“You know, for kids!”
—The Hudsucker Proxy
I get a lot of email from folks who have young daughters (or sons) interested in weight training. They worry about what they have heard of the ill effects of training too young: stunted growth, injury, impaired development, etc. However, an appropriately designed, monitored, and instructed weight training program is probably much safer for a young person than other sports and activities in which they commonly engage: football, baseball, soccer, tree climbing, skateboarding, etc. (which isn’t to say that they shouldn’t do all these things and more, but just that worry over weight training is somewhat misplaced).
Here is a link to the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s position on youth weight training, which states that weight training is a safe activity for children. [Update August 2009: See the full text of the updated 2009 statement below.]
For young women in particular, I believe weight training is an excellent activity. Girls are very vulnerable to negative messages about their bodies as they enter adolescence. In North America, nearly a third of girls are dieting or preoccupied with their weight by the time they hit fourth grade. Obesity in young people is on the rise, accompanied by troubling health conditions such as the predecessors to heart disease and diabetes.
Weight training helps shift the focus from looks to achievement, teaches skills and self-discipline, provides a base of functional strength for sports and daily life, and gives girls a sense of positive physical accomplishment. It can be done by just about anyone, even nonathletic dorks like me, and it can be a solitary activity or done as part of a social event. Personally I hated team sports as a kid and always loved individual activities like riding my bike and hiking, but some girls prefer to do things in groups.
There are some guidelines to follow when considering and implementing a weight training program for young people.
1. Proper supervision by adults
You don’t have to be a strength and conditioning coach to watch your kid, you just have to be aware of lifting safely and correctly. This includes serving as a spotter when necessary, ensuring that she is always working within her abilities and using proper technique, and establishing a rule that your daughter does not train potentially dangerous lifts like the bench press unless an adult is around.
Training should be fun, but trainees must also respect the risks involved, so it is wise to convey a sense of gravity and respect to the wee one; make a rule that there is no fooling around while using the weights. I think it’s great for mom and daughter to work out together if mom is also into weight training, but then again, in my early teens, I would have been, like, ohmigod, soooo grossed out if my mother was my workout partner, euw.
2. Awareness of growth and development
Girls mature at different rates, so what is appropriate for one 13-year-old might not be appropriate for another. In general, by the time a girl gets her period, she is approaching the final stages of physical growth and maturation, but the process might continue for several more years, albeit more slowly. The physically (rather than chronologically) younger the girl, the more care must be taken in order to ensure that workload is not too heavy.
3. Awareness of overall activity level
If your daughter does other activities such as organized sports, swimming lessons, etc., it is important to make sure that she has lots of time to recover. If weight training is her only activity, then she will be able to dedicate more resources to it, but should still be careful of total workload. Think of the program in holistic terms such as total hours per week, and be on the lookout for budding overload injuries. You may also choose to tailor her program to complement her other activities. I give tips on how to do this here.
4. Deal with early injury signs immediately
Weight training is very safe compared to many other sports. Ideally she will stay injury-free, but every now and again, trainees get little aches and pains, and accidents can happen. Encourage her to distinguish between soreness from a workout, and pain that signals a potential injury. She should not be told to walk off bad pain or “suck it up” if there is a real problem. Sure, it’s good to create an ethos of meeting challenges and not making a fuss over every little thing, but it is not okay to promote the idea of working through an injury which could result in permanent damage. I would like to hunt down and shoot my youngest sister’s cheerleading coach for leaving her and most of the team with major lifelong injuries such as destroyed wrists and herniated lumbar disks.
5. Start with low intensities for at least the first year
Using lower intensities (percentage of maximum) will provide a good stimulus but allow connective tissue to recover and get stronger. It will also reinforce technique. Beginners of all ages can see results from intensities as low as about 30% of max (so, if a person’s maximal squat is 100 lbs. for 1 rep, then the working weight will be 30 lbs.). But this is pretty boring to use for a weights workout.
A good intensity for a young beginner is somewhere around 50-65% of max. Since it’s not advisable to do one-rep maxes with beginners to determine their max, this will be a bit of a guesstimate and trial and error. I’d say try to shoot for a weight that is controllable and doable for 12-15 reps per set, whether or not you actually do sets of 12-15 reps (I’ll explain that a little more later). Once all sets can be completed in good form, then you can add a little weight. Weight should be increased in small increments. If you want smaller plates than the commonly available 2.5 lb., hit the local Home Depot for large washers to tape together, or get some fractional plates from PDA.
