What age is old enough to start lifting weights?

Published: 8/2/2010 12:00 AM

Life was good for the 10-year-old. He finished fourth grade with an impressive report card, had many good friends and excelled at a variety of park district-sponsored sports. The boy also looked to be in fine shape during his annual physical exam. Already tall and lean, he still showed no signs of entering puberty and had a lot of height growth ahead of him.

His mother had no real concerns but did have one question. Her son had been pushing for permission to lift some weights, but his mother was hesitant and worried that weights would damage his still-developing body.

Her question was a good one, and fortunately, two organizations provide useful information to guide parents and coaches on the subject of youth strength training. In 2008, the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on Sports Medicine and Fitness published its revised "Strength Training By Children and Adolescents," while in 2009, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) followed with an updated position statement on "Youth Resistance Training."

The AAP does approve of youth involvement in formal strength and resistance training - which includes the use of free weights, weight machines, elastic tubing or an athletes's own body weight - provided the athlete first receives medical clearance to participate and then works under the direction of an instructor certified in pediatric strength training. Research reveals that, when combined with participation in a sports program or comprehensive fitness program, strength training can have a positive effect on a young person's bone density, cardiovascular health and overall sense of well-being.

The AAP notes that strength training should not begin before a child is 7 or 8 years old, the age when balance and postural control are considered to reach the adult level of development. The academy finds that for healthy young athletes, "appropriate strength training programs have no apparent adverse effect on linear growth, growth plates, or the cardiovascular system."

That said, teens still should not engage in actual power lifting or body building until they reach complete physical and skeletal maturity. The AAP also stands firmly against the use of anabolic steroids and other performance-enhancing substances by children and adolescents.

The NSCA advises young athletes to become familiar with proper exercise techniques early in training, and then increase resistance slowly, in 5 percent to 10 percent increments, only as strength also gradually increases. Focusing on exercises that strengthen the upper and lower body, as well as the abdomen and lower back, results in "symmetrical muscular development," and helps avoid nagging injuries.

A quality training session always begins with a warm-up and ends with a cool-down period, according to NSCA specialists. For kids and teens, strength training should ideally take place no more than two to three times per week, on nonconsecutive days, so young athletes have a 48- to 72-hour recovery time between sessions.

A supervising adult can help keep young strength trainers' interest high by periodically varying the training routine and encouraging them to keep track of their progress in a workout log. Attention to proper nutrition and adequate fluid intake, along with ensuring that the child or adolescent gets the appropriate amount of nighttime sleep, are also essential components of any strength training program.

• Dr. Helen Minciotti is a mother of five and a pediatrician with a practice in Schaumburg. She formerly chaired the Department of Pediatrics at Northwest Community Hospital in Arlington Heights.