“Is it ok for kids to lift weights?” This is a question we hear all the time from worried parents who want to keep their kids active but don’t want to sacrifice safety.
A resounding yes! Despite what you might have heard, it is highly beneficial for kids to strength train… with a few caveats.
Like any form of physical exercise, weight training can be dangerous in the wrong hands.
Before you rush to the gym with your kids, here’s everything you need to know about the benefits, safety considerations and recommendations for strength training, from teenyboppers right through to young adults.
Children are less active, less happy and fatter than ever before
There has long been a stigma that gyms and weights are unsafe for children. “Lifting will stunt kids’ growth”, “they’ll get too big”, “they might injure themselves”… the list is endless!
Sadly, those who peddle these myths are missing the woods for the trees.
For those who believe that kids spend most of their time playing outside and don’t need the gym, think again.
Current UK figures show that by the end of primary school, as many as a quarter of kids are obese, and a further 15% are overweight .
When it comes to physical activity, only 44.6% of kids aged 5-16 meet the government guidelines for 60 minutes of activity every day .
And it’s not just children’s physical needs that are suffering, their mental health is on the decline too.
In the last three years alone, young people’s likelihood of developing a mental health problem has increased by 50%. To put that in perspective, if your child is among a class of 30, five of their classmates are likely to be struggling with a mental health problem .
Multiple governments globally have tried and failed to resolve the problem of childhood obesity.
There may not be a panacea that can resolve today’s crisis. Yet it’s clear that misguided advice around children and resistance training could be holding us back from turning the tide.
Let us explain why…
Resistance training is part of the solution, not the problem
While there are many complex causes behind the current decline in children’s mental and physical well-being, resistance training is one of the most potent tools we have available for fighting the obesity epidemic.
Strength training is has been consistently proven to support everything from general growth and development, improve bone mineral density and better heart function, body composition, and slashing the risk of preventable lifestyle diseases.
And if you thought weight lifting isn’t suitable for children, you may want to reconsider.
There are a tonne of reasons that, with the right know-how and application, you can make resistance training safe, effective and fun for your kids, at any age.
Weight training is no more dangerous than other ‘kid-friendly’ activities
Many folks consider strength training and gym-based activities to be a big no-no for children. Yet they may have little to no worries about their kids’ safety in other, more physically demanding activities and sports.
Participation in almost any sport or type of physical activity carries a risk of injury. In fact, around 11-22% of school-age children are injured each year taking part in traditional sporting activities.
Believe it not, a four-year study showed that an activity as simple as running was responsible for almost three-quarters of all injuries sustained during that time . Other research indicates that gymnastics and football are the major players when it comes to kids’ injuries .
In comparison, strength training accounts for less than one percent of all injuries in physically active children . Hardly a high-risk activity!
So granted, it’s safe, but what are the benefits of resistance training over other forms of exercise?
Here’s where it’s an easy sell.
Sports like football are the major players when it comes to injuries in children.
Benefits of resistance training for children
Whether you’ve got a sports-crazy kid or a teenager that would prefer to spend most of their time locked away in their room, weight training has multiple benefits for children of all ages.
Here are just a few.
1. Healthier kids
If you were to give your child the latest computer game or a lifetime free from preventable disease and injury… which would you choose?
We doubt it’s a difficult decision. Yet this is the exact choice that many parents are making on a weekly if not daily basis.
But if you want your child to live the longest, happiest, fullest life possible, the gift of health is something you can’t ignore.
Being overweight or obese during childhood is a strong predictor of adulthood obesity and all its associated risks , . One study showed that 60% of overweight 5-10-year-olds were at risk of development at least one major heart health warning sign, including high blood pressure, hyperlipidaemia or poor blood sugar management. A worrying 20% of children had at least two . It is estimated that having hypertension at age 20 may cut life expectancy by around ten years .
Any form of exercise is beneficial for mitigating the risks of serious disease. Yet resistance training, in particular, is especially potent for improving cardiovascular risk, improving muscle strength and endurance, reducing the risk of osteoporosis and improving quality of life .
We’d even go as far to say that strength training is such an effective form of exercise, it could even put your child on a life-long path to better health and fitness .
2. Less injury-prone kids
Want to know the number one way you can reduce your chances of spending hours in A&E with your child’s latest sports day souvenir?
You guessed it, weight training.
Whether your child is into team sports like rugby or football, gymnastics or dance, lifting weights can help to minimise muscular imbalances and maximise joint strength from the outset.
Research consistently shows that resistance training boosts athletic performance, reduces the risk of fractures and decreases the incidence of sport-related injuries , , , .
That means fewer duvet days and more time for the activities they love.
3. More confident kids
We all know how awkward our teenage years can feel with the inevitable swirl of physical and emotional changes wrought by puberty.
It’s no surprise, then, that a lot of teens, especially girls, feel embarrassed and self-conscious about getting involved in sport and other forms of exercise.
But there is a tonne of evidence that strength training helps to promote self-improvement and individual success. In turn, this can lead to improved self-esteem, self-worth and body confidence .
And if your children would rather be anywhere than getting sweaty on a football pitch, weight lifting could be a new way to get them excited about exercise.
Unlike team sports, strength training provides opportunities for children who typically struggle in team activities or are not naturally ‘sporty’.
What makes resistance training uniquely beneficial is that it is scalable – anybody can learn to lift, whatever their starting point, limitations or ability.
