Last summer, 9-year-old Havon Finney Jr. was offered a Division 1 college football scholarship. It didn’t matter that he was still in fourth grade, or that we won’t graduate high school for another eight years. He showed enough talent juking out other little people that coaches couldn’t resist rolling the dice on a future star. He’s not the only one. A month earlier, another 10-year from Los Angeles, Maxwell “Bunchie” Young, received a similar offer.
To say that kids are specializing in youth sports at an earlier age is an understatement. Some parents, in the hopes of turning athletic prowess into a free ride to college are pushing their kids harder than ever before on the field. And some are going equally as hard off of it, with strength training and conditioning programs. But while watching an 8-year-old catch a pass or swing a 9-iron is one thing, watching them perform deadlifts can be mildly disconcerting, to say the least. Is that even safe? And it brings up the question: How young is too young for kids to lift weights?
As it turns out, kids can pump iron much younger than most parents think. While it used to be accepted that children shouldn’t start working out until they hit adolescence, around 12- or 13-years-old, many experts now agree that a 7- or 8-year-old is okay tossing steel as long as the child is mature enough and the program is conducted under the strict supervision of a properly trained and certified strength and conditioning specialist.
“There are a wide variety of developmental factors that should be considered ⏤ the child’s strength, balance, coordination, and temperament,” says Dr. Teri Metcalf McCambridge, a specialist in pediatric sports medicine and the former chair of The American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness. “I don’t think there’s any exact age. It depends on the kid. You could have a seven-year-old who’s ready, and a seven-year-old who’s not.”
It also depends on what the goal of the strength training is. McCambridge adds. “If the goal is to be bulky and big, then they have to be an adolescent. If the goal is to improve coordination and strength, then there are studies that suggest you can do it safely as young as seven in a well-controlled environment, where you have a coach who watches form and proper technique and proper progression. And that coach is important: I wouldn’t want my seven-year-old walking into a gym and joining a strength-training class.”
According to McCambridge, a number of the concerns doctors (and studies) had previously raised about kids lifting weights ⏤ issues such as stunted growth, improper bone fusion, and increased risk of bone fracture ⏤ have all been allayed at this point. “There used to be concerns that weight lifting would stunt a child’s growth,” she says, “but those studies have pretty much been ruled to be incorrect at this point.” Today, many of the drawbacks of lifting weights at an early age are similar to those for adults and focus mainly on injuries ⏤ most of which result from insufficient supervision and poor form. “There are studies that suggest if kids improperly do Olympic weightlifting, they’re more likely to break a bone or herniate a disk in their back,” she says,” And it’s almost always because they didn’t use proper technique.”
Today, many of the drawbacks of lifting weights at an early age are similar to those for adults and focus mainly on injuries ⏤ most of which result from insufficient supervision and poor form. “There are studies that suggest if kids improperly do Olympic weightlifting, they’re more likely to break a bone or herniate a disk in their back,” she says,”And it’s almost always because they didn’t use proper technique.”
“In fact, the biggest thing we usually discourage with kids, unless they’re of a certain age or strength and condition, is doing one-rep maximums,” adds McCambridge. “We try to avoid significant Olympic-type lifting ⏤ deadlifts, squats, etc. ⏤ until skeleton maturity or until they’ve done a certain volume of training leading up to that.”
As for benefits, you might not think there would be many considering an 8-year-old kid has neither the muscle development nor the hormones to make lifting weights seem worthwhile, but there are some. “In a world where kids are less active and are playing more video games, some studies show they’re just not as strong as they were when we were climbing trees and jumping around a lot,” McCambridge says. “And pre-pubescent kids can definitely improve power and strength and coordination from lifting weights. There are also studies showing some injury prevention from doing proper-technique strength training. So, there are some benefits.”
That said, parents have to remember that their 9-year-old isn’t going to get jacked. “Until a kid gets that big testosterone surge, they gain strength more through the neuro-muscular adaptions than actual hypertrophy enlargement of muscle,” McCambridge says, “So if the parent wants them to get bigger, then the parent has to realize they’re not going to look bigger. If that’s their goal, they’re going to fail.”
McCambridge suggests parents ask themselves a few questions before hitting the weight room with their young athlete, and has some professional tips for if/when they do.
Why do you want your kid to lift weights?
“The one question you always want to ask as a parent, says McCambridge: ‘Am I going to keep my kid strength training indefinitely? And what is my goal?’ If you really want your child to make and maintain gains with strength training,” she says, “studies show you need to train a minimum of two days per week. And once you stop, you’re going to lose those gains. If you’re just going to do it for four weeks and then stop for a year, I’m not sure it’s going to be worth it. It doesn’t have to be lifting weights, it could be just be doing situps and pushups twice a week, but it’s got to be something that they keep up.”
She continues: “Not only that but as a parent, you want to make sure you’re not just adding strength training to working out for another sport six days a week.” One of the things McCambridge says she’s seeing in pediatric patients is overuse injuries. “The AAP’s sports specialization policy statement currently recommends that kids shouldn’t work out, or do their sport, more hours a week than their age. There have been some studies showing that kids who did exercise more than their age had more injuries. We don’t want kids burning out or stopping sports because they’re overtired, so we recommend that kids take off at least one day a week ⏤ and two to three months a year ⏤ from any organized activity or sport. Their growth plates and joints need a break.”
Is your kid ready?
“Physical development, temperament, and the ability to balance are important in deciding whether your child is ready for a strength training program,” notes McCambridge. “They also need to be able to follow directions and be fairly calm for periods of time. The kids who get injured tend to be those high-energy kids whose coordination isn’t great. If your kid is pretty well coordinated, they’re likely at that age where you can start to consider it.”
Which weights should you start with?
“When you first start strength training, body weight is key,” McCambridge says. “Get them working on some pushups, planks, abs, and things like that, and then gradually progress to bands and balls or well-controlled free weights. A lot of times, the people who work with young kids on strength training will start with broomsticks. They have to lift a broomstick properly before gradually progressing to the weights.”
What’s the most important thing to pay attention to?
“Most of the injuries from weight training are from improper supervision,” McCambridge reiterates. “So the biggest thing I’d want parents to have is a properly trained individual who’s supervising the child and making sure they’re using the weights correctly. Demonstrating proper technique is probably the one point I really want to get across to parents. It’s incredibly important.”