Strength Training for Kids:
Weights Or Wait?

Tyler Darden, my 7-year-old son, contracts his forearms and
upper arms. Do you think he's ever tried heavy exercise?

by Ellington Darden, Ph.D.

Should youngsters lift weights?

I remember in 1988, professional football player and former Heisman Trophy winner, Herschel Walker, expressed a prevalent opinion on this question in his Dallas Morning News fitness column. He said: "If young people start lifting weights, they can become stiff. They risk losing the flexibility they need for strength and quickness."

Later in article he noted that . . . children should avoid lifting weights until they reach age 15.

In the last two decades, the prevalence of strength training among teenagers age 15 and older, as well as adults of all ages, has dramatically increased. But Walker's opinion against kids younger than 15 lifting is still generally believed. Today, very few children strength train.   

I strongly disagree with Walker's rationale and recommendation . . . and here's why:

First, proper weight training — and I emphasize the word "proper" — which I'll get to in a few moments, will increase a youngster's flexibility, rather than impede it.

Second, both strength and quickness are based primarily on the amount of muscle on the body, not the degree of flexibility.

Third, rather than avoid lifting weights, youngsters should be given the opportunity to participate in the activity.

In fact, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Sports Medicine, and the American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine, after studying the risks and benefits, concluded that weight training for children:

• Increases muscle strength,
• Improves muscle endurance,
• Enhances motor skill,
• Protects against injury,
• Supplies positive psychological benefits.

If there are numerous benefits of weight training, why has it received a bad review from Walker and others?

One reason cited for not having children train with weights is that they have not reached skeletal maturity and that the growth centers might be damaged. Medical statistics show that 10 percent of all childhood injuries involve the skeleton and 15 percent of those injuries involve the epiphysis (growth plate). 

There are several differences in immature and mature skeletons. Children's bones are in a dynamic state of growth and remodeling, while adults' bones change much more slowly in response to the stress placed upon them. Keep in mind that the epiphysis is a biomechanical weak area. A sudden force that causes a strain in an adult will often cause epiphyseal fracture in a child.

That's why it is important to understand the distinction between weight lifting and weight training.

Weight lifting is a competitive sport in which one attempts to lift the maximum weight on a barbell for one repetition. Olympic weight lifting involves the snatch and the clean-and-jerk, and power lifting utilizes the squat, bench press, and deadlift.

Weight training employs barbells, dumbbells, machines, and even body weight is a progressive manner whereby one gradually increases the amount of weight lifted, as well as the number of repetitions.

Weight training should be practiced slowly and smoothly while weight lifting must be performed quickly.

Quick, sudden movements are necessary for success in many sports such as football, basketball, gymnastics, and weight lifting. These fast, explosive movements also contribute to and produce injuries.

Youngsters, or even adults, trying to see how much they can lift at one time with a barbell or weight machine are asking for trouble. Instead, they should reduce the resistance and see how much they can lift approximately 8 to 12 times. When 12 or more repetitions are performed properly, increase the resistance by 3 to 5 percent at the next workout.

How young is too young? That depends mainly on the child's motivation.

My 7-year-old son, Tyler, often trains with me — and he's been doing so since he was 3 years of age. He has been working out an average of once every 10 to 14 days and usually performs six exercises, which require no more than 12 minutes of his time per session.

Has it helped him?

At 7.5 years of age, he stands 4-feet, 7-inches tall and weighs 90 pounds. During his last workout, he did 210 pounds on the Nautilus Nitro Leg Press machine for 12 repetitions and 95 pounds on the Nautilus Nitro Vertical Chest machine for 8 repetitions. Also, he performed 18 chin-ups — which is his favorite exercise. Note: On his body-weight-only movements, Tyler often does higher repetitions than 12.

His other exercises include pullovers, calf raises, push-ups, sit-ups, and a few others with the Bowflex machine. He always likes it when I introduce a new exercise to him.

Tyler — with his thick wrists, ankles, and knees — is exceptionally strong for his age. Overall, he's well developed from head to toe.

My wife, Jeanenne, took these pictures of Tyler and me at
the Daytona Beach Bandshell on October 25, 2009. Tyler
has 10-inch arms, a 32-inch chest, and 13-inch calves.

Dr. Terry Todd, who publishes a periodical called Iron Game History, visited me at home a year ago and got a good look at Tyler running around our swimming pool. He turned to me and said:

"Tyler reminds me of a young John Grimek."

John Grimek was one of the most famous of the 20th Century strongmen/ bodybuilders and was the winner of the AAU Mr. America in 1940 and 1941.

I know Tyler is getting benefits from the exercises. But I'm careful to watch and guide him closely in all his repetitions. I've learned how to challenge him just enough, without carrying it too far, to keep his motivation at an even level. I make sure not to allow him to play with the equipment at any time, especially when I'm not around. And, with the exception of Jim Flanagan's private gym, I don't take him to local fitness centers.

The vast majority of fitness centers still adhere to Herschel Walker's belief that strength training should not be practiced until an individual reaches age 15. Furthermore, there are few adults who are qualified to instruct youngsters in proper strength training — which is a real shame.

Forty years ago, during my competitive bodybuilding career, I was
known for my rib-cage size and mid-spine flexibility. Tyler has
developed these same characteristics. Of related interest, the
Daytona Beach Bandshell was the venue for the 1957
Mr. America and the 1969 Mr. Florida contests.

In the final analysis, strength training — with barbells, dumbbells, various machines, and a child's own body weight — is one of the best developmental activities for youngsters, particularly when it is performed under qualified adult supervision.

Stress smooth repetitions — rather than explosive lifts — and the activity will produce muscular strength, size, flexibility, and endurance safely throughout the child's body. Those benefits will support a child's skill learning, add confidence to sports activities, and offer protection against many injuries.