My son is 12 years old, and he’s going through a lot of changes in his life, most of which he’d rather not see published in this column. However, there is one change I have permission to relay: He’s started lifting weights under my supervision.
I can already hear the protestations of physicians and parents. “Blasphemy!” they cry. “It’s not safe!”
Many of them believe that weight training should wait until the end of puberty because it can cause serious, growth-stunting injury. The bestselling get-in-shape book “Body for Life” by Bill Phillips perpetuated this myth by asserting that “during puberty, the bones are stilling growing, and strenuous resistance exercise may interfere with bone growth.”
But the American Academy of Pediatrics disagrees. In 2001, the physician’s group released a policy statement that emphasized the safety and benefits of strength training for adolescents and pre-adolescents to “improve sports performance, rehabilitate injuries, prevent injuries, and/or enhance long-term health.”
A decade later, I’m not sure how well this message is filtering down to parents and doctors, as those who advocate child weightlifting continue to meet with resistance. Even my wife, a family physician for 13 years, was reluctant to let me train our son. But for the first time in the history of forever, I was able to change her mind about something.
The health club business is squeamish as well. It’s ironic that I can sign up my son to get pummeled into a pile of goo playing football or ice hockey, but my local gym won’t let him in until he’s 14. In Los Angeles, Bally’s and Gold’s Gym also have a minimum age of 14; 24-Hour Fitness is more progressive, allowing 12-year-olds in the weight room. All of this is with parental supervision, of course.
I understand that health clubs may not want a bunch of rugrats showing up their older clients on bench press -- not to mention having well-founded concerns over liability. But parents do have some options for getting their kids to hit the iron if they want to.
Here’s why they should want to.
In a prospective study that evaluated children over a one-year period, fewer than 1% of all injuries in children in elementary through high school were the result of resistance training, according to the National Strength and Conditioning Assn. (NSCA), of which I am a member. For the sake of comparison, the same study revealed that 19% of injuries came from football and 15% from basketball during that period. What’s more, “there is no evidence to suggest that resistance training will negatively impact growth and maturation,” according to the NSCA.
The American College of Sports Medicine, known as ACSM, also endorses the activity in its official statement on youth strength training: “If appropriate guidelines are followed, it is the opinion of ACSM that strength training can be an enjoyable, beneficial and healthy experience for children and adolescents.”
Avery Faigenbaum, a pediatric exercise scientist and professor at the College of New Jersey in Ewing, N.J., agrees that weightlifting will not stunt a child’s growth. He has written numerous scientific publications and books on the subject, and he’s so passionate about it that he founded StrongKid.com to encourage children and teens to begin strength training under the guidance of experts.
“We’ve done a 180-degree turn on this myth,” he told me. “We now actually encourage children to engage in strength training to increase bone, tendon and ligament strength, all of which serve to improve sports performance and reduce risk of injury.”
In fact, he said, if children are old enough to participate in sports, they’re old enough to lift weights. And it’s safer for them to play sports if they engage in preseason weightlifting: “Kids shouldn’t go straight from the couch to the playing field, or they could get hurt.”
In the program he runs in cooperation with New Jersey school systems, Faigenbaum trains boys and girls as young as 7. “We start off with just bodyweight exercises or very light weights, and kids earn the right to use heavier weights by proving they’ve mastered proper technique,” he told me.
Faigenbaum’s comments about stronger bones are backed up by research. In 1993, researchers from the University of Connecticut reported in the journal Medicine and Science in Sport and Exercise that teenage boys who were elite Olympic weightlifters (that’s a style of lifting -- they weren’t competing in the Olympics) had bone mineral density values that were 20% to 35% higher than those of age-matched controls.
And in 2001, researchers from the Institute for Women’s Health at Texas Women’s University reported in the Journal of Pediatrics that adolescent girls who were engaged in resistance training had higher bone density in their thighs than girls in a control group. They also increased their leg strength by 40%.
Faigenbaum insists that you don’t have to worry about your second-grader turning into a mini-Schwarzenegger, because before puberty the majority of strength gains come from improved neuromuscular performance -- a fancy way of saying better muscle coordination and activation of more muscle fibers to make the body work harder -- rather than increases in muscular size.
“It isn’t about looking like someone on the cover of a muscle magazine,” he told me. “It’s about injury prevention and improving performance. For example, we can help young football players sprint faster and basketball players jump higher.”
In terms of access to weights, Faigenbaum agrees with the age restrictions at gyms. “Young children should not be hanging out in adult weight rooms,” he said. “Most YMCAs have strength-building programs that are specifically designed for children, and elementary and junior high schools are getting on board with using body weight and medicine ball conditioning in gym class.”
In some cases, you could look at training your children at home like I am, but you have to do some serious homework first. I’ve been instructed in how to train children properly, and if you want to do this I advise hiring a person qualified in youth strength training to train both of you together for several hours until you achieve the necessary level of competence to instruct your child.
Also, make sure you are monitoring your child’s workouts at all times. My son had the fear of Dad put into him about showing off to his friends in our basement gym. If I’m not there, he doesn’t lift.
Finally, Faigenbaum recommends using dumbbells instead of barbells, since most injuries in home gyms involve barbells.
I got my son into this because he expressed interest, and I felt it could help reduce his risk of injury and improve his performance in martial arts. But I’m starting to wonder if having him lift weights is such a hot idea after all. By the time he’s 16, the boy will have a black belt in karate and be stronger than most of his peers.
If he wants to borrow the car, I won’t have much choice but to hand over the keys.