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Carefully Supervise Preteen Weight Training

Preteen boys often want to begin weight-lifting to increase their strength and muscle bulk. Is weight lifting safe for children who have not yet reached puberty? For most of this century, physicians and physical education instructors did not support the idea of children and preadolescents participating in strength and resistance training programs, this despite poor strength levels in American children.

Much of the evidence against kids participating in such programs came from scientific reports that young children were not able to gain strength before puberty. Many physicians thought that the risks of injury and the potential for growth stunting were too great. Furthermore, they preadolescents lacked the hormonal "fuel" to boost muscle mass. It has been long believed a certain amount of male hormone (called androgen) had to be present in the blood stream before weight lifting would improve strength. And since an elevated level is only present after puberty, any weight training before this time would be ineffective.

This belief was supported by The American Academy of Pediatrics who had issued a policy statement to its members that "unless good data becomes available that shows safety, preadolescents should avoid the practice of weight lifting, power lifting, and body building, and the repetitive use of maximal amounts of weight in strength training programs, until they have reached full sexual maturity."

A growing body of medical research now suggests that weight training before puberty can be of some benefit. These investigations have shown that preadolescents can respond to a strength-training program with an increase in muscle mass roughly 50% of that seen in adults who undergo the same strength training. Besides the improvement in strength, there is a decreased risk of musculoskeletal overuse injuries while participating in sports. Furthermore, a marked improvement in self esteem and self confidence was seen in those preadolescents who took part in strength-training programs.

On the downside, weight training injuries did occur more frequently in preadolescents. They usually resulted when improper techniques were used, the child was not supervised by an adult, or the youngster attempted to lift too much weight. These include acute musculoskeletal injuries (sprains and strains), damage to the bone's growth plates, overuse injuries (particularly of the elbow and knees), stress fractures, and a general disruption or slowing of skeletal maturation. Another concern of some physicians is that children and adolescents involved in weight training might turn to anabolic steroids and other preparations in order to increase muscle strength and/or muscle size.

Experts in the field now recommend the following for parents of preteens who allow their youngster to participate in weight training:

  1. The equipment should be of appropriate design to accommodate the size and maturity of the preadolescent. It should be located in an uncrowded area free of obstructions with adequate lighting and ventilation. Avoid home workouts. They tend to be unsupervised and the child often takes needless risks.
  2. A pre participation physical exam is mandatory
  3. The child must have the emotional maturity to accept and follow instruction from a trained adult. This means that some 8-year-olds are ready, while many 14- year olds are not. In addition, the child should have the balance and coordination needed for weight lifting.
  4. Adequate supervision by trainers who are knowledgeable in strength training and the special problems of preteens
  5. Strength training should always be preceded by a warmup period and followed by a cool-down period
  6. Competition in weight lifting should be prohibited
  7. No maximum lift should ever be attempted
  8. There should be a discussion about the misuse of anabolic steroids and other illegally obtained medication used to increase muscle strength and size.
  9. The youngster should train for the right reason. He should not be motivated by an overzealous coach or aggressive parents.
  10. Maintain perspective. Cardiovascular fitness should be part of the total program and weight training is no substitute for general fitness.

It is important to emphasize that weight training is probably the last thing preteens should do to help their performance. Muscular training is not the most vital part of a physical fitness program and a strong person may not necessarily be physically fit. Aerobic exercise - the kind that makes kids sweat and breathe hard (like basketball, running, swimming, or soccer), is the best way to improve cardiovascular endurance, balance, agility, and flexibility. Yet the evidence is now in that prepubescent and adolescent resistance training is safe, that it is effective in developing muscular strength and endurance, and that numerous benefits are possible following such training when done with proper supervision.


As a reminder, this information should not be relied on as medical advice and is not intended to replace the advice of your child’s pediatrician. Please read our full disclaimer.

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