Is Powerlifting Safe for Kids?

Editor’s note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the author’s and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Powerlifting is a strength sport that tests each individual’s one rep max in the squat, bench, and deadlift. It’s also the kind of sport that tends to evoke images of huge, musclebound men but as of recent years, we’re finding that powerlifting is a sport for everyone: children included. But why would a child ever want to get involved with this sport?

Well, one scenario could go like this: children look up to their parents and when they see their parents doing anything, they’re usually curious about it and want to try it too. Playing house is a common example.

Personally, the first time I ever picked up a dumbbell, I was eight years old and I wanted to be like my dad. I picked it up out of curiosity and set it back down and remembered my parents tell me how strong I was (it was only 5 pounds). Since then, I have continually sought this sort of empowerment of “being strong” and it is probably one of the reasons I eventually got involved with powerlifting.

The point is, children may want to get involved with this sport because of their parents and that may not be a bad thing. In today’s world, we’re seeing trends that show a decrease in overall athletic activity and an increase in obesity, including among children.

Aspiring to be strong and athletic should be encouraged in our youth and can help to improve cardiovascular fitness, body composition, bone density, overall fitness levels, mental well-being, and self confidence, especially as we progress into adolescence.

What Are the Concerns About Children Powerlifting?

When it comes to strength training, a common concern is that it stunts growth in children. This debate continues to rage back and forth because the stunting of growth is often not linked directly to weight training, but to poor programming, coaching, and so forth.

A lot of research supports this, like a 2017 study published in Translational Pediatrics that found,

Proper (resistance training) programs have a plethora of associated benefits including increased strength, lower rates of sports-related injury, increased bone strength index (BSI), decreased risk of fracture and improved self-esteem and interest in fitness. There are risks involved with improper or poor training programs. Proper training programs involve knowledgeable trainers, effective supervision and tailored weight training.(1)

That is why it is important to be aware of the negative effects training can have with improper programming or coaching.

Editor’s Note: If your child has any preexisting or suspected suspected medical conditions, consult with their healthcare professional before they begin training in any new sport.

Undeveloped Gross Motor Skills

The first thing to be aware of is that for a younger child to begin powerlifting, they need to first have fully developed their gross motor skills(2). This includes their ability to run, balance, hop, skip, throw, catch, and jump. This is typically developed between ages six and eight, which is also the general age that children begin their first sport.

Assessments by a trainer or physical therapist prior to getting involved with powerlifting can help show whether it is safe for the child to get started based on these gross motor abilities.

Inability to Safely Follow Programming

In most commercial gyms, signs are posted in the weight rooms stating that children 13 and under are not allowed to enter. Why, in a commercial setting, is this something that’s still feared if it is relatively safe for children to be involved with strength training?

Well, besides liability, this could be due to the lack of supervision.

Traditionally, sports such as gymnastics, baseball, and soccer are most popular in children 13 and under for a first sport. These sports tend to appear less dangerous than powerlifting simply because the children aren’t bearing additional weight outside of their own force impact from the ground. In my opinion, the truth of this is that with proper training, just as in adults, powerlifting can be safe and even beneficial on the joints than the other compared sports.

Just as children have a coach in baseball, soccer, or gymnastics, it’s important they also have coaching in powerlifting. On their own in these other sports, they can practice kicking around a soccer ball or throwing a baseball into the air and catching it with minimal harm. With powerlifting, left unsupervised, there is room left open for injury, which is why it may be seen as more dangerous.

Because of this, it’s important to have a coach for your child who trains with them in person for every session. Coaches are physically with them every step of the way, ensuring safety in their training and offering additional support as a spotter when needed.

When taken through a proper assessment and working with a coach, children can more safely get involved with powerlifting.

What Does A Safe Program Look Like?

Overall, there’s not much difference in a training program for children in comparison to adults (3). The most optimal program for anyone is based on how quickly they adapt and how quickly they fatigue.

