
Even at the age of 16, my mum still held some huge reservations about me lifting weights. She was adamant that it was going to damage my growth plates, make me shorter, and get me injured.
In short, she had many of the same misconceptions that are still around today.
Knowing what I do now, I actually wish I had started earlier. I also wish I had done it properly — but more on that later.
Let’s take a look at what exercises are right for kids
Kids and Formalized Exercise
There are some pretty obvious benefits that come with getting your kids exercising young. They get fitter, they get stronger, they are less likely to become overweight and obese, and they will have better mental health. More importantly, if your kids exercise regularly as a child, then they are more likely to exercise more as an adult. This means that exercising during childhood will literally set them up for a lifetime of success.
But this doesn’t necessarily mean that they should be pushed into formalized exercise at a young age…
Kids and Sport
While there is certainly merit in having them actively participate in a sport (it’s a very easy way to introduce physical activity), this shouldn’t be their only focus. In fact, if you get your kid to specialize in a single sport too early, it will be to their detriment. They are more likely to get injured, they only become good at sport specific tasks (rather than important fundamental movements), and they will actually be less likely to make it to the elite level.
Conversely, if your child plays a number of different sports on a yearly basis, then the opposite is true. They develop a broad base of motor skill and coordination, and they become more robust and resilient. In turn, they build a solid foundation that will set them up for athletic success as an adult.
In addition, a large part of your kids’ exercise routine should be made up of active play. You know, climbing up things, playing games, and jumping off stuff. It’s these sorts of activities that further develop those super important motor skills that I discussed earlier. These activities also help to foster a true enjoyment for exercise.
Kids and Weights
Isn’t Lifting Weights Bad for Kids?
Let’s get this out of the way first….
Many people (my mum included) are adamant that commencing weight training at a young age will somehow be detrimental to their health. You know, because it will “stunt their growth” and all that.
Let me point out that the forces placed on the human body when performing a simple landing are MUCH higher than those seen when performing a loaded squat. So, if your kids are playing on playgrounds, jumping out of trees, and throwing themselves from trampolines, they are going to be placing their joints under heaps more load than they would in the weight room.
So, yeah — it’s not going to damage their growth plates.
And it’s not dangerous when done properly. Weight training has actually been shown to be extremely safe for kids — especially when supervised by someone who knows what they are doing!
When Should Kids Lift Weights?
Now we move onto the crux of the discussion — when should kids start lifting weights?
Active play and a range of sports are imperative up until the age of about 10 years old. After this age, there’s definitely some merit in moving them into more formalized training.
And yes, I am talking about lifting weights — but maybe not in the way that you think.
See, performing traditional strength exercises (starting with body weight and progressing slowly) is the perfect way to develop a base of good motor control and coordination. This is important, because it lays the foundation that underpins their ability to perform more complex movement tasks.
Things like jumping, sprinting, bounding, and landing are all predetermined by your ability to squat, lunge, and hip hinge well. For this reason, formalized weight training can really set your child up for success in any future athletic endeavors.
Moreover, if they do get the opportunity to play sport at a higher level of competition, these movements will make up the bulk of their gym training. This means that they will be a step ahead of anyone who hasn’t performed these movements in a gym environment before.
Finally, the earlier your that your children are exposed to these basic fundamental gym-based movements, the more competent they are going to be. This means less stupidity, and a reduced risk of injury.
How Should Kids Lift Weights?
The key is to start gradually.
They first need to become competent at performing those key fundamental movement tasks I mentioned above. This means that all their programming should revolve around squatting, lunging, pressing, rowing, and hip hinging. It should also teach them to brace their trunk and spine against external forces.
They should start training these exercises (and their many variations) using their body weight as the main form of resistance. This gives them the opportunity to develop the motor control required to perform these movements under load in the future.
Once they feel comfortable with their ability to perform these movements with control, then they can add some load. Start slowly. You want them performing 10-12 repetitions with optimal technique. Moreover, you want to make sure that they finish every set with 2-3 reps in the bank — this way they are not training to failure.
Additionally, you want it to be fun. This might mean incorporating game based play into your training sessions. It might involve some reactive agility tasks, some jumping and landing, or even some coordination activities.
What about as they get older?
As your kids transition into adolescence, then there’s certainly merit in spending more time working with moderately heavy loads. Their training should still be built around the same movement patterns, but there with some room to push it a little. It’s this that promotes the development of strength and lean tissue — both of which can improve sport performance, enhance health, reduce injury risk, and improve function.
However, there is an obvious caveat here.
If they’ve never stepped foot in a gym before, they need to start with the basics. Start with simple body weight exercises, and build from there.
Strength training at every age:
Below is a rough example of how to progress strength training in kids. It’s important to remember that everyone is different, and getting individualised advice from an expert is always advisable.
AGE: 10 – 12 years
- Developing motor control and coordination through the performance of fundamental exercises
- Predominantly sticking to body weight loading
- Staying 2-3 reps short of failure every set
- Make it fun
- Playing a myriad of different sports each year
- Body weight squats and lunges, hip hinges, push ups, inverted rows pull ups, planks, and side planks
- Jumping, landing, sprinting, crawling and climbing
AGE: 13 – 15 year
- Enhancing strength and coordination through the use of fundamental exercises
- The addition of lighter loads and more demanding exercises (free weights)
- Staying 2-3 reps short of failure every set
- Playing 2 sports per year, with a period of focus on keeping active and maintaining a good base of general fitness
- Goblet squats, front squats, split squats, lunges, dumbbell presses, push ups, dumbbell rows, cable rotations, planks, and deadlift variations
- Jumping, landing, sprinting, crawling, and bounding
AGE: 16 – 18 year
- Transition into heavier loading to promote strength and muscular development
- Still adhere to fundamental movement patterns, and stay 1-2 reps shy of failure every set
- 1-2 sports per year, with time dedicated to developing strength and aerobic fitness prior to each season
- Barbell squats, split squats, lunges, deadlifts, presses, and rows
- The maintenance of body weight movements such as push ups and pull ups
- Rapid change of directions, sprints, bounds, and explosive jumps
But Kids Only Need Play!
Before I finish up, I wanted to address the elephant in the room.
A lot of people of think that kids do not need any form of formalized exercise. That as long as they play, then they will be fine. And once upon a time, they may have been right. But now, not so much…
See, kids no longer play — or at least, not in the way that they used to.
I mean, they play fortnight? They watch YouTube videos? They be playing Instagram? But sadly, they don’t really play the way they need too in today’s modern society. And before you tell me that they get enough exercise at school, remember that to simply maintain health, children need a minimum of one hour of intense exercise per day.
I repeat — 1 hour per day as a bare minimum.
So, I would argue that kids actually need formalized exercise more than ever. We need to give them the opportunity to move and develop appropriately.
Take Home Message
So, should kids lift weights? I would give this a resounding yes!
When implemented correctly, weight training can improve coordination, build strength and resilience, enhance mental health and self-esteem, boost sport performance, and reduce injury risk. Moreover, it can set them up for a lifetime of health success.
To help your child get started, it’s always important to get advice from an expert. To find a university-qualified exercise professional near you, click here.
Written by Hunter Bennett. Hunter Bennett (PhD) is an Accredited Exercise Scientist, Strength Coach at BUILT Strength and Conditioning, and Lecturer at the University of South Australia. Follow his research at ResearchGate and read more of his work at the BUILT Blog.