Stereotypes have a way of creeping into many different areas of sport. It’s seems that grade school never ends, because jealousy and the need to degrade one sport in order to lift up another comes through by spreading nasty little rumors. Ideas such as “only rednecks watch NASCAR”, “Europeans are only good at playing soccer”, and my personal favorite, “lifting weights will stunt kids’ growth.” By that logic, does playing basketball make you tall? In all seriousness, let’s look at the science.
In an article published by Lon Kilgore, PhD., “Misconceptions about Training Youth,” Kilgore looked at the idea that weight training causes epiphyseal plate (growth plate) fractures which can stunt growth in children. Kilgore states that, “Damage to these plates induced by weight training is frequently cited as a reason for avoiding weight training in children. The existing medical and scientific data do not support this as a valid contradiction.”
Kilgore looked at 29 different studies, published between 1979 and 1983, related to weightlifting in preadolescents. Of those studies, Kilgore found only one instance of reported epiphyseal fracture. Five publications reported instances of fractures related to weight training, but that the major of the injuries occurred from using improper technique and the focus being placed on the amount lifted versus the correct application of the movement. Kilgore concluded the argument with, “Proper diagnosis and treatment of this rare injury resulted in no detrimental effect on growth.”
Having a certified and knowledgeable coach can help prevent injuries from occurring in the weight room. Accredited coaches understand that given the training age of these children, the amount lifted is irrelevant to improvement. (Note that training age can be defined as the amount of time an athlete has spent training for a particular sport or activity, not the actual age of the athlete. For example, I am 29 years old and have been competing in Olympic Weightlifting for 13 years, therefore, my training age is 13.)
The amount of force a prepubescent athlete can produce is generally not enough to even lift a bar equivalent to their body weight. Therefore, the amount of force placed on these joints would be less than a gymnast learning to tumble, as gymnasts force their joints support their entire body weight. You rarely hear of a parent worried about the injuries that could be encountered from learning gymnastics at an early age. In fact, early development is encouraged. The same should be true for lifting weights. Done properly, under the supervision of a qualified coach, children will greatly benefit from learning technique early.
Focusing on proper technique as opposed to the amount of weight during early training does wonders for an athlete. First, it teaches proper movement patterns without the need for excessive weight. Second, it gives the athlete confidence because they don’t have to work to the point of failure. Lastly, it builds a base for the athlete as they transition into the next phase of competitive sport.
And yet, there are still articles (and parents) who continue to insist that kids who weight lift won’t improve before hitting puberty.
They’re probably right. They should just sit on the couch and play video games to improve hand-eye coordination and their likelihood of developing childhood obesity. (I probably wouldn’t say this out loud, but would definitely be thinking it.)
According to an article published in The New York Times titled, “Phys Ed: The Benefits of Weight Training for Children”, researchers with the Institute of Training Science and Sports Informatics in Cologne, Germany, looked at 60 years worth of studies on children and weightlifting, specifically focusing on boys and girls from age 6 to 18. The studies found that “Youths do not add as much or sometimes any obvious muscle mass as a result of strength training, which is one of the reasons many people thought they did not grow stronger.”
(Oh, so you’re saying they get stronger and stay in their weight classes? Makes them perfect for weightlifting!)
The article continues, “Their strength gains seem generally to involve ‘neuromuscular’ changes” and the benefits come when the nervous system and the muscles start firing correctly and efficiently.
The findings actually bust one of the “most pervasive myths about resistance training for youths — that they won’t actually get stronger. We’ve worked with athletes as young as kindergarten age using ’balloons and dowels’ as strength training tools, and found that they developed strength increases.”
(Yes, Kindergarten! Lifting at this age did not stunt growth or cause injury. It was fun for them, all while developing the central nervous system recruitment.)
Another article published by the National Strength and Conditioning Association says, “If a kid sits in a class or in front of a screen for hours and then you throw them out onto the soccer field or basketball court, they don’t have the tissue strength to withstand the forces involved in their sports. That can contribute to injury.”
Every great coach understands that an athlete needs a certain level of strength and coordination before they can be asked to perform at a higher level. Great CrossFit coaches develop different progressions for teaching muscle ups for the same reasons that baseball starts in T-Ball, then coach pitch, before moving on to live play. Skipping steps in this process can lead to injury, while starting early can reinforce proper mechanics and provide a base level of strength for the next phase of the athlete’s career.
The article concludes while weightlifting “will not stunt your growth or lead to growth-plate injuries. That doesn’t mean young people should be allowed to go down into the basement and lift Dad’s weights by themselves. That’s when you see accidents.” They report that the most common injuries they find in kids are from dropping weights on their fingers and toes.
In Russia, the kids compete in weightlifting technique contest taking the emphasis off of the amount being lifted. Eventually, I hope the sport of Olympic Weightlifting in the United States implements the same idea for young kids. I believe with the continued growth of the sport, through the efforts of USA Weightlifting education courses and CrossFit kids, the fears associated with early training will begin to dissolve and then disperse to lifting weights for other sports as well.
(It also doesn’t hurt that we just crowned our first World Record holder since 1970— 16 year old CJ Cummings!)
Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.