6. Substitute calisthenic-type or bodyweight exercises for weighted exercises wherever possible
These can be a fun, safe challenge, and young people often have a great time with these because they have such an optimal strength to mass ratio. When I was 12, I could scuttle up a rope like a monkey on speed. Pretty easy to do when you only weigh 75 lbs! By the way, climbing is a great activity for kids, so maybe book the indoor climbing gym for the next birthday party.
Ideas for bodyweight exercises include various types of pullups, pushups, unweighted squats and lunges, rope or wall climbing, jumps and hops (including rope jumping), hill/stair runs, and medicine ball throws. Check out Bryce’s page, Body by Fish, and Crossfit for ideas on bodyweight stuff. Pushups can stand in for bench pressing, rope jumping and hill running for calf work, horizontal pullups for rows, superman exercises for back hyperextensions, etc.
She might find the local playground too babyish, but if not, there can be cool things there to play with: horizontal ladders to swing from or do pullups on, steps or ladders to run up and down or climb using only arms, etc. Hell, I wish I had one of those near my house! I’d boot all the little toddlers off so I could do the ladder thing and walk the rope bridge, just like in the army!
7. Emphasize skill acquisition and mastery over weight
This means that proper technique is essential, and should always take precedence over adding weight. When she loses form on an exercise, that set is done. No working to failure or allowing messy reps to count. There’s always time to work with heavier weights a few years down the road. As my former art teacher used to say, “First you learn the rules, then you learn how to break them”.
Setting goals can also be a useful motivation, if that is desired (some girls won’t like it, but some will thrive on it). Goals, if they are set, should be strength-oriented (e.g. lifting X lbs. or working up to Y pushups), fitness-oriented (e.g. increasing running time or ease) or technique mastery-oriented (e.g. learning a squat properly), rather than weight loss oriented.
8. Emphasize good nutrition for athletic performance, health, and meeting of goals, rather than dieting to be skinny
I cannot overstate this point enough. Girls receive an unbelievable amount of destructive messages about their body, and they are much more receptive to this negativity in adolescence. Don’t be part of that cycle, and as much as possible, don’t exhibit that body-hating behaviour yourself. Point out that she needs to eat, and eat well, to fuel performance.
9. Be on the lookout for signs that she is training too hard
These will include disordered eating behaviour, sleep disruption, ongoing injuries, excessive weight loss, and irregular or absent menstruation (I know, I know, I can hear the anguished cries of “Mo-om!” now). She should start with weight training two to three times weekly, for about thirty minutes per session. This can be done on its own or in conjunction with other activities. Over several months the duration of the session can be increased minutes if desired, but be aware of the teenage attention span! If exercises are well chosen, it’s really not necessary to go over about 45 minutes per session.
10. Training should be fun and never a chore
It should be the child’s choice and not an obligation to please a parent. If possible, include workout “toys” such as the swiss ball, lightly weighted sandbags or sleds to pull, etc. Make sessions into games or timed circuits, if she would enjoy that. If you can stand it, let her listen to her music.
11. Young people can do challenging compound exercises such as squats, pullups, rows, presses, etc. provided that they learn good form and use a weight which is manageable
Renowned strength coach Chris Thibaudeau taught Olympic lifts to young figure skaters (and there used to be some really adorable pics of the girls still wearing their skating costumes while hauling weight around). The adult in charge will have to make a judgement call about how to teach skills based on what s/he knows about the girl’s intellectual and emotional maturity levels.
12. Use a full body routine instead of focusing on one or two body parts
It’s fine to do different parts on different days if you prefer to organize training that way, but make sure everything gets some attention in the course of the cycle. Kids need to learn motor control and coordination more than they need to work on their upper pecs.
13. Use free weights and body weight
Because she may have a smaller body than the average adult, free weights and bodyweight/calisthenic activities are probably a better choice for most exercises than machines, which are often too big for a teen’s body (hell, some are too big for my body). Free weights allow her to adapt the movement to her own needs. If you are concerned about barbells, there are lighter ones available, and/or she can use dumbbells for many things. A complicated setup isn’t necessary for a great workout.
Here’s a sample workout I suggested for a teenage girl interested in throwing sports (shotput and discus), to augment her beginner technique training in that sport. It would work well as a general beginner routine, though. This could be done 2-3 days weekly, alternating Day 1 and 2. Notice that although a couple of exercises are done with 5 reps per set, it doesn’t mean that her 5-rep-max weight is used.
- Deadlift to shrug on toes, 5 x 5 @ 50-65% of max
- Pushups, 3 x as many as possible (once these get really easy for her, have
her elevate her feet, and once those get easy, have her try them one-handed
or do clapping pushups)
- Squat jumps, 3 x 10-15 (these are done unweighted; squat down, jump up as
high as possible, land and immediately drop down into the squat position
again, jump up, etc.)
