It’s the age old question. When is it safe to start strength training? Let’s start with the difference between strength training and weight lifting. In my opinion, weight lifting is just one aspect of strength training. Weight lifting can mean a wide variety of things, but is typically associated with lifting free weights to increase muscle size. The Mayo Clinic states “when done properly, strength training offers many benefits to young athletes, but lifting heavier weights can put too much strain on young muscles, tendons, and areas of cartilage that has yet to turn to bone (growth plates).” Strength training is simply any exercise that improves strength allowing an athlete to move faster and more powerfully.
The National Strength and Conditioning Association states that there is no specific age to begin strength training but recommends that the athlete be able to accept and follow directions in order to train properly. In my opinion athletes need to be able to perform an exercise properly with good mechanics at a low load such as bodyweight when beginning a strength program. As the athlete shows they can handle the movement properly, a light load may be added to improve strength. This load can be a resistance band or light weight such as a dumbbell or kettlebell. Lower resistance exercises performed at higher reps, 10-15, has been shown to be safe and effective in improving strength and limiting injuries.
I feel it is safe to begin strengthening exercises in the 8-12 year old range as long as they can follow directions and use proper mechanics setting a solid foundation for when they get older and heavier weights at lower reps are required. It is always easier to teach proper mechanics at an earlier age than fixing a bad habit at an older age. That all being said, it is also important for the teenage athlete to follow the same progression. Many teenage athletes do not have the flexibility, control and strength to perform a bodyweight squat correctly. These athletes, though may be upper classman in high school, still need to work on mechanics before adding light resistance and progressing to heavier weights. In summary, strength training can begin at a young age as long as proper mechanics are used at a lighter load. Heavier loads should only be used when the athlete is physically more mature and can perform an exercise properly to avoid injuries to a growing body.
Chris Phillips is an Athletic Trainer, Strength and Conditioning Specialist and Sports Safety Specialist with over 25 years experience in professional hockey, football and soccer. Chris owns Compete Sports Performance and Rehab located in Orange County, CA.