The idea that lifting weights is somehow bad for children is completely out of date. We now know that it was never true (and only ever an old wives tale) that lifting weights stunts growth or causes developmental problems or leads to sure injury or any of that. However, the safe, effective, and sustainable practice of weight training in the youth is not as straightforward as showing up to the gym, piling weights on bars and machines, and randomly heave-hoeing away. A couple of quick guidelines on the proper precautions and recommendations of training for children can go a long way in making the process safe and productive.
- Age 12 is a good place to start. Much younger and kids both lack the hormonal and autocrine systems to make meaningful gains, lack the attention span to learn good technique, lack the willpower to execute good technique, and the coordination to do so even if the willpower is not an issue. You can start them sooner if they’re really pumped for it, but not much sooner. Anything under 10 is not recommended. If they’re not ready at 12, no big deal either… they’re not missing out on much and most of the best athletes (including the strongest people on the planet) didn’t pick up lifting until high school or even later.
- Make sure the Kids like it. There is no compelling health reason to mandate that children lift, because they can be healthy by staying active in so many other ways, most of which seem a lot more fun than moving an object linearly from point a to point b over and over. Some kids will take to lifting like ducks to water, some will like it for at most 20 minutes a time, and some will not like it until they’re adults or will never like it. If you want your child to develop lifelong healthy hobbies such as lifting, the worst thing you can do is make them do it when they hate it. When they rebel (and almost all children eventually do), they’re gonna cast aside most of what you were very insistent on, and if lifting was one of those things, goodbye lifting. Do only as much lifting with them as they think is fun, and no more. If that amount is zero, no big deal. Most young adults get into lifting without their parents anyway, so if they don’t pick it up from you, there’s no need to think they won’t pick it up at all.
- Technique is king. Focus in youth lifting should be almost all on technique and almost none on weight lifted. Technique is super important for safety, so for that reason alone it’s a big emphasis. In addition, technique learned early sticks around for a long time, probably forever, and is very tough to unlearn. If you let kids heave-hoe the weights, they will have a very tough time unlearning those poor habits later, and a much higher chance of injury.
- In line with technique and not weight-focused, keep the reps between 8 and 12 per set, and stay 3-4 reps away from failure at all times. No maxes, no drop sets, no sets to failure. Strict and perfect technique for sets of 8-12 allows kids both the high volumes of work that will build the most muscle and work capacity for later improvement and the high number of reps to practice and ingrain that great technique. When encouraging and rewarding for performances, reward for great technique and for consistency, not weight lifted. As a matter of fact, the longer you don’t even mention the weights they are lifting, the better, because when their egos finally get into caring about the weights they lift, they will have a large measure of good technique already! If you let them care about how much weight or how many max reps they can do per set, you have no idea how fast their technique will break down into total shit. Just think of how fast two 12 year old boys get into a physical fight over something as trivial as who has the remote control… what do you think that kind of thinking results in when you start rewarding them for weight lifted or reps completed? Anything goes, and that leads to poor habits and high injury risk.
- How do you know when to add weight to the bar? When their technique in a movement is rock-solid and they are easily cranking out multiple sets of 8-12. Basically, when you think that they are capable of a set of 20 reps with their current weight, you can bump the weights up by a little and go from there. Children are developing so rapidly, they don’t need advanced progression models or cyclic loading schemes… they get stronger with linear increases gauged to their rate of improvement… easiest gains they’ll ever make… and for YEARS too.
- Exercise selection is simple. ONLY the compound basics… squats, deadlifts, benches, pullups, shoulder presses, etc. No machines or fancy moves… they need to learn HOW to move on their own and with balance, not be coddled by padding and rubber handles.
- Frequency can be between 2 and 4 times a week, with 2 probably being best for the younger ones. That way it doesn’t get boring or repetitive… and keep the sessions under 30 minutes for the younger and under 45 minutes for most teens under 14-16 years old. If they are sore, don’t train until they are healed… pushing through barriers is for adults, not children. When starting out, just do a couple super light technique sets and call it a workout… there’s no need to shock and awe… you can always do more later (they literally have a lifetime).
- Between ages 14 and 16, kids can slowly transition into standard lifting programs and practices. This is very individual-dependent, and hinges not only on hormonal development (those well into puberty can start the transition earlier) but on mental development as well (mature and self-motivated kids can transition a bit sooner).
- So much more to say on this and will be said later, but the big ticket is… encourage high protein foods and good quality plentiful eating. Don’t restrict, don’t force feed, and never, ever make weight loss a priority for children under 12. 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, maybe just not gaining as much as others would.
CJ Cummings, Youth World Record holder is a RP athlete and one of the strongest teenagers in the world!