Controversial Topic Alert!!!
When should kids start to lift weights? That really depends on who you ask. Your child’s Middle School football coach will tell you the boys need to be strong on the field, in order to avoid injury. The guys in your teenager’s CrossFit box will tell you strength training, albeit not traditional weightlifting, is required to gain muscle mass. Avoiding injury in a full-contact or muscle sport is critical, they’ll all say. I don’t necessarily disagree with this thinking. However, as a doctor and Mom of a football player, the “growth plate” issue is certainly a concern. I believe that any stress we put on open growth plates risks long-term issues and there isn’t a pediatric orthopedic surgeon anywhere that will disagree with that line of thinking. Having spent many years in sports-related orthopedic operating rooms this topic has come up quite frequently. We have discussed it over many teenage ACL and knee surgeries. The consensus is this – no weight lifting until puberty. This may sound rather hypocritical given that growth plates don’t close in girls until between 13 and 15 and in boys until between 15 and 17. This is long past the age where puberty begins. And this is why there is such controversy over this topic. Personally, I couldn’t fathom telling my son that he couldn’t lift until he was 15 or older. Depending on a how a child’s birthday falls, that’s their Junior year of high school. There is no high school team that would allow them to participate if they didn’t follow the team’s training schedule. And the majority of high school sports lift, at least to some degree.
As parents, what are we to do? We know the risks of allowing them to lift weights and yet we feel compelled to let them do it anyway. They want to be a part of the team. We want that for them too.
Here’s the good news! Though there have been case studies that suggest weight lifting damages adolescent and pubertal joints, there are 2 caveats. First, the majority of these studies have concluded that it wasn’t actually the weightlifting per se that damaged the joints, but rather improper use of the equipment when lifting alone or with little supervision. And second, the majority of these injuries were the result of extreme strength training or powerlifting. When done supervised and with appropriate weight loads, weightlifting is actually quite safe. In fact, The American Academy Of Pediatrics came out in support of a study that states there is actually a much lower risk to kids lifting age and size-appropriate weights than there is for those same kids participating in sports such as soccer, football, and basketball.
As long as we put our kids in the hands of responsible adult coaches and trainers we should feel comfortable that everything is going to turn out just fine. While we know that hip, knee and ankle injuries can be a bang, bang thing and that no one is ever completely protected, my money is on building muscle that holds developing joints in place. And this is coming from a doctor-mom that has spent plenty of time with her athletes in the x-ray department and the ER – but more about that at a later date!