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Q: My son is 12 years old and has friends that are already starting to lift weights. At what age is it appropriate for children to start a weight lifting routine? Are there risks of stunting his growth?
A: This question is frequently debated every year in many health and fitness conferences across America. The good thing is that this also provides an impetus for quality research on this exact topic. Current findings suggest that weight-bearing and resistive-weight exercises as early as the age of 8 can increase bone density rates later in life (10 years after) and help prevent osteoporosis.

While this sounds encouraging, the weights that they used in this study out of Canada were extremely light for the upper body and mostly body weight exercises for the lower body. There have been other studies in the past 2 years that have seen an significant gain in strength and lean body mass for children ages 12-15 participating heavier weight training programs (up to 20% of their body weight).

The gap in these studies between the age groups is significant and makes it difficult to interpret. When parents approach me with a young child, I ask them to come into the clinic so I meet with them in person. After reviewing the child’s medical history and athletic involvement, I would formally evaluate the child and see where they are in respect to their peak growth and complex movement patterns (a type of Functional Movement Assessment). Using these findings and talking extensively with the family about the child’s goals and current activity level, we usually come up with a plan.

The youngest children we currently train are 9 and above. At this age, up till about 12 or 13, we usually focus mostly on movement patterns, core exercises, and agility drills. We also evaluate their running form and technique and provide some corrective cues and repetitive exercises to help correct faulty mechanics. After they start to develop some of the more complex movements, we usually add some resistance in the form of bands, medicine balls, kettlebells, and light dumbbells. Again, the focus of these exercises is to continue progressing the core and major peripheral muscle groups while balancing the strength between sides with the complex movements. Even though the literature is constantly changing, I would still not recommend using heavy loads that a child can only move less that 8 repetitions before fatigue. This should cover the concerns of stunting or impairing growth. The children between the ages of 9-12 usually come in once or twice a week, depending on their current activity and scholastic loads.

All said and done, each child is unique and develops differently. My greatest concerns for younger children participating in any type of a training program are
1) injury and
2) overload.

A proper evaluation and communication between parents, coaches, children, and trainers is paramount to helping to curb these issues. Look for future articles to cover these topics more in depth.

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