Weight training benefits kids

Somewhat improbably, from that scientific finding and other similar reports, as well as from anecdotes and accreting myth, many people came to believe “that children and adolescents should not” practise weight training, said Avery Faigenbaum, a professor of exercise science at the College of New Jersey. That idea retains a sturdy hold in the popular imagination. As a recent position paper on the topic of children and resistance training points out, many parents, coaches and paediatrician remain convinced that weight training by children will “result in short stature, epiphyseal plate” — or growth plate — “damage, lack of strength increases due to a lack of testosterone and a variety of safety issues.”

Kids, in other words, many of us believe, won’t get stronger by lifting weights and will probably hurt themselves. But a major new review just published in Pediatrics, together with a growing body of other scientific reports, suggest that, in fact, weight training can be not only safe for young people, it can also be beneficial, even essential.

Stronger

Researchers with the Institute of Training Science and Sports Informatics in Cologne, Germany, analysed 60 years’ worth of studies of kids and weightlifting. The studies covered boys and girls from age 6 to 18. The researchers found that, almost without exception, children and adolescents benefited from weight training. They grew stronger. Older kids, particularly teens, tended to add more strength than younger ones, as would be expected, but the difference was not enormous.

Overall, strength gains were “linear,” the researchers found. They didn’t spike wildly after puberty for boys or girls, even though boys at that age are awash in testosterone, the sex hormone known to increase muscle mass in adults. That was something of a surprise.

On the other hand, a reliable if predictable factor was consistency. Young people of any age who participated in resistance training at least twice a week for a month or more showed greater strength gains than those who worked out only once a week or for shorter periods.

The researchers concluded, “regardless of maturational age, children seem to be capable of increasing muscular strength.”

That finding, which busts one of the most pervasive myths about resistance training for young people — that they won’t actually get stronger — is in accord with the results of most researchers who have studied the subject. “We’ve worked with kindergartners, having them just use balloons and dowels” as strength training tools, “and found that they developed strength increases,” said Dr Faigenbaum, a widely acknowledged expert on the topic of youth strength training.

Interestingly, young people do not add muscular power in quite the same way as adults. They rarely pack on bulk. Adults, particularly men but also women, typically add muscle mass when they start weight training, a process known as muscular hypertrophy (or, less technically, getting buff). Youths do not add as much or sometimes any obvious muscle mass as a result of strength training, which is one of the reasons many people thought they did not grow stronger.

Their strength gains seem generally to involve “neurological” changes, Dr Faigenbaum said. Their nervous systems and muscles start interacting more efficiently.

And that fact, from both a physiological and philosophical standpoint, is perhaps why strength training for children is so important.

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