The biggest differences in the programs that you’ll probably notice are based on three factors below that manifest as the length of a youth’s training progressions, training variables, and training goals.

1. Progressions

Before diving deep into powerlifting, the first step is for the child to go through the proper training progressions to develop the skills necessary for strength training. These skills will ensure they have proper form, training technique, and overall neuromuscular abilities required for the sport (body awareness).

These progressions include stability and mobility training, strength endurance, hypertrophy, and relative maximal strength. Generally these are referred to as phases of training. In adults, these phases can last about 4-weeks, but children tend to take more time in developing these skills and can take anywhere from 4-6 weeks in each before progressing.

Once the child has developed the skills required for each phase of training, they are able to progress into the next phase just as you would in an adult training program.

2. Training Variables

When it comes to training factors such as frequency, volume, rest intervals, and training duration; children may progress slower than adults. Although, children can increase strength, it’s been shown that those who haven’t gone through puberty lack the ability to develop in hypertrophy and also recover slower in strength training in comparison to adults (4).

This may mean that children could require a lower training frequency and less training volume for full recovery, which could decrease the risks of overtraining. Granted, research is still sparse on this topic, so it’s important to approach this concept seeing the big picture of longevity. In my opinion, it’s even more important to pay attention to the signs of overtraining in youth athletes.

If you notice any of these signs, then it may hint that a deload or a period of rest is necessary.

Signs of Overtraining:

  • Decreased Performance
  • Increased Heart Rate
  • Restlessness
  • Joint or Muscle Pain
  • Emotional Fatigue

3. Training Goals

The last note tends to be most important when training a child in powerlifting. The focus of training should not be overall strength and personal records, but rather overall technique. This is the key for safe programming.

Yes, it’s great to celebrate the strength gains made in training, but this is the time to teach your child patience and attention to detail over risking injury by pushing further than the body’s abilities in order to attempt a new PR.

By following these guidelines, your child will be able to safely and effectively get involved with powerlifting if this is something they’ve found an interest in.

Here Are Some Peewee Powerlifters Who Are Doing It Right

Editor’s note: The content on BarBend is meant to be informative in nature, but it should not be taken as medical advice. The opinions and articles on this site are not intended for use as diagnosis, prevention, and/or treatment of health problems.

References

1. Myers, A., Beam, N., & Fakhoury, J. (2017). Resistance training for children and adolescents. Translational Pediatrics, 6(3), 137-143. doi:10.21037/tp.2017.04.01

2. Alleyne, J. (1998). Safe exercise prescription for children and adolescents. Paediatrics & Child Health, 3(5), 337. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2851369/

3. Dahab, K., & McCambridge, T. (2009). Strength Training in Children and Adolescents: Raising the Bar for Young Athletes?. Sports Health: A Multidisciplinary Approach, 1(3), 223-226. doi:10.1177/1941738109334215

4. Faigenbaum, A., & Myer, G. (2009). Resistance training among young athletes: safety, efficacy and injury prevention effects. British Journal Of Sports Medicine, 44(1), 56-63. doi:10.1136/bjsm.2009.068098

Feature image from @megsquats Instagram page. 

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Lexes is a certified personal trainer and fitness nutrition specialist. Her primary focus with her athletes and clients is strength, nutrition, and physique transformations. She runs a blog called Flex Club where you can find helpful tips and motivation to begin your journey into fitness. Her competitive side of fitness was introduced at age 3, when she began bowling in league. By age 8, she was winning scholarships in state and junior nationals and at 18 began competing in USBC Women's Championships. She first picked up a pair of dumbbells at 17 and, soon after, competed in her first NPC bikini show. After developing binge-eating disorder, she began doing more reseach on the mental aspects of fitness and nutrition. At age 22, she re-discovered the fun and competitive side of fitness, where she got into powerlifting and marathon running (the full 26.2). She has been personal training and online coaching since 2014, using her past experiences to help current clients.