Strength training in youth athletes has been a controversial topic for some time, as there was a study released in 1990 that stated “Weight lifting can cause serious musculoskeletal injuries, such as ruptured intervertebral discs, spondylolysis and spondylolisthesis, fractures and meniscal injuries of the knee. Deaths related to weight lifting have been reported. Although the incidence of weight-lifting injuries is not well documented in children and adolescents, several reports indicate that few injuries occur in carefully supervised programs.” (Risser, 1990). Since this study, there has been an angst and fear for children/youth weightlifting. I have heard rumors from other personal trainers stating that weight training will stunt growth in children, or that it will lead to injury because they are too young to handle it. In this article, we will discuss the safety of weight lifting for children, answer the question whether it stunts growth, and discuss the positive aspects of weight training for youth as well.
Is weight training safe for children? I personally have heard concern about the safety from parents and even other exercise professionals regarding its safety for children. As study published in 1990 reported injuries and even death from weight training (Risser, 1990). However, this same study stated that the primary cause of injury is when heavy weights are lifted is when heavy weights are lifted with poor form (Risser, 1990). The study concludes by stating “Proper technique, good supervision and training programs appropriate to the athlete's level of physical and emotional maturity are important.” (Risser, 1990). One thing I personally find interesting is that much of the focus on the beginning is talking of the dangers of weight lifting, then they continue to say that it is not well documented in youth but there were cases of injury in “carefully supervised programs” (Risser, 1990). What is ironic is that one of their solutions is “good supervision”, but there is no clear definition of this issue, as there were instances of injury within well supervised programs (Risser, 1990). More recent research has changed what they state causes injury, stating that injury is “primarily attributed to the misuse of equipment, inappropriate weight, improper technique, or lack of qualified adult supervision.” (Dahab, 2009). More recently, research has been paying attention to the quality of supervision, where as the old way of thinking did not consider this as much a factor as we now know (Dahab, 2009). After all, Dahab found that “There is no direct correlation between strength training and incidence or severity of injuries in young athletes.” (Dahab, 2009). Since there is no correlation, the biggest issue is not with the children or with the weights, it has to do with the supervision and what that supervisor plans for the children and allows them to do. As a high school strength and conditioning coach, I saw firsthand the horseplay that high school students partake in. One day, I had the athletes performing box squats. Nothing too heavy, working in the 65%-75% range. However, one athlete thought it would be funny to remove the box from under one of his teammates who was in the middle of a set of 8-12 repetitions. Luckily, I caught this before the athlete fell and injured themself. As a coach knowing the dangers of what could have happened, I was furious. I kicked the student out of the weight room for a week and reported the incident to the school. Often times, I believe students can engage in this type of horseplay. However, there should be a zero tolerance policy for horseplay in the weight room. It is dangerous enough as it is, safety should be prioritized first above all else. What I wonder is how well supervised the programs Risser refers to in his 1990 study. In my experience, the supervisor is typically sitting on their phone at their desk, and at best has a generic program written on the board and leaves athletes to fend for themselves. Often times these supervisors I have seen are not even experienced or studied in exercise science, but rather are a teacher or coach with a degree in teaching or a topic unrelated to exercise science. In my local community, I know every local high school at one point had someone running the weight room who had little to know experience, no certifications, and no degree. In one instance, weight training was being run by an 18 year old who had just graduated the year prior. The two biggest issues I have seen are when the supervisor is uneducated and cares too much, or simply doesn't care enough and does not pay attention. In the first scenario, this supervisor will push students to lift weights past what they could perform with proper form. I have seen countless videos on social media showing a high school or college student lifting a weight with insanely poor form, and he has his entire team and coaching staff around him cheering him on. Although the enthusiasm and intensity is great, this should not be traded for safety and proper form. One thing I used to tell the football team I coached was “How much weight can you lift when you’re injured? None. How well can you perform in a game when you’re injured? Not very well. Therefore safety in my weight room is the number one priority, even over your strength and power progress because if you get injured, it could ruin your entire season. The risk of injury is not worth pushing 110% with the weights and allowing form to break down.” Schools need to be more careful who they allow to run the weight room. The issue isn't the weights or the children, it is the supervisor and what that supervisor allows. Schools need to take this aspect of the high school experience much more seriously, as students could hurt themself in a way that affects them for the rest of their life. The barrier to entry needs to be more difficult to cross for who is in charge of the exercise and strength program; the bar needs to be raised for who can instruct our youth in the weight room. The safety of weight training is not up to the children or even the equipment in the weight room, but on the supervisor and what they allow in the facility. The research clearly states “With effective supervision and training, as well as a properly designed lifting program, the rates of injury are quite low.” (Myers, 2017).
Now that we have established the risks of weight training primarily lie in the quality of supervision, the age old question remains: Does weight training stunt growth? To cut to the chase, research states “Experimental resistance training programs did not influence growth in height and weight of pre- and early-adolescent youth, and changes in estimates of body composition were variable and quite small.” (Malina, 2006). This is in fact, a myth, as shown by Malina. This has been a long standing myth of unknown origin, most likely something a concerned parent told their child when they expressed interest in weight training for fear they hurt themselves.
Weight training has shown many more positive benefits than negatives for children. One benefit is that weight training is actually more effective for children because the stimulus is synergistic with their natural growth, causing them to see faster results than adults could on the same exercise program (Myers, 2017). “Increased load and stress on the body provides an added stimulus to the already natural proliferation taking place, resulting in a synergistic increase in neural proliferation compared to youth who do not partake in RT.” (Myers, 2017). One interesting component of youth training is that they can make very significant gains in strength without making significant gains in muscle mass (Myers, 2017). A great added benefit of the increased strength youth see is an increase in their self esteem (Myers, 2017). Weight training even shows a general trend in decreasing body fat, although the trend is very slow and there are other more effective modalities to decrease body fat. (Myers, 2017). One ironic benefit that weight training has is actually on injury rates for adolescents. As discussed earlier, there has been a long time fear of weight training and how it can affect the skeletal system, cause injury to youth or even death. However, research has clearly demonstrated that weight training “...has been shown to decrease injury rates by increasing bone strength index (BSI) and mineral content, strengthening tendons and improving the strength of accessory muscles to prevent injury during practice and competition.” (Myers, 2017).
In conclusion, the long time fears of youth weight training has been shown to be a myth. In fact, weight training reduces injury in youth rather than causing them (Myers, 2017). Furthermore, research dating back more than ten years has shown that there is no correlation between weight training and injuries in young athletes (Dahab, 2009). It seems there were some initial scare tactics 30 years ago which still affect peoples opinions regarding this today, although there was no documented proof that weight training itself was harmful to the youth. Where the risk lies is not in the activity, but in the supervision and the program, as a proper program carried out by an experienced supervisor leads to very low risk (Myers, 2017). Weight training can be a huge blessing to a child in the awkward years of puberty and high school, because by increasing strength the youth can increase their self esteem as well (Myers, 2017). Therefore the weight training itself for youth should not be demonized, but instead the supervisors of this weight training must be much more carefully selected. Barriers to entry for positions in working with youth weight training need to be more difficult to overcome. The bar needs to be lifted for who we allow to weight train our youth.
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