- Ab exercise of choice, 2 sets
- Rope jumping 5-10 min, or hill/stair run, 10 min
- Front squat to overhead press 5 x 5 @ 50-65% of max (using clean grip, do a front squat, then return to standing position, drop elbows and press bar up overhead, return bar to clean grip position across collarbones, front squat, etc.)
- One-arm dumbbell row 3 x 12-15
- Close-grip bench press (close grip pushups are another fun challenge if she
likes) 2 x 12-15
- Ab exercise of choice, 2 sets
- Rope jumping 5-10 min, or hill/stair run, 10 min
Faigenbaum, AD, Kraemer, WJ, Blimkie, CJR, Jeffreys, I, Micheli, LJ, Nitka, M, and Rowland, TW. Youth resistance training: Updated position statement paper from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. 2009.
Current recommendations suggest that school-aged youth should participate daily in 60 minutes or more of moderate to vigorous physical activity that is developmentally appropriate and enjoyable and involves a variety of activities (219). Not only is regular physical activity essential for normal growth and development, but also a physically active lifestyle during the pediatric years may help to reduce the risk of developing some chronic diseases later in life (196).
In addition to aerobic activities such as swimming and bicycling, research increasingly indicates that resistance training can offer unique benefits for children and adolescents when appropriately prescribed and supervised (28,66,111,139,147,234). The qualified acceptance of youth resistance training by medical, fitness, and sport organizations is becoming universal (5,6,8,12,18,33,104,167,192,215).
Nowadays, comprehensive school-based programs are specifically designed to enhance health-related components of physical fitness, which include muscular strength (169). In addition, the health club and sport conditioning industry is getting more involved in the youth fitness market. In the U.S.A., the number of health club members between the ages of 6 and 17 years continues to increase (127,252) and a growing number of private sport conditioning centers now cater to young athletes. Thus, as more children and adolescents resistance train in schools, health clubs, and sport training centers, it is imperative to determine safe, effective, and enjoyable practices by which resistance training can improve the health, fitness, and sports performance of younger populations.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) recognizes and supports the premise that many of the benefits associated with adult resistance training programs are attainable by children and adolescents who follow age-specific resistance training guidelines. The NSCA published the first position statement paper on youth resistance training in 1985 (170) and revised this statement in 1996 (72).
The purpose of the present report is to update and clarify the 1996 recommendations on 4 major areas of importance. These topics include (a) the potential risks and concerns associated with youth resistance training, (b) the potential health and fitness benefits of youth resistance training, (c) the types and amount of resistance training needed by healthy children and adolescents, and (d) program design considerations for optimizing long-term training adaptations.
The NSCA based this position statement paper on a comprehensive analysis of the pertinent scientific evidence regarding the anatomical, physiological, and psychosocial effects of youth resistance training. An expert panel of exercise scientists, physicians, and health/physical education teachers with clinical, practical, and research expertise regarding issues related to pediatric exercise science, sports medicine, and resistance training contributed to this statement. The NSCA Research Committee reviewed this report before the formal endorsement by the NSCA.
For the purpose of this article, the term children refers to boys and girls who have not yet developed secondary sex characteristics (approximately up to the age of 11 years in girls and 13 years in boys; Tanner stages 1 and 2 of sexual maturation). This period of development is referred to as preadolescence. The term adolescence refers to a period between childhood and adulthood and includes girls aged 12-18 years and boys aged 14-18 years (Tanner stages 3 and 4 of sexual maturation). The terms youth and young athletes are broadly defined in this report to include both children and adolescents.
By definition, the term resistance training refers to a specialized method of conditioning, which involves the progressive use of a wide range of resistive loads and a variety of training modalities designed to enhance health, fitness, and sports performance. Although the term resistance training, strength training, and weight training are sometimes used synonymously, the term resistance training encompasses a broader range of training modalities and a wider variety of training goals. The term weightlifting refers to a competitive sport that involves the performance of the snatch and clean and jerk lifts.
This article builds on previous recommendations from the NSCA and should serve as the prevailing statement regarding youth resistance training. It is the current position of the NSCA that:
1. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program is relatively safe for youth.
2. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can enhance the muscular strength and power of youth.
3. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can improve the cardiovascular risk profile of youth.
4. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can improve motor skill performance and may contribute to enhanced sports performance of youth.
5. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can increase a young athlete's resistance to sports-related injuries.
6. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can help improve the psychosocial well-being of youth.
7. A properly designed and supervised resistance training program can help promote and develop exercise habits during childhood and adolescence.
(C) 2009 National Strength and Conditioning Association