The health and wellness industry is full of half-truths and myths that seem to stick around, regardless of what the science and the experts say.
One question that comes up often in fitness circles and medical offices, and with youth coaches is, does lifting weights stunt growth?
If you’re a parent of a child under age 18, you might be wondering if the strength training workouts children are doing at the gym or as part of a sports team are stunting your child’s growth.
While this concern about stunted growth seems legitimate, the good news is, your child does not have to quit lifting weights.
What does the science say?
The myth that kids will stop growing if they lift weights too young is not supported by any scientific evidence or research.
What is supported by scientific evidence and research is that properly designed and supervised resistance training programs have
- increasing strength and bone strength index (BSI)
- decreasing fracture risk and rates of sports-related injury
- growing self-esteem and interest in fitness.
Why do people believe that lifting weights stunts growth?
Most likely, the myth that lifting weights stunts growth came from concern over kids causing damage to their growth plates if they participate in a strength training program.
Dr. Rob Raponi, a naturopathic doctor and certified sports nutritionist, says the misconception that lifting weights stunts growth likely stems from the fact that injuries to growth plates in immature bones can stunt growth.
However, he points out that this is something that can result from poor form, weights that are too heavy, and a lack of supervision. But it’s not the result of lifting weights correctly.
What this myth doesn’t mention is that participation in almost any type of sport or recreational activity carries a risk of injury. In fact, about 15 to 30 percent of all childhood fractures involve the growth plates.
Your growth plates are the cartilaginous areas of growing tissue at the ends of long bones (like the thigh bone, for example). These plates turn into hardened bone when young people reach physical maturity but are softer during development and are therefore more susceptible to damage.
But just because the growth plates are susceptible to damage doesn’t mean an adolescent or teenager should avoid lifting weights.
The shared thought among medical professionals is that weightlifting in kids under 18 is safe when properly applied, says Chris Wolf, DO, sports medicine and regenerative orthopedic specialist at the Bluetail Medical Group.
How to safely lift weights
If your child is interested in starting a weightlifting program, there are many things to keep in mind, including the following.
Take it slow
Conquering the heavier weights does not happen overnight. When you’re young, it’s important to take it slow and build up gradually.
This means starting with lighter weights and higher reps and focusing on the execution of the movement rather than on the number on the dumbbell.
It’s not about how big you are
Children should not be lifting weights with the goal of drastically increasing muscle size, says Dr. Alex Tauberg, DC, CSCS, CCSP. In fact, he says the majority of the benefit that a child will get from weightlifting will be neuromuscular.
“When a child is able to lift heavier weight due to strength training it is usually due to increased muscular performance rather than an increase in the size of muscle,” he explains. Training programs need to be designed with this in mind.
Age is just a number
Determining when a child or teen is ready to start a weightlifting program should be performed on an individualized basis, not just by age.
“Safety with weightlifting is all about maturity and proper supervision,” says Dr. Adam Rivadeneyra, a Sports Medicine Physician with Hoag Orthopedic Institute. It’s also about being able to follow rules and instruction in order to learn good movement patterns and proper form.
Start with the basics and make it fun
Raponi believes that as long as weightlifting is done safely, with supervision, and is enjoyable for the individual, there is no wrong age to start resistance training.
That being said, he does recommend starting with body weight exercises. “Modified pushups, body weight squats, sit-ups, and planks are all excellent forms of resistance training that are safe and do not require weights,” he says.
Proper supervision is key
If your adolescent or teen is interested in participating in a strength training program, make sure they are supervised by a certified personal trainer, coach, or educator who has training in how to design a weightlifting program for kids.
If you have any concerns about your child’s participation in a weightlifting program, talk with their pediatrician or doctor before they start lifting weights.