Strength training for children and adolescents

 

A reader asked me to write a short post on how and whether strength training for children and adolescents is safe and beneficial.

In the old days it was thought that younger people shouldn’t lift weights, as it could have an unknown effect on growth and development. This idea seems to have gone by the wayside, and many experts now recommend weightlifting for young people.

Safety of weightlifting for children

A 2006 review in the Clinical Journal of Sport Medicine looked at 22 different studies of weight training in young people, both pre- and post-puberty.(1) Specifically, the review was interested in whether growth or maturation were affected. It concluded:

Experimental training protocols with weights and resistance machines and with supervision and low instructor/participant ratios are relatively safe and do not negatively impact growth and maturation of pre- and early-pubertal youth.

Injury rates were very low. Noteworthy is that all of the studies I’ve seen in this area, including the present one, emphasize that weight training in youth should be supervised. That also means instruction. It’s much easier to get injured in a weight room when you don’t know what you’re doing; children, having less cognizance of injuries, even more so.

Another study looked at the feasibility and safety of weight training in obese pre-adolescents.(2) It concluded:

A resistance-training program may be included safely in a multidisciplinary weight management program for obese preadolescent male and female children.

Unfortunately, this study had a high dropout rate, with only 35% of the children completing a one-year program. However, they did lose fat, but there was no change in lean mass. This could be expected due to lack of androgens and, I’m guessing, lower exercise intensity.

A number of sports and exercise scientist groups have published position papers on weightlifting for young people. For example, the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology(3):

Many position stands and review papers have refuted the myths associated with resistance training (RT) in children and adolescents. With proper training methods, RT for children and adolescents can be relatively safe and improve overall health…  There is no minimum age for RT for children. However, the training and instruction must be appropriate for children and adolescents, involving a proper warm-up, cool-down, and appropriate choice of exercises… These exercises can include more advanced movements such as Olympic-style lifting, plyometrics, and balance training, which can enhance strength, power, co-ordination, and balance…In conclusion, an RT program that is within a child’s or adolescent’s capacity and involves gradual progression under qualified instruction and supervision with appropriately sized equipment can involve more advanced or intense RT exercises, which can lead to functional (i.e., muscular strength, endurance, power, balance, and co-ordination) and health benefits.

Under proper supervision, a weightlifting program can improve the health of children and appears to have no detrimental side effects on growth and maturity.

As for adolescents, the same strictures apply: instruction and supervision. Teenage boys, however, may be much more interested in building lots of muscle, which is fine. Many will also be interested in fat loss.

Weightlifting, teenage boys, and masculinity

Improvement of self-image, better self-confidence and health, and induction into manhood are all important goals of a weightlifting program for teenage boys.

In my book Muscle Up, I quoted the musician Henry Rollins, formerly of the band Black Flag, on how weightlifting changed him as a teenager. He describes his youth as being full of fear and humiliation; teachers called him “garbage can” and predicted he would never amount to anything. He was a self-described “spaz”. “I hated myself all the time.”

Until a hardcore but kindly Vietnam vet teacher talked him into taking up weightlifting. It transformed him.(4)

It wasn’t until my late twenties that I learned that by working out I had given myself a great gift. I learned that nothing good comes without work and a certain amount of pain. When I finish a set that leaves me shaking, I know more about myself. When something gets bad, I know it can’t be as bad as that workout.

I used to fight the pain, but recently this became clear to me: pain is not my enemy; it is my call to greatness…

I have never met a truly strong person who didn’t have self-respect… Strength reveals itself through character. It is the difference between bouncers who get off strong-arming people and Mr.Pepperman.

Unfortunately, there’s a movement afoot among feminists and the more left-wing elements of society that degrades what they call “toxic masculinity”, that is, anyone acting like or wanting to be a normal man. This includes hitting the gym and developing muscle mass.

Evidently, the skinny hipster who doesn’t care about his body, who has low self-esteem and no drive for achievement, is the ideal of today’s social movers and shakers.

