It used to be believed that lifting weights could cause all kinds of negative issues, particularly if misused.
While it’s true that poor form and poor programming coupled with overenthusiasm or arrogance can easily lead to injury in the gym, other issues (supposed inflexibility, decrements in other performance areas, etc.) have failed to seriously materialize.
As a result, weight training has become more popular across all athletic disciplines as a method of improving overall performance, even if it’s not as directly beneficial as for the sports which most rely on strength or musculature.
Another common myth was that women shouldn’t lift weights because this makes them “bulky”, or that women should lift weights with significantly different approaches than men. This has largely been disproved by the popularity of CrossFit and the increasing prevalence of female lifters.
One myth which still persists is that children shouldn’t lift weights. The general argument is that pre-pubescent children shouldn’t lift weights because they haven’t gone through puberty yet, and this means that it may have an impact on their later development - stunting growth, greater risk of injury, permanently deforming their skeleton, etc.
However, from both a scientific and non-scientific perspective, this argument has failed to hold up. A child bodybuilder known as “little hercules” grew up to have a pretty normal life (and he gave up weight training because he got bored of it, causing him to lose his physique). Giuliano Stroe (a child bodybuilder and gymnast) turned 13 this year and has yet to see any significant negative effects from his years of training.
In some cultures it is customary for children to start seriously training for athletics earlier than in the United States. For example, the USSR placed a great deal of emphasis on physical education programs in schools - both to foster strong, healthy citizens and to assess early on which would be suitable for becoming soldiers or athletes.
Meanwhile, the USSR was dominating the world stage in weightlifting, spawning numerous copycat coaches who tried to duplicate their training methods in the states.
Likewise, athletes begin training for certain sports sooner than for other sports. Women’s gymnastics, for example, tends to rely on younger athletes because this makes them lighter and thus more competitive - and this has prompted multiple raisings of the minimum competition age over concerns for their health.
According to that report about the USSR, students would start with serious physical training as early as the first grade. If this is the truth, and if it is true that serious athletic training is detrimental to the long term health or fitness of children, then it seems likely that this would have started showing - but as far as I know, such a phenomenon never materialized.
More recently, a 2016 analysis summarized a lot of the research on training for youth athletes. What they found was that strength training was effective at increasing various measures of athletic performance in children, is not particularly dangerous/carries no serious additional risks, and works well for all genders.
In short, all the scientific and social evidence that we have available to us suggests that weight training in children is both healthy and effective. However, working with children does carry other concerns.
Mainly, we should be careful when training children because they are unlikely to have much training knowledge on their own.
Good form, intelligent exercise programming, and plan consistency are all things kids will naturally struggle with without outside guidance. This means that children, more than any other kind of athlete, require good management to succeed.
You should also probably avoid training children very intensely, simply because this is likely to ingrain negative perceptions about exercise. Luckily, a lot of child athletes are properly (or at least, properly enough) coached, since they rarely get into weight training on their own.
In short - weight training for kids is a good idea, but you need to make sure to treat them like the beginners they are.
Your success in the gym often relies on past experiences. People with bad gym experiences tend to encounter more and get scared off, while people with good gym experiences tend to develop a healthy relationship with exercise. Teaching kids to train means that you have more control over their experiences and can help ensure that they’re good ones - setting them up for a long life and healthy relationship with exercise.
I don't think we should be concerned about children lifting weights. However, I do think that we should be concerned about how children lift weights, and we should be careful to make sure that they're being properly coached.
- Lifting weights is no more dangerous for children and young athletes than it is for adults. This is consistent with all research as well as anecdotal evidence.
- Children are extreme beginners when it comes to lifting weights, and should be treated appropriately. This means that they should be more carefully coached to ensure proper form and progression.
- One positive reason to get children to lift weights is that this can ingrain good exercise habits in them early, leading to greater success later in life. Instilling good exercise habits early can be a huge benefit.
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