Understanding Growth and Safety in Strength Training
It is often believed that strength training may stunt the growth of children, but this is a myth. In reality, the growth of a child's height is regulated by hormonal processes. These processes signal epiphyseal plates, or growth plates located between the bones, to extend throughout childhood. This growth culminates with puberty's completion, whereupon the growth plates close, and a young person's height is set. Therefore, strength training can only affect height growth if it causes a bone to break, potentially damaging its growth plate. However, this is highly unlikely and much more prone to occur in popular sports.
Major healthcare and fitness professional groups, including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Sports Medicine, the American Orthopaedic Society for Sports Medicine, and the National Strength and Conditioning Association, agree about strength training in children. They conclude that a well-supervised program following recommended guidelines and precautions is safe and effective. Such a program's inherent risk is no greater than that of any other youth sport or activity.
A child's interest in strength training should be encouraged. With the correct supervision and an appropriately individualized training program, children of all ages can safely exercise in the weight room. Proper exercise progression is essential, and the primary goal of any child-oriented program should be adherence to proper technique. High volume, high frequency, or sets taken to failure have little benefit and are not recommended.
Benefits and Starting Age
Strength training has numerous health and wellness benefits, such as improved coordination, strength, bone density, and even cardiovascular fitness. These advantages provide compelling reasons to ensure that children enjoy the strength training they undertake, thus enabling them to reap its benefits for many decades.
There is no set minimum age for starting strength training, but around 8-12 years of age is a reasonable guideline, provided the child is interested. The program should be adjusted depending on individual needs and preferences. For children aiming to improve sports performance, especially if they are older, the focus on practicing specific skills of their sport is likely more beneficial. Still, this isn't mutually exclusive with strength training – if they're willing and able to do both, then all the better.
However, remember that young children might lack the hormonal and autocrine systems to make meaningful gains, the attention span to learn good technique, and the willpower and coordination to execute it. However, if they're particularly eager, they could start a bit earlier, but not much.
The key to youth lifting is to focus almost entirely on technique and not on the weight lifted. Technique is crucial for safety, and once learned early, it sticks around for a long time and is tough to unlearn. Therefore, strict and perfect technique for sets of 8-12 is advised, staying 3-4 reps away from failure at all times. Rewarding for great technique and consistency is encouraged rather than the weight lifted.
Regarding exercise selection, stick to the compound basics: squats, deadlifts, benches, pullups, shoulder presses, etc. These movements teach children how to move on their own and maintain balance. The training frequency can be between 2 and 4 times a week, with sessions under 30 minutes for younger children and under 45 minutes for most teens under 14-16 years old. Rest days are essential if they are sore, and pushing through barriers is not advisable for children.
Between ages 14 and 16, children can gradually transition into standard lifting programs and practices. This transition depends on two major individual factors. The first is hormonal development since well into puberty can start the transition earlier. Lastly, mental development, as mature and self-motivated kids can transition a bit sooner.
Enjoyment and Progression
One fundamental aspect of strength training for children is ensuring they enjoy the process. There is no compelling health reason to mandate that children lift weights, as they can stay healthy and active through various other activities. Some children may take to lifting naturally, while others may not enjoy it until they're adults or may never enjoy it. The key is not to force children into strength training if they do not find it enjoyable. If lifting becomes one of the activities they detest, they may abandon it entirely when they start to rebel, as most children eventually do.
Knowing when to add weight to the bar is another essential aspect of youth strength training. When their technique is rock-solid, and they can easily complete multiple sets of 8-12 reps with their current weight, a slight increase in weight can be considered. Children develop rapidly and don't need advanced progression models or cyclic loading schemes. They can make strength gains with linear increases gauged to their rate of improvement.
Embracing Strength Training
In a world where childhood obesity and sedentary lifestyles are increasingly common, strength training should be welcomed, not discouraged, based on unproven myths. However, it's crucial to remember that, particularly for children under 12, the priority should never be weight loss. Even if they're very overweight, they can usually grow into their weights by growing up and out, and no part of that requires losing weight. Instead, the focus should be on encouraging high-protein foods and good quality plentiful eating.
In conclusion, when properly supervised and individualized, strength training for children is a safe and beneficial activity. Focusing on technique over weight lifted and ensuring children enjoy the process can become a lifelong habit that contributes significantly to their overall health and fitness.