The question about kids and weight lifting - “Aren’t they too young to lift weights?” - is a common one. The answer, however, is always a tentative one. The common concept is that, if you lift weights before a ‘certain’ age, you will stunt growth, damage growth plates, or inhibit some other form of natural development. Many parents, though, want their kids to start all forms of training early to get ahead of the competition in sports. The biggest caution about starting a child on a weight-training program is not simply the physical development one, but where the child is mentally. In other words, is the child mature enough to have the necessary focus and attention span to allow for proper form and technique?
The question of weights causing stunted growth or damage is a little bit odd when looked at in a logical way. How much force is transferred through the body when you jump? The exact answer to that question is dependent on what study you look at, but, generally, it is up to 5 - 10 times a person’s body weight. A child’s affinity for jumping is seldom looked at with a concerned eye towards stunting growth so why is it that thinking of a kid doing a squat is? This is especially enlightening when you consider what kind of weight a person would have to squat to be able to lift 5-10 times their own body weight - for example: a 200-pound person lifting 2000 pounds!
However, while it is true that a child’s body can likely take the stress of lifting heavy, there is little to no point in having them do so. What children need for proper development is increased coordination, body awareness, strength, and agile movement patterns. A proper resistance-training program can aid all of these if, again, the children have the mental capabilities to do the movements properly.
Now, a caveat here: There are always going to be parents who take things to extremes and may read this post and think: “Hurrah, my kid CAN become a body-builder...and the sooner the better”. This post is NOT encouraging that. While lifting itself may not be detrimental to growth, it will certainly be detrimental to development if a child gains too much muscle mass. Also the excessive number of hours and obsessive focus that it takes to gain those types of muscle development are not good for any child. When considering what type of strength training is the ‘right’ type for your child, consider that "the simpler the better" is probably a good way to go. Olympic lifting, for example, is way too complex for children to do properly, but it is a very good way to injure themselves!
One of the key tricks to training kids (and adults, for that matter!) is engagement. It does not matter if you have the “best” training program in the world if your client is not mentally engaged in it. When it comes to kids, this is Priority One. They need to have fun and be mentally engaged in the program in order to actually follow it correctly and, thus, get its intended benefit. This is also a product of mental focus and, therefore, needs to be addressed on a kid-by-kid basis and will really have little to do with their chronological age.
One of the most important aspects of any training program for kids is working on coordination and body control. Activities like ladder drills, catching and throwing drills, along with some resistance-based training can be very beneficial to any child, or any person for that matter, but they must be implemented in a way that is fun and engaging. (Everybody likes fun!)
Many parents want their kids to excel early so they find trainers and coaches to assist. There are many benefits to having an expert work with your child, but the most important thing is actually the child. It is essential that they are enjoying the process and are excited to train. If this is something that they have to do or are being bribed/forced to do, they will likely stop the second they are allowed. This does not portend well for a career in sports. They need to love it at a young age so that, when it all gets serious, they are still playing for the love of the game and not for the love/approval of a parent.
So when you are asking the question: “Should my child lift weights?”, don’t think about whether or not it will be good for them because that is a no-brainer. Think instead about whether your child actually wants to do it and whether or not he/she has the attention span to do it properly.