IS WEIGHT TRAINING SAFE FOR KIDS?
BFS uncovers the facts and fallacies about weight training for young athletes
By Kim Goss
Published: Spring 2002
Just about everyone in this country has participated in some type of resistance training, whether publicly in a health club or school, or privately with home gym equipment. And with good reason. Decades of research have proven that weight training is the single-most effective way to build strength and prevent injuries. That’s why I find it puzzling that many coaches and parents are reluctant to have young athletes participate in strength training.
Having been involved in strength coaching and competitive weightlifting for almost 30 years, I’ve seen the gradual acceptance of weight training as an essential conditioning tool for athletes. Coaches know that weight training can improve an athlete’s power, speed, flexibility, body composition and muscular endurance. Further, exercise scientists have conducted clinical studies that prove that any cardiovascular health benefits that occur with aerobic training can also be achieved with weight training. When it comes to training children, however, there are widely differing opinions.
Some parents and coaches fear not only that weight training and competitive barbell sports carry far greater risks for injury than other sports young athletes engage in but also that lifting might stunt growth. Unfortunately, misplaced fears and lack of understanding of the true effects of early training are doing many young people a great disservice. Hopefully, after examining the following evidence, you will agree with the preponderance of research that shows weight training is a must for the serious athlete.
The clock is ticking
First, it’s important to review the reasons why young athletes need to lift weights, especially in such BFS core lifts as the power clean and the squat. The primary reason is simply that more is expected from today’s athletes, and this requires practicing their sports harder and longer at an earlier age.
My own conditioning program for skaters uses BFS core lifts such as the clean and the trap bar deadlift. These are “economical” exercises, meaning that they work many muscle groups simultaneously, reducing the time my athletes need to spend in the gym. This is important, as many of my skaters spend as much as 15 hours a week on the ice and several hours a week in ballet and other forms of dance. When performing the clean and jerk, for example, skaters will strengthen all the major muscles used in jumping. To achieve a similar training effect with conventional exercises, an athlete would have to perform a leg press, back extension, calf raise, upright row, biceps curl and military press-and even then they would be missing a few muscles.
In addition to their practical advantages, such Olympic lifting variations as the power clean enable the muscles to contract faster (so skaters can jump higher) and to control impact forces (to land more difficult jumps). However, if I were to use the protocols set by many medical authorities, I would not be able to use weightlifting programs such as BFS until after most of my athletes had retired.
The Bigger They Are . . .
One of the major - and unfounded - concerns about weight training for young athletes is that it could cause damage to the epiphysial (growth) plates.
Although injury to the epiphysial plates may cause bone deformity, there is little risk of this occurring with weight training compared to most sports. As for the risk of weight training stunting growth, premature closing of the epiphysial plates is related primarily to hormonal influences, not injury. Addressing this subject is Mel Siff, Ph.D., an exercise scientist whose doctorate thesis examined the biomechanics of soft tissues.
“It has never been shown scientifically or clinically that the periodic imposition of large forces by weight training on the growing body causes damage to the epiphysial plates,” says Siff, in his book Facts and Fallacies of Fitness. “It is extremely misleading to focus on the alleged risks of weight training on children when biomechanical research shows that simple daily activities such as running, jumping, striking or catching can impose far greater forces on the musculoskeletal system than very heavy weight training.”
To illustrate his point, Siff compared the stress of squatting with running. “Suppose that one child runs a few hundred meters a day in some sporting or recreational activities. This can easily involve several thousand foot strikes in which the reaction force imposed on the body can easily exceed 4 times bodyweight with every stride. Now let another child do a typical average weight training session with 3-5 sets of squats (say, with 10 reps, 8, 6 and 4 reps), with bodyweight or more for the last set. That bodyweight is divided between the two legs, so that, even taking acceleration into account, the loading per leg is bodyweight or a little more, while the spine is subjected to the full load on the bar. In other words, the legs and spine in controlled squatting are exposed to significantly less force than in running and jumping. Normally, exercises such as squatting will be done no more than twice a week for a total of about 60 repetitions, while the running child will run every day and subject the body to those many thousands of impulsive foot strikes.”
“It does not require much scientific knowledge or computational genius to see that the cumulative loading imposed by simple running activities on the lower extremities and the spine is far greater than the cumulative load of two or three times a week of weight training. Does this now mean that we are justified in recommending that children not be allowed to run, jump, throw or catch because biomechanical research definitely shows that such activities can produce very large forces on many parts of the growing body?”
It should be obvious then that there is nothing wrong with running and other normal activities of childhood, and therefore no reason to disallow activities of lesser impact, such as carefully structured programs of weight training.
Siff also notes that bone density scans have proven that youngsters who do competitive weightlifting (i.e., the snatch and the clean and jerk) have higher bone densities than children who do not use weights, and that clinical research has not shown any correlation between weight training and epiphysial damage. Further, an extensive Russian study on young athletes, published in a book entitled School of Height, concluded that heavy lifting tends to stimulate bone growth in young athletes rather than inhibit it.
Two possible reasons for the fear that weight training could stunt growth are that weightlifters tend to possess more muscle mass than other athletes and that smaller athletes are attracted to the sport. In gymnastics, the average height of elite athletes has steadily declined in the past several Olympics because shorter athletes tend to be more successful in this sport. But saying that weightlifting makes you shorter because many elite weightlifters are short would be like saying that basketball makes you taller because most professional basketball players are tall!
The Numbers Game
Risk of injury is another area of concern for some coaches and parents. In this regard, it’s instructive to look at the many studies that have measured the rate of injuries associated with weight training compared to other sports. For example, a study published in the November/December 2001 issue of the Journal of American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons cited research showing that in children aged 5 to 14 years, the number of injuries from bicycling was almost 400 percent greater than from weightlifting! Also, in a review paper on resistance training for prepubescent and adolescents published this year in Strength and Conditioning Coach (Vol. 9, No. 3), author Mark Shillington reported in a screening of sports-related injuries in school aged children that resistance training was the nominated cause of 0.7