Can I be honest here? I think if one more parent says “my doctor said my kid shouldn’t lift weights until he/she is 14,” I’m going to be sick. Physically, violently ill.
Your doctor is wrong. Well intentioned, but wrong. The good doctor is expressing a thought that, once upon a time, made sense. When the primary option for strength training for kids was exercise machines at the local Globo-gym, yes, it might have made sense.
But we live in the 21st century now. And in truth, even in the 18th or 19th centuries, strength training still would have been not only okay for your pre-teen, but really, really good for them!
In my practice, I’ve been using strength training with kids as young as 6. Athletes or not, kids actually like to work out and they like to be strong! So let’s look at some real, science and evidence-based reasons why all kids aged 6 to 13 should be strength training.
1. It’ll help them maintain a healthy weight – Interestingly, this isn’t about hitting the appropriate weight on some arbitrary medical chart. It’s about looking and being leaner and healthier. I’ve seen kids who were above the “target” weight for their age and height by 10 or more percent, but were in great physical condition. The truth is that if they’re feeling stronger and have better physical literacy, they’re far more likely to enjoy being physical. That means enjoying the habits that support a healthy lifestyle.
One recent meta-analysis strongly indicated that resistance training in youth would help them maintain a healthy weight and make weight reduction easier, where it was needed. (1, 2)
The takeaway? Stronger, more capable kids feel better about themselves, are more interested in physical activity and, as a result, are more likely to engage in activities that keep them stronger, healthier and happier.
2. It’ll help them play better – This should be a no-brainer. Every sport imaginable, from football to figure skating, is improved by better strength levels. Lots of parents bring their children to me asking me to help them “get faster” or “improve that first-step quickness.” The bottom line is that all the fancy speed and agility drills are useless if your child is weak.
Here’s an analogy I love to use. Imagine you buy a car. It’s one of those hybrids. You know, small, gas-efficient engine that gets help from electric, yada, yada. Is it fast? No, it’s not.
So now, let’s put the steering and handling system from a Ferrari in that car. Is it fast now? No, still not fast. Do you know why?
It still has the anemic, slow hybrid engine in it!
Speed requires horsepower! Horsepower requires a bigger, stronger engine!
Cool speed drills and techniques won’t make you faster the way having a bigger engine will. I’ve seen kids with terrible running form who were faster than their peers simply because they had the Ferrari engine, so to speak.
Agility, coordination, quickness all improve with better strength levels, too. These are all essential components of athletic ability.
The takeaway? Stronger athletes play better. They get noticed and have the opportunity to play more as well.
3. It’ll help them avoid and prevent injuries – Stronger athletes get hurt with less frequency. The improvements in strength in the joint stabilizing muscles helps prevent injury to joints like the ankles, knees, back and shoulders.
It’s important to understand that injuries aren’t an inevitable “part of the game.” They can be largely prevented with the right kind of physical and athletic development. What that means is a focus on Long-term Athletic Development (LTAD,) not quick hit 6 or 8 week pre-season programs or throwaway “conditioning” led by sport coaches who look up the coolest internet videos and inflict them on your kids.
LTAD is exactly what the name says. Long-term. It should begin with an emphasis on a broad variety of movement and context-specific skills and progress slowly toward individual sport-specific movement skills. In fact, the emphasis on broad-based movement skills should dominate the LTAD programming well into a child’s teen years.
For your pre-teen, learning to squat, lunge, push, pull, hinge, climb, crawl, run and get on and off the ground quickly and efficiently should be the focus. Strength training is an integral part of developing this incredible and lifelong skill-set. Focusing on these skills early, well and over time will go along way to making your child injury-resistant.
My athletes, of all ages, engage in strength training, and they are among the strongest kids on the field, court, ice or mat. I’ve had coaches tell me my athletes are “bullet-proof.” While I wouldn’t go that far, I’ve seen some of my athletes walk away unscathed from what should have been a catastrophic injury-inducing hit or situation. So, yes, strength matters in injury-resistance – at all ages!
4. It’ll help them learn how to do it right – This is a “strike while the iron is hot” kind of thing. Later in life, your child may be in situations where knowing how to perform a proper squat or deadlift may really come in handy. Many high school weight rooms are understaffed and poorly coached. This can be a real problem for a child who doesn’t know how to properly perform lifts like the squat, deadlift, bench press or clean.
In many cases, younger athletes are being “coached” by older athletes who learned the same way. Remember the game “telephone?” Where a phrase is whispered from one person to another, until it makes it’s way around to the first person who whispered? That person then says the phrase as they heard it, then tells what the original phrase was. The difference is usually hilariously huge.
Now imagine that game being played by a group of drunk fraternity brothers. That’s akin to the way a lot of high school kids get taught how to lift in their weight rooms. Kids who were taught to lift really badly will be teaching your kids how to lift. Yeah, it can be that bad.
Of course, there’s always your local McFitness gym, where your kids will have the chance to learn to lift from people who graduated their high school weight room and moved on to scrolling social media for 20 minutes between sets.
These are funny, but scary realities. But the important thing is for your kids to learn good technique and how quality strength training can improve their performance and lives early on.
The takeaway? Once a child learns to lift and workout effectively and properly, they then own a skill that will serve them well in sports and in life.
5. It’ll boost their confidence and self-esteem – Physical strength boosts mental
strength and improves self-esteem. (3) There are numerous studies on both kids and adults detailing the connection between improved cognitive function and exercise, in particular strength training.
There is an unspoken truth about bullying, as well. Strong, capable kids get picked on less. Bullies don’t want a butt-whipping. So they’re far less likely to pick on the kids who feels more confident because she’s strong and physically capable.
Additionally, stronger, more capable children are willing to try more things. They have less fear of being physically unable to accomplish things, so more and different experiences seem within their reach.
My personal observation has been that stronger kids also tend to be more supportive of their peers and of younger kids. I’ve seen it time and again in the training facility where an older, more experienced kid will welcome or cheer on a newer or younger athlete. This, my friends, is a very, very good thing.
Last, because strength training sometimes involves failure, like missing a lift or not being able to complete something on time, kids become more resilient and willing to try again. This desire to keep after it will serve them well in life.
6. It’ll improve bone strength, blood pressure, cholesterol and general health – Fitness is always a good thing, and strength training is recognized as an essential part of a well-balanced fitness program and lifestyle.
Keeping bones strong, managing blood pressure and taking care of the cardiovascular system are three big things that strength training can help with. They are also things that your kids can enjoy for their whole lives!
7. They’ll have fun! – While many adults don’t always find strength training fun, kids almost always do. Done well, youth strength training programs can be unique, memorable and fun! They can incorporate competition, cooperation and game play while reinforcing high-quality functional movement patterns, improving strength, power and speed and improving your kids’ physical and health future.
You may not love strength training, but I bet your kids will!
So there are 7 solid reasons for your pre-teen to participate in strength training. I’m aware that this only really addresses part of the issue, so I’ll be writing very soon about how to get your pre-teen started with strength training. For now, seek professional help. There are plenty of youth fitness professionals with the kind of experience needed to get your kids off on the right foot with strength training!
Keep the faith and keep after it!
- Petty K.H., Davis C.L., Tkacz J., Young-Hyman D., Waller, J. (2009). Exercise effects on depressive symptoms and self-worth in overweight children: A randomized controlled trial. Journal of Pediatric Psychology