My advice for teenage boys and young men is to run away from those delusions as fast as possible.

Lifting weights teaches you self-discipline like nothing else. To make progress, you need to lift regularly, and there will be many times that you don’t want to go: you want to sleep in, are feeling tired, or your friends want to do something else.

By making yourself hit the gym, you’ll be teaching yourself a valuable lesson in self-discipline that will serve you well your entire life.

And as the muscle take shape, as you get stronger, and as you lose body fat if that’s what you need, your self-confidence will rocket. It’s hard to describe unless you’ve experienced it.

Young men, teenagers, often feel out of place, unsure of themselves both with their peers and with girls. Pumping iron is absolutely the best cure for this.

I wish I had known about weightlifting when I was a teenager. It would have helped me immensely.

Nothing good comes without work, and believe me, weightlifting is work. And it produces lots of good.

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12 comments
Malcolm Klein says January 4, 2016

Reminds me of a paper (can’t find ref now) on the benefits (mental and physical) of weightlifting for obese teenagers- boy and girls- and how it’s the one form of exercise they can actually be pretty good at from the beginning since they have to be strong to carry their weight. And competition with their similarly overweight friends can often spur them on.

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A Boy's Guide says January 4, 2016

Thanks so much for putting this together! I’ll be sharing 🙂

Reply
    P. D. Mangan says January 4, 2016

    Hey, you’re welcome. Hope it gets shared far and wide.

    Reply
Tuba says January 4, 2016

Re “toxic masculinity.” Feminism is organized hate, right up there with ISIS, KKK and Black Panthers. It is also fundamentally schizophrenic. Feminists diss men and things masculine et ceter et cetera. Yet to improve their lot in life they imitate men and masculine ways. When was the last time you hear of an accomplished woman being described as “feminine?” They are all “strong” “decisive” “independent” “their own person” “able to beat the boys at their game” et cetera. Even flimsy woman are viewed as strong and determined ….The entire sexual revolution regarding women is woman behaving like men sexually (multiple partners, not associated with parenting, self-interest in their pleasure et cetera. Indeed, feminism is the adoption of masculinity by women. That is why there are no ladies any more (and without ladies there are no gentlemen.) Thus… feminists decrying “toxic masculinity” is an attempt to redefine all masculinity as feminist practice it. %$#@ feminism… well…. figuratively not literally…

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null says January 4, 2016

I had a similar revelation as Henry Rollins. The biggest message I got from lifting starting at the age of 13 (now I’m 31) was that if I work really really hard for months upon months, I can drastically change me. I now do Body-by-Science-style, 1-set lifting, but the can-do attitude I got from weightlifting has hugely transferred into other parts of my life.

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    P. D. Mangan says January 5, 2016

    How do you find the 1-set lifting? I tried it only once, but didn’t feel like I was getting maximum stimulation for growth. Do you feel like you are, or are you perhaps only doing it because you’re not interested in bodybuilding, only health effects?

    Reply
null says January 7, 2016

Mr. Mangan,

You cued me onto BBS from posts on your previous blog (one my favorites) via
Tim Ferris’ 4-hour body. That lead me to read BBS and also Mike Mentzer’s High-Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way. I
have been doing BBS consistently for about 5 years and I have dragged along
6 different coworkers, ranging in age from 25-45, into doing the routine
during that time.

I do not use the nautilus machines at all, as I am an engineer and I have a
Nassim Taleb’esque distrust of any engineer that says, “I figured it
out!” They think that they’ve figured out the human body, but I think that
is hubris. How do I know their cam profile and the motion path is
anatomically proper? No thank you. Free weights for me. Our bodies were
made for picking up and lifting objects. Not strange cam profiles with
strange side-load assistance dreamed up by an engineer.