4. More resilient kids
Regular exercise and physical activity (including strength training) have consistently proven to be effective at improving mental well-being, resilience and self-confidence.
And when we look at the statistics, we cannot ignore the negative effects of young people’s poor physical health on mental health.
It’s no coincidence that obesity, anxiety and depression in children and adolescents have all seen an upswing in the last decade , , .
If you want to give your kids a boost in self-esteem, body confidence and an increased interest in health and fitness, getting them in the gym could be just the ticket .
Three myths about kids and weight lifting that must die
Hopefully you’re now sold that weight lifting is beneficial for kids.
But we also understand that parents like to be over-cautious when it comes to their kids’ safety, and for good reason.
So, before we get onto exactly how to get your kids in the gym, let’s bust some of those will-not-die myths and misconceptions to settle this once and for all.
1. What age is safe for kids to start strength training?
General recommendations are that children should be least seven or eight years old before they begin strength training.
This is because they require time to attain physical maturity in balance, proprioception and body coordination.
Children also need to be socially and cognitively mature enough to behave safely and appropriately in the gym.
Of course, not all children develop at the same rate and so the decision to introduce your child to the gym should come down to your best judgement.
2. Does strength training stunt growth in children?
Unfortunately, the common misconception that lifting weights stunts growth in children and adolescents is a myth that stubbornly persists.
There may be some truth to this concern in that damage to growth plates can stunt bone development . However, when strength training is performed correctly and safely under the supervision of a professional, it carries no greater risk than any other youth sport or activity .
In fact, what is supported by science and research is that strength training performed correctly offers numerous benefits, including increased bone mineral density , decreased fracture risk and rates of sports-related injuries ,  and improvements in athletic performance , .
3. Will my child put on too much muscle?
If only it was that easy! Just as no adult has ever woken up one day suddenly ‘too jacked’ or ‘too lean’, so the same is even truer of children.
Trust us when we say that we’ve never seen a kid get too strong or put on too much muscle by following a properly designed training program.
If anything, strength training across full ranges of motion improves flexibility and general mobility , , .
Strength training in adults is very different to strength training in kids. While strength training adults tend to build muscle, children usually increase strength through neurological adaptations.
Furthermore, the idea of becoming unexpectedly musclebound isn’t really an issue for most people of any age… unless you happen to be very genetically blessed!
So now that you’re fully on board, what’s the best way to get the kids involved?
This is the fun part!
5 golden rules for kids and weight lifting
The gym is a fantastic way to get your children excited about training and exercise.
That being said, the gym is not a playground and can be dangerous for anyone without proper due care and attention.
But if you follow these five ground rules, there’s no reason you can’t introduce your child to strength training in a safe, fun and effective way.
1. Be patient
Don’t be in a rush to get your child lifting heavy. Instead, spend time helping them to master the basic movements and how to control their body with added load.
Generally, it is better to start with lighter weights and higher repetitions, focusing on technique and execution.
And that doesn’t mean you have to start off by loading them up with a heavy barbell on day one – bodyweight movements like push ups, squats and lunges can be used to start instilling motor patterns with a much smaller risk of injury than loaded variations.
There may be a few teething problems as you reinforce correct technique but try to remember that you were a beginner once too.
2. Education is key
This is a two-edged sword. On the one hand, how can you expect your children to get excited about their health and fitness if you aren’t clued up? Making sure that you are well educated on training and nutrition is a foundation stone for ensuring your children can train safely, effectively and enjoyably.
Likewise, there is also something to be said for learning through doing. Get your child into the gym, help them to experience strength training first hand and allow them to feel the numerous benefits that strength training has to offer.
3. There is no ‘magic’ age
There is no predetermined age at which a child or teen should begin strength training. However, there are a few things to bear in mind before you start dishing out the dumbbells.
Strength training involves exercises with a high skill complexity that requires focus and attention to detail.
Children usually develop their sense of balance and coordination at around seven to eight years of age .
If your children sit on the younger end of the scale, they must be mature enough to follow instructions and have the self-discipline to focus on technique rather than the number on the weight.
4. Start with the basics
Learning to lift weights involves learning multiple new movement patterns, which can be challenging for anyone.
Because children’s training is more functional than for aesthetic purposes, think less emphasis on single-joint, ‘isolation’ movements. Instead, exercises involving multiple joints and targeting large muscle groups should be the foundation for any strength training program
Think squats rather than leg extensions, barbell presses and push-ups instead of triceps pushdowns, and rows and pull-ups over bicep curls. Use a variety of barbell, dumbbell and bodyweight exercises to keep training fresh and exciting.
5. Ensure your kids are properly supervised
You wouldn’t let your child learn how to drive without an instructor, go to school without a teacher, or learn to play a musical instrument by themselves. So why would you let them lift weights unsupervised?
Strength training has the potential to cause serious injury, but only when performed incorrectly with poor technique.
Under the supervision and guidance of a fitness professional, the risk of injury and harm is significantly reduced.
Furthermore, not all bodies are built the same. A qualified trainer can tweak exercises and programs accordingly to ensure that they are always effective and safe for your child.
You might also find that your kids take the fitness advice from a pro a little more readily than you!
You heard it… strength training for kids is safe, effective and it’s great for their physical and mental health!
And the best part – it doesn’t need to be complicated. Focus on form and technique, master a few basic movements, be patient, and most importantly, keep it light, fun and engaging.