Is weight training okay for pre-teens and teens?

teenage girls hold their dumbbells and smile during a workout lifting weights

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What does strength training look like for our kids?

“Jacked!”

“Yoked!”

“Ripped!”

“Buff!”

“Swole!”

These are just a few of the slang terms that you might hear kids use to describe people who are extremely muscular, toned and strong, or about their own goals they’re working for as they venture into lifting weights.

Why weight training?

Exploring the world of youth fitness can be both exhilarating and daunting for parents. 

Beyond the surface allure of bulging muscles, there’s a multitude of reasons why adolescents might be eager to dive into weight training. For many, it’s a quest for confidence, a way to carve out a sense of identity in a world that often feels uncertain. Others are drawn to the discipline and structure it offers, providing a sense of control in a time of rapid change. 

And let’s not overlook the influence of media and societal norms, which often glorify the muscular physique as a symbol of strength and success.

teenagers using kettlebells for working out

If your child is among those who are enthusiastic about weight training and working out, it’s essential to equip yourself with the knowledge you need to ensure your child’s passion for fitness remains a safe, positive and empowering experience. 

When is it okay for youth to start weightlifting?

Many parents wonder if there is a certain age that signifies when our kids should be allowed to participate in weightlifting. Is it safe for them? And how do we promote doing things safely and correctly versus keeping up with the kid next to them at the gym or in class?

Let’s start off by talking about anatomy and how the body develops.

We can look at development of our bodies from a chronological perspective (how many years old we are) or biologic perspective (our change in size, shape, or function). We know that biologic influences often impact our physical capability more than the number of years old we are. Therefore, to put an age limit on weightlifting or strength training based on chronological age is not fitting.

Instead, we should be aware of:

  1. Peak Height Velocity: This is when we see the greatest increase to our height. Typically, for males it is from ages 14-16 years old with an average 14-year-old male growing upwards of 4.06 inches in that year. Females experience peak height velocity from 11.5-13.5 years old with an average of potentially 3.5 inches grown during their 12th year.
  2. Growth Spurts: When kids go through a growth spurt – typically associated with their peak height velocity – they experience a decrease in flexibility and strength, and a change in their motor control that can contribute to impaired movement patterns, and therefore, increase risk for injury. Training properly and safely with coaching/feedback as appropriate AND progressing properly is key to avoiding injury during this time periods.
  3. Growth Plates: It is important to realize that our kids’ bony or skeletal development is not negatively impacted by strength training or weightlifting. Contrary to some myths, lifting weights does not stunt our children’s growth nor does it impact their growth plates. In fact, research supports safe strength training in adolescents. When done with proper form while increasing loads gradually and avoiding excessive strain, weightlifting can offer a range of benefits for teens including improved strength, bone density and overall fitness.

“Training age” matters!

It is important to consider that the length of time someone has done something is often a better indicator about their ability than chronological age is. How long a person has been weightlifting or training within a sport can be referred to as their “training age.”

Thus, it is likely that a 17-year-old who is has been lifting weights for three years is better off than a 25-year-old in their first month of weight training when it comes to ability, form and knowledge. Training age also signifies that when someone is new to lifting (a novice), they need to make sure to put in the time and effort it takes to improve (increasing weight or load). This is where we can see “ego” impact safety with lifting. It is important to ensure our kids are not comparing themselves to others as that can negatively impact a commitment to appropriate progressions.

Consider the foundations for training.

In kiddos, when considering fitness training, it is important to assess their readiness. Can they listen and follow instructions? Do they have postural control and balance? If so, it is perfectly fine to support them as they explore weight training as a fitness option.

Thanks to their highly responsive nervous systems – a phenomenon known as neuroplasticity – kids possess a remarkable capacity for adaptation, which means they may see faster improvements in strength, coordination, and overall fitness compared to adults.

Cultivating physical literacy during childhood — comprising motivation, confidence, competence, knowledge, and appreciation for lifelong physical activity — lays a crucial foundation for overall well-being. This journey begins early, with significant growth observed from infancy to preschool years. 

Often by 18 years of age, we see this peak and plateau, so it is important that we not only encourage our children to move and train but also empower them to do so!

How can PT help my teen learn to lift safely?

Navigating the world of weightlifting and strength training for teens requires a balanced approach that prioritizes safety, proper technique, and individual readiness. While weightlifting can offer numerous benefits for adolescents, including improved strength, bone density, and overall fitness, it’s crucial to proceed with caution and ensure that workouts are tailored to each individual’s abilities and goals.

young woman using gym equipment for strength training

Physical therapists can play a valuable role in supporting teens aspiring to transform their physique. If your preteen or teen has started stealing your dumbbells or other resistance training equipment, consider an assessment! Your local TAI PT can identify and address any potential imbalances, weaknesses, or injuries that may arise during strength training. As advocates for holistic well-being, we work collaboratively with teens and their families to develop personalized exercise programs, optimize biomechanics, and prevent future injuries.

By integrating physical therapy into a teen’s fitness journey, we can enhance performance, mitigate risks, and promote long-term health and resilience.

Resources:

Bellem E and Jasurda H. (2022). Do You Even Lift?: Demystifying Pediatric Strength Training in the Physical Therapy World. [PowerPoint Slides]. APTA Pediatric Conference 2022.

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Increase your athletic performance with the help of a physical therapist. Our passion is to help every patient reach their goals and live an active, pain-free life. Get started with PT today!

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