Should Kids Lift?

From "Getting Stronger" by Bill Pearl

Parents often came into my gym in Pasadena with their sons or daughters and asked me to devise a weight training program. Their motives varied: they wanted their children to gain weight, have better posture, get stronger, gain self-assurance, or be able to defend themselves.

I'd first point out two major requirements:

  1. Children should be mentally mature enough to know why they are training. Concentration is important, as is the reason for training -- it has to be more than the parent's desire.
  2. Children should be physically mature, beyond puberty. I instinctively felt that a child would not benefit from training prior to physical maturity.

The Importance of Team Sports

Then I'd lay out one other condition: that if I were going to train the children, they would also have to participate in team sports at school. Why? Because team sports help the child evolve as an individual and a member of a larger community. With weight training you don't really depend upon others -- it's not a tram effort. If children are already introverted, it may make them even more so.

But if they play basketball, soccer or another team sport, they'll have to get along with others and cooperate. They'll learn that the team is only as good as its worst player; this knowledge will carry over to other aspects of life. Then, when they get to an age where they can't find others to play basketball or baseball, they'll still have weight training as an excellent form of general conditioning.

Recent Findings on Children's Weight Training

My attitudes towards prepubescent weight training were based upon physicians' and physiologists' generally-held opinions then that children could not make strength gains because they lacked adequate levels of circulating testosterone. Weight training was considered dangerous for them.

Two studies conducted in 1985 and reported in The Physician and Sports Medicine (February 1986) cast a different light on that opinion. In one study, a test group which trained for 30 minutes three times a week exhibited a mean strength increase of 42.9% compared to the control group's 9.5% increase. In the other study, children showed significantly increased performances in high jumping and broad jumping after weight training.

The contention that weight training is dangerous for children is still, I believe, a valid one. Prepubescents should never engage in Olympic lifting or power lifting (these are competitive sports) and should always have qualified supervision for any kind of weight training. Many injuries have occurred when children are down in the basement, trying to outlift one another and going beyond their ability.

The National Strength Coaches Association (NSCA) has just published a position paper, Prepubescent Strength Training, that describes the risks and benefits and offers some guidelines for strength training. It is available for $2.00 from NSCA, Box 8140, Lincoln ME 68501.

The American Orthopedic Society for Sports Medicine (AOSSM) hosted a workshop in 1985 that included the American Academy of Pediatrics, American College of Sports Medicine, National Athletic Trainers Association, President's Council on Fitness and Sports, the U.S. Olympic Committee, the Society of Orthopedics and the NSCA. The workshop group agreed that weight training is safe provided there are well-designed programs, instruction and supervision. They concluded that the benefits outweigh the risks and developed the following guidelines for prepubescent weight training:

  1. Strength training equipment should be of appropriate design to accommodate the size and degree of maturity of the prepubescent.
  2. It should be cost effective.
  3. It should be safe, free of defects, and inspected frequently.
Program considerations:
  1. A physical exam is mandatory before participation.
  2. The child must have the emotional maturity to accept coaching and instruction.
  3. There must be adequate supervision by coaches who are knowledgeable about strength training and the special problems of prepubescents.
  4. Strength training should be a part of an overall comprehensive program designed to increase motor skills and fitness.
  5. Strength training should be preceded by a warm-up period and followed by a cool-down.
  6. Emphasis should be on dynamic concentric contractions.
  7. All exercises should be carried through a full range of motion.
  8. Competition is prohibited.
  9. No maximum lift should ever be attempted.
Prescribed program:
  1. Training is recommended two or three times a week for 20- to 30-minute periods.
  2. No resistance should be applied until proper form is demonstrated. Six to 15 repetitions equal one set; one to three sets per exercises should be done.
  3. Weight or resistance is increased in one to three pound increments after the prepubescent does 15 repetitions in good form.

Kids Are Not Small Adults

Even with these new findings by sports medicine experts, I still have a few reservations, especially if a child is participating in just one sport.

Children can not take the same kind of stress as adults. Their bones are still growing, and a bone fracture can slow down or halt the growth of that bone or cause one limb to grow shorter than another.

When I went to high school, kids participated in many sports throughout the year -- depending upon what sport was in season. These days there is much more specialization and often a child will train only for swimming, gymnastics, or basketball. What's wrong with this? By concentrating on just one activity, the stresses fall repeatedly on the same body parts. Stress fractures -- small cracks in the bones that occur over a period of time -- appear all too frequently among young athletes specializing in one sport. Little League pitchers may develop elbow problems, gymnasts may have lower back problems, runners knee problems.

