How Young is Too Young?
by Bill Calberry
As an unprecedented and ever-increasing number of children in Canada are showing the unfortunate negative effects of over-eating and a lack of exercise, many parents face the challenge of having to select and schedule appropriate exercise activities for their children in an attempt to correct the damage that's been done to their bodes by disuse and overindulgence. Most however, are still confused about the age appropriateness of various forms of exercise; strength training in particular.
Although most people now understand that strength training is a vital and extremely beneficial form of exercise for adults of all ages, there remains a lot of misunderstanding and misinformation when it comes to strength training for children and young teens; specifically when it's safe for them to start picking up the weights.
Traditionally most parents - usually counseled by a well meaning but misinformed family doctor - have elected to keep their children out of the weight room for fear that lifting weights could damage the epiphyseal (growth) plates in their bones and permanently impair growth.
While that kind of cautionary thinking is no doubt well intentioned, and it is true that exposure to a sufficient amount of force can cause serious damage to the epiphyseal plates in a child's bones permanently limiting further development, the reality is that it's extremely unlikely that anything a child would encounter in a typical strength program could cause that kind of damage in the first place.
The truth is that most young people would be incapable of handling anywhere near enough weight to cause that kind of injury, and that weight-bearing exercise in a controlled setting is probably the single best thing you could expose your child to in order to stimulate the development of strong bones.
The kind of forces necessary to cause a serious fracture to the epiphyseal plates in a child's bones simply don't come from the type of movements a child would commonly be learning and performing in the gym anyway. They come from the high impact ballistic movements like falls and high-speed collisions. In other words, your child is far more likely to suffer an injury to a growth plate playing contact / field-sports or from a bad fall than they are from lifting the kind of weights they'd be handling in the gym.
The real issue when it comes to whether or not strength training is appropriate for a child is whether or not a particular child is intellectually mature enough to stay focused on what they're supposed to be doing and not doing in the gym, take direction and make corrections as necessary, be disciplined in their movements and remain aware of what's going on around them during a workout.
If a child isn't mature enough to take strength training seriously and learn to perform the movements in a safe and productive manner, then in most cases they simply aren't going to get much out of the activity, and in rare instances could end up with pulled muscles and strained tendons or ligaments. Fortunately however, the superior elasticity that is typical of a young persons muscle and connective tissue makes them far less likely to sustain the serious tears and ruptures that an adult might suffer as a result of carelessness in the gym.
Maturity though, is something that has to be assessed on a case by case basis. It simply isn't possible to establish an arbitrary age at which all children are mature enough to start strength training.
In my own case I began weight training in my parent's basement at a very young age and never suffered an injury. Having said that, I was also a very serious child when it came to most things, and the fact that I was also extremely interested in that particular activity made me very determined to learn to do it right. At the same time though, I also remember encountering adults when I got my first gym membership that literally made me shake my young head in disbelief at the haphazard way they seemed to fling weights around.
As a Professional Trainer, I can honestly tell you that I've seen some children not even in high-school yet that were far more focused and meticulous about their exercise form than a great many of the adults around them, and then again I've worked with some older teens that probably shouldn't even be trusted to cross the street on their own let alone be turned lose in a gym.
What it comes down to is that you'll have to make your own judgment call when it comes to whether or not your child is ready to start an exercise program that includes strength training. While it can be an extremely valuable and effective tool for helping your child lose weight, get in shape and build a fit and healthy body, not every child or teen is immediately ready for a full-blown weight training program. In some cases a phased program that initially includes a few basic movements mixed in with bodyweight exercises and activities works better. Over time and with more maturity more strength movements can be introduced.
If you do decide to give it a try however, you'll also have to find a facility that will accept members of your child's age, and many won't due to liability issues. Then you'll probably want to locate a Trainer that has experience developing and implementing programs for young people, unless you feel you have the ability (and patience) to tackle it yourself.
In many cases a private training facility like Kcal Fitness that's run by experienced Trainers might be your best option, because they're more likely to be flexible about age if your child seems mature enough, and they'll probably be more experienced than the Trainers you're likely to find at most fitness clubs.