I also don’t do the “super slow” method proscribed by Dr. McGuff. Mike
Mentzer didn’t do super slow either

Here’s why I think you didn’t get a great workout – you weren’t experienced
enough and your body didn’t know how to recruit your muscles. When I jumped
to BBS, I had 10 years of lifting under my belt. I started by doing the
routines proscribed by Arnold in his
“The New Encyclopedia of Modern BodyBuilding”, namely 5 sets of each
exercise 5 – 6 days a week. I jumped to BBS on Hail Mary whim in the
midst of starting my career, having my first son, and working on my Masters
degree. I couldn’t fit anything else in, but here is what I already knew
about weightlifting:

how to do each of the lifts.
how to psych myself up to really eek out the last few reps
how to use a spotting partner to push out 2 more agonizing reps at
the end of the set through the proper amount of spotting/assistance

how to ramp up the weight, week by week
proper recording of routine
what a reasonable jump in weight was

When I took folks throught the routine, those who had previously lifted
using other routines saw power gains. Their numbers consistently went up
( I recorded them on
a phone app I wrote specifically for recording multiple
lifters at once.
) I include in that cohort an ex-college basketball
player who may not have been a semi-pro weightlifter, but was certainly
in the gym a ton while doing college ball. He was very happy with the
progress and ROI.

For the absolute newbies whom I taught how to lift, they experienced what
you experienced. Initially, they weren’t particularly sore the day
after a lift, but I could see that they were still learning the lifts and
most importantly, their weight numbers kept going up. After I had
taken them along for a while, they too learned how to bring the mental
intensity to each lift. They learned how to focus on acheiving the next
weight. Also, with myself having seen the growth profile of rank amatuers a
few times, I knew how to increase the weight and whether they were slacking
off. After they started bringing their A-game to the lift, they too would
be moaning for crutches post leg day and wincing if anyone came near to
their chest.

It’s sell BBS to a lifter who has another routine and is using it
successfully. However, it is easy to get someone off the bench with a,
“something is better than nothing” line. None of them believe it will work,
but I record their numbers and they keep going up. In 2 months, I have
believers. The ages of the individuals I dragged into the gym ranged from 24
to 45.

All that said, I’m 6’2″, 220 lbs. I currently bench 255 lbs ( 5-8 reps),
squat a pathetic 255 lbs (8 reps), deadlift 315 lbs (8 reps – I could do
more, but a deadlift injury is a life altering event, so I’m very very
careful when I increase deadlift weight). I’m still making progress, but it
is stymied by lifting gaps when life interrupts me. It isn’t the 20% that
gives you 80%, it is more like the 5% that gives you 50% of the gains. I’ll
never be Arnold, but I never get burnt out by being at the gym too much and
I look forward to lifting sessions.

Reply
    P. D. Mangan says January 7, 2016

    Thanks, Null, good, interesting comment on Body by Science.

    Reply
null says January 7, 2016

*2nd to last paragraph, “It’s TOUGH TO sell BBS to a lifter..”

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Rob H says January 7, 2016

I’m with you on that one Null. BBS intuitively makes sense if you think of the purpose of lifting to bring a stimulus, ie a message to the body to grow/ adapt. Just as for cold showers, whey protein etc, you want that message to be short, sharp and extremely intense. For my purposes, 5 x 5 is just too prolonged/ diluted in order to get the message across to the body. I tend to do a 5 second cadence as per Tim Ferriss’s ‘Occam’s Principle’ as Ferris & McGuff seem to agree that by slowing the cadence down you really up the intensity, by recruiting & fatiguing the 3 types of muscle fibre sequentially. I do struggle though with McGuff’s preferred 10 second lifting cadence, which feels very unwieldy to me.

I did find though (as have many others who have tried BBS) that one session per week is not really enough to stimulate the Glut-4 receptors adequately. A few weeks ago I changed to twice a week (on a split body-part regime, but including squats each session) and results definitely improved, in line with others who have tried this. Why don’t you give it another try Dennis, and let us know how you find it?

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Bob says August 2, 2016

Dennis,

You know Henry Rollins is a total douche, right? He’d hate you.

Bob

Reply
    P. D. Mangan says August 2, 2016

    I’ve heard that.

    Reply
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