It is commonly misbelieved that young children may stunt their growth or experience bone plate damage by starting a strength training regimen too early.
However, according to the American College of Sports Medicine, strength training exercise routines are considered a safe and effective mode of exercise for children as young as seven or eight years old. In fact, ACSM suggests that children even younger can participate in strength training so long as they have the ability to perform the exercises safely and the mental maturity to follow instructions from a knowledgeable trainer or coach.
It is safe for young children to participate in strength training exercises, but before they get started there are a few important factors to keep in mind.
Safety should always be the first and foremost concern:
“There is the potential for serious injury if safety standards for youth strength training such as competent supervision, qualified instruction, safe equipment and age-specific training guidelines are not followed. All youth strength training programs must be closely supervised by knowledgeable instructors who understand the uniqueness of children and have a sound comprehension of strength training principles and safety guidelines (e.g., proper spotting procedures). The exercise environment should be safe and free of hazards and all participants should receive instruction regarding proper exercise technique (e.g., controlled movements) and training procedures (e.g., warm-up and cool-down periods).”
ACSM defines strength training as “a specialized form of physical conditioning… a systematic program of exercises designed to increase an individual's ability to exert or resist force.” The organization makes a point of noting that this is different from weightlifting and powerlifting, which both involve individuals attempting to lift maximal amounts of weight.
According to ACSM, most children who are ready to participate in organized sports will be ready for strength training. “The goal of youth strength training should be to improve the musculoskeletal strength of children and adolescents while exposing them to a variety of safe, effective and fun training methods,” says ACSM.
Related: Strength Training 101
A well-designed, youth strength program can help increase muscular strength, enhance motor skills and improve overall sports performance. Some evidence suggests that youth strength training can also help decrease the risk for sport related injuries because of an increase in the strength of tendons, bones and ligaments.
Because prepubescent children don’t have sufficient amounts of muscle-building hormones, it is unlikely that a strength training regimen would lead to an increase in muscle mass.
No scientific studies have yet defined what an optimal youth-oriented strength training session might consist of in terms of sets and reps, but ACSM recommends one to three sets of six to fifteen repetitions for each exercise. Programs should include two to three sessions per week on nonconsecutive days and alternate between several upper and lower body exercises with a focus on the major muscle groups.
Like any strength training program, progressions can be made with gradual increases in weight, sets or reps, however ACSM strongly advises against training with maximal weight because of the possible risk for injury.
“It must be underscored that the overriding emphasis should be on proper technique and safety — not on how much weight can be lifted,” says ACSM.