What is the proper role of strength training in a child’s development? This question can elicit emotionally charged opinions. On one side we have strength training professionals and scientists who have repeatedly documented that strength training can safely start as early as age seven. On the other side we have conventional wisdom that claims lifting weights will “stunt a child’s growth,” adversely affect the child’s growth plates, or generally unleash some type of supernatural calamity. These claims are supported by, well, no scientific evidence whatsoever. But they are prevalent.
Today’s study from the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research looks at one small part of the youth training debate. It asks, “How strong are children that have never participated in strength training? How strong would they be with a small dose of strength training? How strong could they be with a lot of dedicated strength training?” The study examined three groups of youth: elite soccer players who had never touched a barbell, elite soccer players who had performed strength training for two years, and elite junior weightlifters. The children were tested in the front squat and back squat.
As expected, the untrained soccer players were weakest. But soccer players with just two years of strength training were much stronger. The difference was even more pronounced in the younger children. The 11-12 year-olds who had strength trained were over twice as strong as their untrained peers. That means the strength-trained 11-12 year-olds were squatting over 90 pounds while the untrained 11-12 year olds were squatting less than 40 pounds. Imagine the athletic advantages the stronger kids will have in adulthood because they began their development more than twice as strong as their peers. The consequences are mind-blowing.
Oh, and we almost forgot about the elite junior weightlifters. Well, with several years of weight training under their belts, they pretty much made everyone else look silly. In general, they would take their peers’ maximum squat, add some weight, and then squat it 5 times. The strongest 11-12 year-old squatted almost 100 pounds for 5 reps. And the weightlifters squatted the heavier weight much deeper than the other groups that were only required to perform a parallel squat.
All this geeking out has a clear conclusion: Children can benefit greatly from strength training. They can also begin strength training much earlier than conventional wisdom dictates. Participating in a well-organized, supervised strength training program is completely safe. No, really, scientists have studied this, and it’s not even close to dangerous. Supervised strength training results in very few injuries. But do you know what sport is proven to result in far more injuries than strength training? Soccer – the official sport of kids and suburban moms everywhere.
I don’t want to discourage you from allowing your child to participate in soccer. Rather, I want to challenge the way you perceive strength training. To many people barbells seem dangerous because they are unfamiliar. With no experience other than conventional wisdom and hearsay, it’s easy to categorize the unfamiliar as dangerous. But the nice, neat, familiar sport of soccer – we’re completely comfortable with that. We’ve probably watched a soccer game in person before. We know the basic rules. We know lots of children participate in those sports because we see it before our eyes. Therefore, we perceive soccer as relatively safe, when all we really know is that everybody is doing it.
In truth, even though it may not be as familiar or comfortable as soccer, supervised strength training is very safe. And the positive effects of strength training will carry over into every moment of a child’s life – not just the time they’re on the field. If you look at the issue with a level head and accept proven science over conventional wisdom, then strength training is an incredibly safe and healthy tool for children. Your child’s life will be much better because of it.
1. Michael Keiner, et. al. Strength Performance in Youth: Trainability of Adolescents and Children in the Back and Front Squats. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 27(2):357-362, February 2013. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182576fbf
2. Avery D Faigenbaum, et. al. Youth Resistance Training: Updated Position Statement Paper From the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 23():S60-S79, August 2009. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31819df407
3. Zaricznyj, B, Shattuck, L, Mast, T, Robertson, R, and D’Elia, G. Sports-related injuries in school-aged children. Am J Sports Med 8: 318-324, 1980.
Photo provided by CrossFit LA.