Ask an Expert: Strength training for kids

Q: My 13-year-old son is a competitive basketball player, and my husband would like him to start lifting weights to add upper body strength and bulk. My son is definitely into puberty, but is it safe for young teenagers to lift weights?

Answer from Mike Boggs, BS, MBA, CSCS (certified strength-conditioning specialist), fitness specialist, Providence Fitness Services: 

Let's talk in terms of strength training rather than weight lifting. Most people use those terms interchangeably, but strength training is broader, encompassing a variety of training principles.

Strength training improves overall strength, motor skills and balance using a variety of methods such as core strengthening, agility drills, fitness balls, calisthenics, weight machines and free weights. Weight lifting involves more explosive actions and compound movements, often with advanced lifting techniques and primarily using free weights.

Your son can certainly benefit from strength training, including weight lifting, if it’s done with the proper expectations, goals and supervision.

What about those expectations? He should not set his sights on enlarged, defined muscles. Big muscles are often the result of genes, testosterone levels and many hours spent in the gym. But strength comes from muscle density, not bulk.

Your son may be genetically predisposed to being tall and lean. So while his muscles may not visibly grow, strength training will improve his coordination, muscle and bone strength, balance and fundamental motor skills (such as hopping, jumping, skipping, kicking, throwing and catching). And he'll be less prone to injuries than he otherwise would be.

Kids often want to build their arms and chest. Instead, they should concentrate on building their body's power center: legs, abdominals, low back and waist. The stronger their power center, the better their sports performance will be.

Strength training is safe – when done within safety guidelines. Adolescents (and younger children) can participate as long as they have the emotional maturity to listen to directions and follow them. If your son does that now with his coach, he is ready for strength training.

It’s a myth that weight lifting harms children who are still growing. A large, four-year study involving more than 1,100 children and adolescents at national weight lifting competitions showed no growth plate injuries – nor other serious injuries. As long as your son follows the rules, the risks are limited to minor problems such as muscle strains.

Here are the rules:
1. An adult who's qualified in youth physiology and strength training should be present at all times, instructing and supervising. While not all great instructors have four-year degrees, in general, you should look for a program geared to youth, taught by a person with a degree in exercise science and experience in coaching young people. You may be more likely to find instructors with this background at larger family-oriented fitness facilities and YMCAs. The supervision can be one-on-one or in a group, but should be constant. It is not adequate or safe for your son to have a single introductory lesson and then go off to do his own thing.

2. The adult should focus on the youth's proper technique and form and help with adjustments. How many pounds a kid can lift should not be a priority.

3. When using free weights, always use a spotter.

4. Set realistic goals. They should involve coordination, balance and quickness the motor skills that improve performance and decrease the incidence of injuries. The strength will come along as your son matures.

5. Include a proper warm-up and cool-down in each session. Warming up involves five or 10 minutes of any light cardiovascular activity, agility skills or stretching. Cooling down is another five or 10 minutes of easy activity and stretching.

6. Aim for two sessions a week. Each session should include 6 to 10 exercises that cover all the muscle groups of the body. Doing one or two sets of 15 repetitions is plenty.

April 2004