I think children should be encouraged to participate in as many sports as possible. Specialized training, especially when backed up by weight training, is powerful stuff. Unless the child is self-motivated (as opposed to parent-motivated) and relatively mature, early specialization can lead to physical injuries, mental "burn-out" and less enjoyment and fun than is possible with a more well-rounded approach to sports.

Early Bloomer

Many of the qualifications and reservations outlined above disappear once a child has passed puberty. But chronological age is not always a reliable factor. Kids mature at different ages. I learned this in the early '70s when 11-year-old Dougie Brignoli walked into my Pasadena gym. Dougie was from South America, his mother was on welfare, and he knew exactly what he wanted to do and what I could do for him.

He didn't come in to see if I approved of him and would allow him to train. He asked me a host of questions to see if he approved of me. He put the shoe on the other foot! He wanted to know if I qualified as his trainer. I told him my background and he seemed satisfied that I was his man. He then told me -- he didn't ask -- that he would work Saturdays to pay for his training and that he would train each day after school.

I must tell you that I was highly amused -- and somewhat touched. This little squirt -- who was, by the way, mature for his age -- a come in to interview me, a four-time Mr. Universe, and had decided to accept me. He was sincere and showed a drive and clarity of vision that few adults in my gym ever exhibited. And now he was outlining our working relationship.

As an adult I had to take charge of the conversation. "OK, Dougie," I said, "I want you down here each Saturday morning to clean the gym. You'll earn your week's training in advance..." I laid out a program and he gad to train exactly as I said -- no deviation from the program.

Dougie was with us for about eight years. He never missed a Saturday, and he went on to win Mr. Teenage America in 1981 and later Mr. California. I guess part of my fondness for him was because he reminded me of myself as age 11. I had the same drive, by nowhere near the same level of confidence.

Every child is different. Every child has an individual level of desire, outlook on the future, willingness to work and emotional and physical maturity -- and it's not necessarily a matter of age. You as an adult -- parent, trainer or interested observer -- must be careful to allow the child's inclinations, temperament, desires and abilities direct the course of his or her life, in sports and any other endeavor.

Parents Don't Make Good Training Partners

Sometimes a father would come into the gym and say he was going to train with his son. I'd stop him right there and say, "No, you can come in together, but you each have different ideas, goals and strengths. Since you're paying me as a trainer, I'll take care of each of you separately. You can encourage your boy, but not be the trainer."

Too many parents project their (sometimes unreasonable) demands on their children, who may or may not live up to these expectations. In seen boys in tears as their dads tried to get them to push too much weight. My wife Judy used to run a gym and once had a mother and her daughter, who had learning disabilities, train there. The mother nagged the daughter all the time -- criticizing, telling her she wasn't doing the exercises properly. But the girl was doing the best she could. The mother wasn't using proper form herself, yet she'd criticize the daughter for poor form. The daughter ended up crying.

Very often children will give up weight training from then on. They will have lost a valuable form of conditioning because of parents' pushing too hard.

Once a fellow brought his son into my gym. He had four children, and this one was "...the worst coordinated, does the poorest in school, is always in trouble and gives me more grief than all the other kids combined." The poor kid -- Harold -- had to stand there and listen to all this. He was about 17, skinny and kept staring at the ground. His dad went on about how he thought weight training would make him stronger and more coordinated and help him straighten out his life. He said he'd bring Harold down and watch him every day.

Not knowing as much then as I do now about fathers and sons, or mothers and daughters, I agreed. I started Harold on his program and his father came along to watch. The trouble started right away. If his son was supposed to do 10 reps with 110 pounds and he only did eight, his father would say, "You do two more or you can't drive the car." He'd harass Harold -- the boy could never do anything right. This went on for a few months and then I saw the light. One day they came in and the father started right in on Harold. I invited the father into my office to talk.

"Look, I finally figured out what's wrong with Harold. It's you that's wrong with him. You're going to be lucky if don't wake up one morning with an axe in your forehead. You've belittled this kid in every way possible in the last few months, you've done everything you could to alienate him and you still demand love and respect. There's no way he's going to love and respect you if you don't respect him, and without respect there can't be love. So I don't want you coming in with your son anymore."

The father was shocked. "You can't talk to me like that," he said. And he left in a huff. But a few weeks later Harold came back alone. "OK, Harold," I said, "Let's get started." I set up a program and pushed him to improve, but didn't brow-beat or threaten him. Harold started making progress and as he did, it was wonderful to watch his self-confidence improve. He actually started looking people in the eye. He started to go out with girls for the first time. I'm certain none of this would have happened had his father continued coming into the gym with him.

Of course, this happens with parents and their children in all sports -- Little League baseball, tennis, gymnastics, etc. As a parent, if you practice the gentle art of encouragement, it will allow the child's progress to come from within, to unfold at his or her own pace.

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