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The Informed Parent

Weightlifting for Pre-teens?

by Louis P. Theriot, M.D., F.A.A.P.
Published on Jan. 13, 2003

Tommy was a tall, gangly, freckly-faced nine-year-old who was brought to the office for his yearly physical by his mother AND his father. This was somewhat of a surprise as I don’t think I had seen his father for many years. My curiosity peaked when his mom caught me in the hallway and said overtly, “We have to talk...”

When I entered the room, both mom and dad seemed very pleasant, and Tommy appeared quite happy to have both parents present. Remembering what his mom had said I looked at Tommy’s chart and said, “You know what Tommy, I’m going to have the nurse re-check your blood pressure.” I escorted him to the treatment room so his parents and I could talk.

Upon returning and shutting the door both parents began talking at once. Then dad yielded to Tommy’s mom. “I am very concerned because my husband just bought a whole set of weights so that he and Tommy can start lifting. I just think that Tommy is too young and I’m afraid he could permanently damage his bones and muscles. I even read that weightlifting too early can stunt one’s growth,” she said in a caring voice not intending to be too hard on her husband.

He let her finish and then said, “Look doc, I know lots of guys who lift with their kids and they’re doing just fine. I’m not some kind of nut--I know to go slow and not push it. I started lifting with my brother when I was younger than Tommy and I turned out just fine!” It now was clear what the “dilemma” was, so I instructed my nurse to double check Tommy’s vision since we needed to continue this discussion.

“I can see what the issues are here, and before we talk about the pros and cons of weightlifting, we need to establish one major point.” I asked them point blank, “Does Tommy WANT to lift weights?”

There is no question that children’s sports have become unbelievably popular in our society within the past twenty years. When I was a child there was Little League baseball, Pop Warner football, and maybe a grammar school basketball team. For the most part everyone played for fun. Unfortunately there was little opportunity for girls sports. Nowadays there is T-ball for boys and girls. Girls can go on to play Little League or softball. Soccer has exploded in this country in recent years. If you drive by any park on a Saturday morning you will see every yard of grass being played upon by boys and girls of all ages. Roller hockey and ice hockey have become increasingly popular, as have other sports like water polo, cross-country and volleyball. With this increasing popularity has come an intense competition to succeed...and at a very young age. Everyone is looking for the edge to make their son or daughter a little bit better. Maybe with that edge they can get a scholarship. There are personal trainers, clubs and nutritional supplements. It has become cutthroat out there.

This question of children lifting weights comes up often. My first inquiry to the parent or parents is whether or not their child TRULY wants to lift weights of their own accord. All too often, it is at the urging of an over-zealous father or coach that the child “sort of” wants to lift weights---instead of playing. If, however, the child is genuinely interested in lifting, we can proceed with the discussion.

There are some misconceptions about pre-pubescent children lifting weights. Many people think that children are more susceptible to serious injuries to their bones and muscles if they lift, and some will tell you that they heard that it can actually stunt the child’s growth. Others, who have done some reading, will tell you that a pre-pubescent child is not producing specific hormones that come with puberty. This absence of hormones makes it impossible for the child to increase his or her strength. All of this in untrue!

There have been a number of published papers in reputable journals that have shown there are no harmful effects to a child’s muscles, bones or growth plates if weightlifting is done properly and is supervised. This was documented by studying the bones and muscles of young children by CT scan and bone scan, before and after a period of weight lifting. These articles went on to show that there were beneficial effects on flexibility, bone density, cholesterol and aerobic capability as well.

Another paper looked at a group of sexually and skeletally immature males and females who underwent a supervised nine-week strength-training program. At the conclusion of the program, these children increased their strength by 30 - 40%. An interesting aspect was that when the researchers looked for augmented muscle size and muscle mass, it was negligible. Without the hormones of puberty, there was increased strength, but no enlargement of bulk or mass. The increased strength was felt to be due to an expansion in the number of nerve-muscle complexes, or so-called motor end plates. This is known as motor unit recruitment.

It is generally accepted that children can begin strength training when they possess adequate balance and postural skills, and have become somewhat proficient in the sport for which they are training. This is going to be around 8 - 9 years of age. As was mentioned above, it is absolutely critical that a child at this young age be the one who is initiating the desire to lift weights. If so, it is equally critical that the child be properly supervised at ALL times. Special care and attention should be paid to insure that the child is using correct technique when lifting. Remember, the goal at this age is to increase strength, not bulk.

A good rule of thumb is that the child should be able to complete three sets of ten repetitions without difficulty. In other words, he should not be straining to get “the last two or three reps” up. After a weight lifting session, he should come away feeling that he could do more, and should not be overly sore. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends that Olympic-type lifting, or power lifting, should be delayed until skeletal maturation has been fully completed.

After our little discussion I had the nurse bring Tommy back in the room. I asked him what sports he was interested in playing. He looked at me and shrugged his shoulders. “Oh, I don’t really care. But you know what? I got a new video game that is sooo cool!” I then said, “Hey, Tommy. Your parents tell me that you want to get out in the garage and lift weights with your dad.” He looked at me and said, “I guess so. No, not really. My dad likes to lift weights. Ya, maybe I will. I don’t know.” With that, Tommy’s dad looked at me with a telling smile on his face, and said, “Maybe next year!”

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